By Will McMahon
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Law and order agenda has punished the poor

This article is over 17 years, 1 months old
As shadow home secretary, Tony Blair led the charge to take the high ground of law and order from the Tories.
Issue 2050
Police charge anti-capitalist protesters at a May Day demo in London (Pic:  Jess Hurd/
Police charge anti-capitalist protesters at a May Day demo in London (Pic: Jess Hurd/

As shadow home secretary, Tony Blair led the charge to take the high ground of law and order from the Tories.

The tipping point for this punitive turn came with the high profile death of toddler James Bulger at the hands of two children in 1993.

This event, the fateful first steps of which were captured on CCTV, was to set the tone for much of the debate on law and order in the run up to the 1997 general election.

Blair, advised by those around US president Bill Clinton, decided that a law and order crackdown was required to secure a voting base against the Conservatives.

Labour’s policy papers reflected that view with titles such as “No More Excuses”. Blair popularised the formula of being “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime”.

Labour’s increasingly strident law and order language was thought to be a product of “Third Way” electoral pragmatism – but a decade later it can clearly be seen as a core belief.

Blair views being “tough on crime” as a way of managing the people at the bottom of the pile. Those who had lost out most under the Tories are the people he believes to be the dangerous class.

He knew this strategy would be necessary because New Labour were going to broadly continue with Tory policies of economic liberalisation.

So it was inevitable that inequality would carry on growing as the wealthy would continue to enrich themselves while the poor would fall further behind.

As Professor Richard Wilkinson shows in his recent book The Impact Of Inequality, societies that are more unequal have more harmful behaviour.


What New Labour needed to complement the neoliberalism it was committed to was a strong state to manage the “wreckage of neoliberalism”, as former home secretary David Blunkett put it.

The result is the law and order state that we live in now. Britain now spends proportionately more on law and order than any other of the major free market economies, including the US and major European Union members such as France and Germany.

Prison numbers have grown from 60,000 to 80,000 in ten years. More people are jailed and for longer than in most other countries.

Home office projections suggest that the population could reach 106,000 in 2013. To help meet the figure there are 25,000 more uniformed officers on the streets than a decade ago.

There are now almost 12,000 under 21 year olds in prison. Britain locks up 23 children per 100,000 of the population compared with six in France, two in Spain and 0.2 in Finland.

Social problems, once thought of as civil matters, have been transformed into “acts of anti-social behaviour”.

The public is encouraged to believe that young people hanging around on street corners are a major social problem and to see growing insecurity as either a local problem – nothing to do with the government’s economic policies – or as a question of international terrorism.

On the back of this growing insecurity, Blair has built the kernel of a surveillance society.

There are plans to introduce an integrated database for children, the monitoring of so-called “problem families”, the compulsory introduction of ID cards, biometric scanning and the millions on the DNA database. We are now monitored to a degree once thought unimaginable.

In 1996 there were 100,000 CCTV cameras in Britain. There are now over four ­million. That is almost as many as in the rest of Western Europe put together.

This is despite the fact that there is no evidence that CCTV can actually prevent harmful behaviour.


In a recent report, the information commissioner Richard Thomas says this is a cause for concern. In particular he is concerned with listening devices that can be placed on lamp posts, street furniture and in offices that are being piloted by local councils.

In Middlesbrough, the home of “Robocop” Ray Mallon, there is talking CCTV – a camera with an integrated speaker that enables the person remotely watching to reprimand you if you are thought to be committing an act of “anti-social behaviour”.

In Shoreditch, east London, some residents have been given their own CCTV channel so they can monitor who is on the street outside their home from the comfort of their armchair.

A decade on we feel no safer and live in a society of growing inequality.

That being safer might be connected to developing a more equal society was never a thought entertained by Blair, or Gordon Brown, his economic architect – so expect more of the same.

Will McMahon is the acting director of the Crime and Society Foundation. Go to


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