One of the less remarked upon features of contemporary politics over the last decade has been the absence of crime and justice from big national policy debates. Crime barely featured in either the 2015 or 2017 general election campaigns (though the Manchester Arena bombing did briefly catapult the issue of police numbers on to the national policy agenda during the 2017 campaign). This has been a far cry from the mid-to-late 2000s, when crime and policing issues regularly led the news as well as local and national campaigns.
There are at least three explanations for why this has occurred, which also help explain why we may be about to see a revival in the public’s interest.
Firstly, the concept of ‘salience’ is obviously a relative one – its importance depends in part on what else is going on. At the height of the Brexit debate in 2016, MORI reported that crime had fallen to its lowest salience score – in its monthly ‘issues tracker’ – since 1991. Since then, a glance at the same tracker suggests ‘law and order’ has been rising in importance (at the same time as ‘immigration’ has fallen), though it is not yet at anything like the levels of 2008 and still way below issues like Brexit, the NHS and unemployment in terms of national salience. In other words, crime’s rising up the political agenda is as much a reflection of the falling importance of other issues in voters’ minds as it is about crime per se.
Secondly, the recent fall in salience of crime at the national level may have reflected the shift to a more localised model of policing since 2010. A core rationale for the creation of directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) was that it would provide a mechanism for deepening the engagement of voters with questions of crime at the local level and thus potentially taking some of the heat out of national policy debates. Yet with many PCCs campaigning on ‘national’, rather than local policy issues (for example, calling for a reversal of police cuts), it is perhaps unsurprising that these issues are beginning to creep back into national politics.
Thirdly, the fall in salience may simply have been the natural consequence of falling crime rates. The less people worry about crime, the less they will prioritise it. Again, recent trends in crime suggests that we are witnessing something of a shift. There are fewer offenders being charged and sentenced than in the past. Yet the harmfulness of their offending is more likely to be worse. Recorded violence, sexual offences, knife crime and gun crime have all been going up for at least three years. In 2010, these crimes represented just under a fifth (18%) of total recorded crime. Now violent crime and sexual offences represent well over third (36%). And although the headlines around knife crime have been about the shocking rates in the capital, the largest increases are actually in the West Midlands, West Yorkshire and Lancashire.
We are hours away from local elections across 150 councils nationally, including London. Given the advent of PCCs, we would not necessarily expect to see crime and policing reflected in party campaign literature (particularly as local government have limited say in policing matters). So it is perhaps revealing that there are a number of of campaigns within London (Croydon and Lewisham for example) in which crime and policing are extremely prominent and that the Labour Party has put crime/ policing at the centre of their national campaign (one in which they are expected to do well in). Of course, it is important not to generalise – but there appears little mention of crime/ policing issues in West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and South Yorkshire campaigns. Nonetheless, it is clear that crime/ policing is being re-politicised.
The warning signs are there. If crime is starting to worry voters, then it is likely to rise up the political agenda. Whether or not that is good news depends on whether you think these issues require/ deserve a national platform, or are better engaged with at the local level. Either way, we should expect it to play a greater role in our politics than has recently been the case.
One of the UK’s leading experts on crime and justice policy, Harvey brings a wealth of experience from a decade spent working in government, academia and parliament. Prior to joining Crest, Harvey spent four years advising on home affairs policy for the Labour Party and was a deputy director at the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, where he led several major strategic reviews on behalf of a series of UK prime ministers affecting policy reform.