The Police Federation annual conference is due to roll into its sunny seaside home in Bournemouth next week. The scene of many a showdown between politicians, rank and file police officers and the regular crime reporters – the bars of this genteel seaside resort rub their hands in glee as the sun comes out and the trains chunter in from all 43 forces. Press officers and advisers cross their fingers, hold their breath and hope for the best. Each silently hoping that this year it is someone else’s turn to take the hit.
This annual conference, now in its 92nd year, was once something of a competition between the Home Secretary of the day and their Shadow, each pledging draconian crackdowns on emerging criminal trends – joyriding one year, raves the next – all to satisfy the thousand or so officers attending the three-day seaside jamboree on taxpayer-funded duty time. The politicians’ speeches were preceded by the Federation’s all-powerful Chairman who would demand the aforesaid crackdowns, insist on tougher sentences for assaults on police officers, and warn that any attempt to chisel away at police allowances would shatter the morale of the thin blue line standing between an orderly society and chaos.
How critical will Theresa May be?
How times change. In 2014 Theresa May’s both barrels approach reduced a barracking audience of stunned officers to silence. All those present witnessed a Home Secretary unafraid to take on the police, some might go so far as to say, spoiling for a fight – and arguably deservedly so, 2014 was after all the year the Plebgate grenade exploded. The sequel did not disappoint either, as the Home Secretary told the Fed last year to “stop crying wolf” over cuts with the subtext of “you don’t like me and I don’t care”.
There’s little reason to believe her speech on Tuesday will be any more conciliatory. The only question is whether her critique of the police’s culture and record will be less damning than that likely to be offered up a few hours later by the new Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham, fresh from the Hillsborough campaign he invested so much in personally. Never before has the Federation looked so politically isolated with Tories and Labour competing to point out policing’s deficiencies. For decades the political class has wanted to keep policing on side. Now they are queueing up to distance themselves. The parallels with the main parties’ scramble to disassociate themselves from Rupert Murdoch once the phone-hacking scandal finally exploded are startling, and for policing deeply concerning.
There is an irony, too, for Jeremy Corbyn (should he be watching). For decades the default position of the hard left has been an unswerving belief the police are racist, brutal and corrupt, that they look after their own interests and those of the rich and powerful, while harassing and attacking the powerless and disadvantaged; and that they then lie freely to cover up what they have done.
Exposing police wrongdoing
Even if this absolutist (and sweeping) view is not fully accepted by senior mainstream politicians, it is striking they are – across all parties – now far more willing to channel broad brush anti-police rhetoric than to challenge it: my enemy’s enemy is no longer my friend.Theresa May has been striking in her willingness to expose police wrongdoing and to take action to address it. She has launched inquiries into controversies like undercover policing and Hillsborough which have laid bare police malpractice in the starkest terms. Her statement in the House of Commons after the Hillsborough Inquests last month was brutally emotional and commended by colleagues from all parties. Another inquiry, into the Orgreave ‘riot’ during the Miners’ Strike, looks set to be announced any day now. Each time a new set of damning conclusions is issued, Mrs May does not make excuses for the police, or claim recent reforms mean such things could not happen now. Far from it: she has led the condemnation of police culture and leadership, past and present, and been quick to turn words into action where others have failed.
It was probably a combination of reasons that the Tory’s position changed. This was embedded in recognition that the party’s mission to shatter closed shops and reform the unreformable, had deliberately omitted the police – mainly out of the need to keep them on side for the bigger battles with the miners, the printers, the peace campers and the ravers. It was – in 2012 – time to attend to unfinished business and to push meaningful accountability.
A change in attitude towards the police
But it’s hard to pin point the tipping point. Was it the arrest in 2008 of a Conservative MP – Damian Green, a Shadow Minister, no less – for leaking embarrassing Government secrets, and the search of his Parliamentary office? Was it Plebgate, when an over-confident Federation took a minor altercation between a short-tempered minister and a police officer and turned it into a nationwide campaign? Was it the slow creep of questions over the role of senior officers, resignations from the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in the wake of phone hacking or the North Yorkshire Chief Constable who was found guilty of gross misconduct. Was it all of these things compounded by the weighty tomes of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report in turn, cemented by a deep rooted feeling of unease?
Labour too may have reached a crossroads. It splurged cash on policing before the crash and asked for little reform in return. In opposition, it has been happy to make common cause with the Fed around cuts and falling officer numbers (Yvette Cooper on hand for interviews when the Fed marched through London in protest at changes to their pensions). It seems the fallout from Hillsborough will shatter this alliance. If Labour has calculated that the reputational risks of defending ‘the police’ outweigh the political benefits of campaigning on cuts, then, come teatime on Tuesday, the Federation’s leaders will look back on the eighties and nineties with nostalgia and face the future with trepidation.
Police officers do an indescribably difficult job often in dangerous and uncertain circumstances and we should support them. And it must be said again that those who serve today are not responsible for the events of 30 years ago and that policing has moved on considerably. But it is extraordinary that many of their leaders and their representative bodies have, by accident or design, united the Left with the Right.