“Liberal Democrats – soft on crime” was the headline that has often screamed off Labour leaflets over the last decade. Indeed, in the latter stages of the 2010 General Election, Labour strategists used that message to squeeze the Liberal Democrat vote when we were on 29%.
Looking at the partial, last-minute collapse in our vote, it’s difficult to argue that this line of attack didn’t work. The ‘soft on crime’ attack was used against us in the Oldham East and Saddleworth By-election. Labour’s Christmas Card to constituents in Oldham even featured a snowman with a police hat on to illustrate their campaign. We did not effectively counter the police cuts message that Labour used as a major part of their campaign.
Tony Blair was quite correct when he identified “crime and the fear of crime” as a key issue before New Labour’s 1997 landslide. Being tough on crime, or to be seen to be tough on crime, is a message that wins votes.
Now, we all know Labour’s record on crime in 13 years of Government was lamentable. Coppers became pen-pushers as bureaucracy hit at all time high. During 13 years of a Labour Government, 3,600 new offences were created and a record number of people were incarcerated. It sounds good so far… Unfortunately, their record on rehabilitation was criminal. Under Labour, re-offending rates were a staggering 67% within two years of release from prison. Labour comprehensively failed to rehabilitate, instead turning our prisons into ‘crime schools.’
Now, Police Authorities across the country are suffering like many other organisations in times of austerity. I’d argue though that cuts in the policing budget are cuts too far. That said, the culture of waste in the police is similar to many other parts of the public sector. Take Greater Manchester Police for example. This Labour-run Police Authority have just spent £64m on a new HQ. They have wasted £100,000 on two pieces of artwork and spent £8,000 on importing trees from Italy to spruce up their HQ reception. At the same time, they are axing front desks at dozens of Police Stations across Greater Manchester. This is typical of Labour-run outside bodies in this country.
November sees elections for the first ever Police Commissioners. It should be a key opportunity to tell people that we are a party which has the answers to deal with high crime rates and an unacceptable re-offending rate. Especially attractive is the Lib Dem policy that will see short-term prison sentences slashed and replaced with tougher community sentences. It is a fact that tougher community sentences drastically reduces repeat offending. Labour were on the right lines in government but like so much of their rhetoric simply did not follow it through.
The Lib Dem Federal Executive’s rather lazy attitude to these elections — deciding not to provide any financial backing to Lib Dems wishing to stand for election, and instead back suitable independent candidates — is simply baffling.
Yes, we may not have a huge amount of money sloshing through our party finances. What we do have though is the ability to fight and win on much-limited resources. I don’t want to sleepwalk into having someone like Hazel Blears in charge of all law and order issues in Greater Manchester.
Make no mistake, by failing to take these elections seriously, we are abdicating the right to be taken seriously on law and order issues. We are playing into the hands of Labour’s message that we are ‘soft on crime.’
The decision is all the more baffling when you consider that it was Nick Clegg who was widely credited with moving the elections to November to take ‘politics’ out of it. Politics is the inevitable conclusion of what we signed up for in the Coalition Agreement. What we are effectively doing is handing over any influence to our political opponents. Do you think that the Labour and Conservative Parties will come to the same conclusion as our Federal Executive?
I appreciate that the next few months will be hugely significant for our party. The London Mayoral election will soon be upon us. Ironically, we have an excellent candidate in Brian Paddick — himself an ex-copper. ‘Law and order’ will be on the menu for a significant part of the run-up to it. We as a party will be very well served by Brian as he will use his experience at the sharp end of policing to boost our campaign.
I am sure that our party has many ex-police officers who would be ideally suited to be effective Police Commissioners. Our party is basically cutting the rug from under their feet. Image the uproar if the Federal Executive turned round and pulled any resources to the London Mayoral Campaign.
I would ask the Federal Executive to look again at this decision and I would encourage potential Lib Dem candidates to go for it!
* Dave Hennigan is a Lib Dem member in Macclesfield.