Labour’s Problem with Police (or, Why Going All-In for Cops is a Cop-Out)

Labour's positioning on the police represents a failure of leadership and a failure to challenge oppression with harmful consequences

On April 8th’s episode of the Marr Show, Angela Rayner lambasted Sajid Javid over Tory cuts to police, calling for “evidence-based stop and search”. In the endless fencing match that is British political programming, this looked like a Labour hit. Yet it reflects a disappointing Labour Party position on police and criminal justice (and a Party line it is, echoed by Diane Abbott and others who have been attempting , over recent weeks, to make a tenuous distinction between ‘random stop and search’ and an ‘evidence-based’ version). The front bench has for many years chosen to score easy hits by castigating Tory cuts to the police whilst shying away from detailed, more nuanced commentary. What we are left with is a Labour front bench that contorts itself into supporting authoritarian measures like stop-and-search which, no matter the language they’re couched in, disproportionately target minorities. Labour pay lip service to this issue, mentioning it in the ‘Safer Communities’ part of their manifesto, but do not address it in a meaningful way.

The phrase ‘evidence-based’ implies material groundwork before action is taken. But, as Femi Oyeniran argues, stop and search is an in-the-moment decision, and as such, the evidence the police use will necessarily be based on instinct. The fact BAME individuals are disproportionately targeted by stop and search demonstrates that police instinct is nothing more than a flattering term for a murky swamp full of conscious and unconscious prejudices.

There are real material and ideological repercussions to Labour’s positioning: at best, it is failing to challenge a dominant discourse around policing, crime, and ‘disorder’; at worst, it actively furthers it. In local government, and most notably in London, Labour already has powers over policing. Sadiq Khan, who in 2015 said that, if elected as Mayor, “I would do everything in my power to cut stop and search”, announced in January this year that he planned to “significantly increase” its use. On a national level, not only does Labour’s position on policing allow such a U-turn to proceed with minimal critique, it also commits the Party to this set of reactionary and harmful policies should it win the next election.

A further, less obvious, but both morally and politically limiting aspect to Labour reproducing a reactionary discourse on policing is precisely what that discourse does. Stuart Hall and others present a series of questions that suggest problems with this acquiescence in the introduction to Policing the Crisis, a book

About a society which is slipping into a certain kind of crisis. It tries to examine why and how the themes of race, crime and youth - condensed into the image of ‘mugging’ - come to serve as the articulator of the crisis, as its ideological conductor. It is also about how these themes have functioned as a mechanism for the construction of an authoritarian consensus, a conservative backlash: what we call the slow build-up towards a ‘soft’ law-and-order society. But it also has to ask: to what social contradictions does this trend towards the ‘disciplined society’ - powered by the fears mobilised around ‘mugging’ - really refer? How has the ‘law-and-order’ ideology been constructed? What social forces are constrained and contained by its construction? What forces stand to benefit from it? What role has the state played in its construction? What real fears and anxieties is it mobilising?1

This sort of analysis is not only of historical significance for the prehistory of Thatcherite neoliberalism and some (but not all) of the themes and images have changed between 1978 and 2018. Adam Elliot-Cooper, in an exceptionally useful essay, explores contemporary forms of neoliberal racism drawing on the analysis from Policing the Crisis. Three aspects of Elliot-Cooper’s analysis are key to the necessity of rejecting Labour’s positioning around the police, firstly, that the language sustaining and reproduced by these positions is a form of dogwhistle racism, secondly, in the notion of “neoliberal racism” discourses and policies around crime and policing cannot be sundered from the economy, thirdly, that discourses around policing affect the behaviour of the police themselves regardless of any changes to the law. It is not, moreover, only the police but also the wider criminal justice system which is shaped by these discourses, Policing the Crisis notes, in particular their impact on the judiciary and the production of a “stiffening of judicial attitudes towards crime, violence and sentencing policies.”2 Labour’s failure to challenge the discourse around policing therefore can be seen to have two further major negative impacts, irrespective of being in governmental power, firstly, furthering the construction of an authoritarian society more widely, secondly, impacting on the behaviour of people, especially, but not only, the police, within the criminal justice system, potentially enabling their most oppressive instincts.

So why is it the case that Labour policy and discourse is so limited? The Party - or at least its leadership, and much of the grassroots - have been successfully bringing a formerly marginal critique of capitalism into the mainstream. Why does it not feel able or willing to do the same when it comes to the police?

Acceptable political attitudes to the police force go one of two ways: for the right, it is a bastion of order and must be upheld; for the left, it is a vital public service which deserves support. The police are so often, within the Labour Party and without, lumped together with essential public services such as healthcare, education, and firefighting. A particularly illuminating example is when Jeremy Corbyn, in a February session of Prime Minister’s Questions, described the relationship between social services and the police as symbiotic, “two sides of the same coin”, “prevention and cure”. This sort of rhetoric - accepting unquestioningly that the police represent a ‘cure’ for social ills, presenting them as an integral part of the public sector, especially when the police are presented explicitly or implicitly as working class (“workers in uniform”) and under attack from austerity and therefore deserving the solidarity of the left like any other workers - conspires to render the police force untouchable.

Traditionally, leftwing debate centres around whether police are working-class. Related but more useful questions, at least when it comes to devising coherent Labour Party policy, would be whether they are public servants and, secondly, what comprises the public the police are intended to serve. As Nina Power has argued, “‘Public order’ has come to replace ideas of the public sphere, public space, public provision and the public good.” She continues, crucially, to argue that “the public of ‘public order’ allows the law to do what it wants to unfortunate individuals in the name of an imaginary mass of people who supposedly agree with whatever the courts decide. Meanwhile, the actual public – those bodies and lives that possess real existence – are subsumed by economic imperatives, given little space to roam and no access to common resources.” The language then of public service when it comes to the police is precisely not a language of the interests and lives of real people.

It should be clear what this construction means materially. The police reflect, intensify, and ultimately are a vehicle for various kinds of oppression (overcoming which, even under the best imaginable left Labour government, will be a long and exceptionally arduous struggle). The police here, moreover, operate within and intersect with other parts of society, most notably the border regime and wider criminal justice system (including the courts who “an imaginary mass of people agree with”). As reported by Buzzfeed News following the murder of Jessica McGraa, since sex work is still criminalised police not only fail to protect but also actively undermine the rights and safety of sex workers. What’s more, refugees and immigrants who call the police to report domestic violence have found themselves detained in Yarl’s Wood - with more than half of police forces arresting victims of serious crime and handing them over to immigration enforcement, a detention centre which demonstrates all too aptly the ways in which the police, the legal system, and the Home Office work to disenfranchise and oppress vulnerable groups. Most notably, extending beyond but also sustaining the racism of stop and search, there is, as the UN notes, “structural racism [which] remains rooted in the fabric of British society.” The UN report notes, in particular, “the disproportionate number of deaths of black and brown people in incidents with the police” and an absolute lack of accountability: there has never been a successful prosecution of a police officer for a death in police custody. For the claim that the police serve the real public to have any value, surely a degree of accountability to that public is essential?

Now, a brief sidebar on community policing - that is, a holistic, socially-minded approach to public safety - which Labour praises in its manifesto and aims to champion going forwards. Community policing works. Or, at least, it works much better than the traditional model, and especially American policing, which is far more fatal. The institutionalised racism, corruption, and brutality of the U.S. police forces have led to comparisons from American journalists which paint British policing in an exceedingly flattering light. A 2015 longform article in the New York Times, for example, presented Scotland’s community policing model - and particularly its avoidance of guns - as an ‘after’ picture to which America’s dismal ‘before’ could aspire. Similar laudatory portraits are sketched within Britain, through which the blatant horrors of US policing serve to deflect attention and critique away from what is wrong with British policing (it too is institutionally racist, sometimes corrupt, often brutal). James Ball argued for the Guardian in 2012 that “modern policing has become front-line social work” and as such the police deserved some solidarity from the left. “Protest is hardly a place to see police at their best,” he notes dismissively. He skips over most of the institutional and individual failings within the force, depicting the cases he does mention as ‘bad apple’ situations: after all, he argues, in an analogy devoid of material analysis, we don’t resent all doctors because of Harold Shipman. Arguments like these overemphasise the role of the community policing model whilst obscuring the systemic flaws of the police and the institutional power they wield.

The reason why community policing works better than the traditional model is because it is a little more likely to treat crimes and ‘disorder’ (a loaded word, and one which the tabloids favour, along with words like ‘thugs’, and ‘control’) as rooted in wider social issues, thereby at least partially challenging the law and order society. As Diane Abbott points out, Scotland successfully and dramatically lowered Glasgow’s rate of knife crime by utilising almost every public service other than police: schools, hospitals, social workers, and counsellors. It’s not community policing itself we need more of, but the holistic approach by which community policing is informed. As such, praising community policing whilst continuing to endorse measures like stop-and-search is an attempt by Labour to straddle the fence: it’s not only precarious, but the longer they stay there the more likely they are to get hit where it hurts. The creation of a thriving, safe society is not achieved with carrot and stick (or, as Corbyn put it, “prevention and cure”); evidence suggests that what most improves police performance is for them to stop acting like the police and start acting like social services. We don’t need the often violent, often prejudiced, often misapplied ‘cure’ of the police when we have vaccinations within our grasp in the form of public services and welfare.

Supporting the police uncritically is to uphold institutional bigotry, avoid both serious thought and questions of democratic accountability, and offer piecemeal, oppressive, and violent non-solutions to systemic problems. Yet Labour continue to do so. It’s lazy and cheap to argue that any other position would be politically non-viable particularly given the transformation of public attitudes to the economy, to a significant extent shaped by Corbyn and others exercising real leadership. There are parallels here to similar failings to challenge the oppressive character of the state are evident in immigration, as Maya Goodfellow has argued: “Corbyn’s team shifted the debate on some of the country’s biggest issues in a way many thought unimaginable. From nationalisation to austerity, Labour has pulled the country leftwards. On immigration, they largely failed to do the same and public attitude remains largely anti-migrant. But if the party is bold in its intentions, there’s real possibility for a Corbyn-led Labour to change this toxic conversation”. We can’t call ourselves leftists whilst ignoring the plight and voices of people who face danger and discrimination from the police. If critiquing policies and institutions which get people killed is currently an unelectable position (and for the record, it isn’t) then so be it. I would rather be part of a party which attempts to change the rhetoric around police and criminal justice than one which unquestioningly accepts the value of the police and of prisons. Moreover, as both Hall and Elliot-Cooper suggest, the sharp split implied by what could be described as a “Blue Corbynism” (authoritarian on crime and immigration but economically left) is untenable and social authoritarianism limits possibilities of economic transformation. It is perhaps worth noting too that whilst the Labour left have traditionally (and still today) failed to critique the function of police within an oppressive society as a whole, therefore as imposing a limit on economic transformation, Tony Benn did come to a point of radical critique, including the police within state institutions within a capitalist society that are “barely usable by a labour movement that wants to make real change” as “naked instruments of class power as has emerged so clearly during the miners’ strike.”

Diane Abbott wrote a February 2017 piece on the use of spit hoods - mesh bags placed over an individual’s head to prevent them from spitting at police - which demonstrates the difficult line the Labour front bench are currently walking. Particular brutalities are, sometimes quite powerfully, attacked, whilst the notion of the police as unproblematically public servants remains uncriticised. They support evidence-led policies; they fail to mention evidence of failures in policing. They support police being able to carry out their jobs without fear; they don’t mention sex workers, whose jobs, rights, and lives are often put at risk by the police. Abbott, who has been very vocal about institutional bigotry within the police, nonetheless elides it here. By subscribing to the traditional narrative of the police as public servants, Labour put themselves in this difficult and precarious position: they give ground to the Conservatives that they need not concede, succumbing entirely to the idea that the police are necessary and valuable.

The first thing Labour needs to combat is fear. The ‘sensible centrist’ media (the New Statesman, the Guardian, and so on) has in large part not been won over by Corbynism, and that’s okay. We shouldn’t woo transphobes or Blairites, and what’s more, we don’t have to. The 2017 general election campaign demonstrated, more than anything, that people are willing to listen to nuance and critique.

The word ‘nuance’ is often used to to defend meaningless equivocation. We need nuance, not in terms of a ‘see both sides’ incoherent fudge, but in terms of a serious effort at grasping how the police work on a total level. Labour should step up calls for action on the racism within the police force. It should change its tack on stop and search. It should focus on civil liberties, on oppression, and start trying to shift the conversation on the Sunday politics shows and beyond. The question should not be ‘has the police force lost control of our streets?’, as pundits recently, breathlessly asked, but ‘what does control mean, and for whose benefit? How do we make a place safer in a sustainable, long-term way?’. Even out of power nationally, the refusal of and presentation of an alternative to a discourse on policing that has harmful material effects would be a significant accomplishment and one that. by challenging the reproduction of an authoritarian ideology, would benefit the Labour left both in terms of winning an election and preventing being hemmed in having achieved that. The paradigm needs shifting, and Labour are better placed to do that than they, or any other party, has been in years.

  1. Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke and Brian Roberts, Policing the Crisis: Mugging, The State and Law and Order (London: MacMillan, 1978), p. viii. 

  2. Policing the Crisis, p. 34. 


Ashara Peake (@sharcoal)

Ashara is working in education and studying History with a view to becoming a teacher, and was recently elected Campaigns and Membership officer on the Scottish Young Labour Socialists’ slate for SYL.