Boris Johnson was a journalist who wanted to be prime minister. Now in Downing Street, he appears happiest when supplying headlines for the rightwing press. On Sunday, his plan to “blitz crime” was on the front page of the Sunday Express. On Monday, his home secretary was telling readers of the Daily Mail that she’ll make “yobs clean the streets”. At best, the government’s proposals are an irrelevance to tackling crime or making people feel safer. More likely, they will create perverse incentives and make a bad situation worse.
The policies fail on their own terms. Chain gangs are not a good way of deterring criminals. They have not stopped them in the US. This silly stunt will stigmatise a generation of offenders. There is good evidence that stop and search has minimal effects on crime levels, so why persist with a tactic that lowers trust levels? Tagging those released from prison might help reduce recidivism rates. But why devote resources to tagging burglars and not violent offenders?
Whitehall knows that a punitive approach is likely to have a negligible effect on levels of offending. But that is not the point. The prime minister wants to send a message to reassure socially conservative voters. Mr Johnson’s aim is to snatch ground from his rivals. Opinion polls suggest that 60% of voters think the government handles the issue of crime badly. Labour has been exploiting this distrust. Senior police officers worry that as lockdown is lifted, there will be a rise in violent crime, shoplifting, burglaries and alcohol-fuelled fights. The “policy blitz” gives Mr Johnson’s team something to say in the months ahead, even if it is just a list of unworkable but tough-sounding punishments.
The prime minister asks a lot of the police, while giving little in return. His rhetoric may go down well with the rank and file – but they would clearly, and with good reason, prefer a decent pay rise. Downing Street’s plan to recruit 20,000 officers goes some way to undoing a decade of cuts, but 18,000 support staff will not be replaced. The cash is being allocated in such a way that some areas lose out: the West Midlands will, it seems, be left 900 officers short of the number it had in 2010.
Mr Johnson is also not listening to police chiefs. Earlier this year, the outgoing chief constable of Merseyside police told the Guardian that cutting poverty and inequality was the best way to reduce crime and thwart criminals’ attempts to attract poor youngsters. He was right. Young people in deprived areas do not need chain gangs, they need youth clubs. But the government is not listening. Instead, the strategy is based on refounding the Conservatives’ reputation on law and order. Mr Johnson thinks that prison works and he says he will spend £4bn to construct new jails. Many suspect they will never be built.
As the courts reopen, the prison population is expected to rise by a quarter over the next five years – and could hit 99,000. Prisons are not turning people away from crime. Overcrowding is a big reason jails fail to rehabilitate people. England, Scotland and Wales have the highest imprisonment rates in western Europe. A better policy would be sending fewer people to prison, using alternative sentences and improving rehabilitation. But that would need Mr Johnson to challenge the rightwing press over the folly of draconian criminal justice rather than endlessly seek the next cheap headline.