Friday, 9 June 2023

Whatever happened to being tough on the causes of crime?


In a post a few days ago, I referred to the post-war period when even Tory PMs took pride in the number of council houses built during their period in office. The two decades after the second world war saw the peak of council house building in the UK, and more than half of that time was under Tory governments. It all changed with Thatcher and the ‘right to buy’; there is no doubt that the decline in building new social housing since 1979, coupled with the large scale sell-offs of the 1980s and 1990s, is a huge factor in the housing crisis of the current day.

And yet… Thatcher did actually have a point; she understood the urge which many tenants felt to want to buy their homes, and I think she also (unusually for a Tory; they usually see property as an ‘asset’) understood the difference between a house and a home. I spent most of my childhood living in council houses, and can easily understand that people didn’t just want to own ‘a’ home (a desire which could have been fulfilled by buying a different house), they wanted to own ‘their’ home: the house in which those who chose to buy had often invested a great deal of their own time, effort and money. And it wasn’t just a desire for ‘ownership’, it was also a desire to be free of the paternalistic and pettifogging rules which councils often imposed, rules which didn’t apply to owner-occupiers. Worse, in some areas the allocation of houses was essentially corrupt, with ward councillors having an undue say in the process. I remember canvassing council estates in Merthyr during the 1972 by-election campaign and finding tenants who were genuinely afraid to say that they would support Plaid Cymru, let alone put a poster in the window, in case the local councillor found out. It was just one of the ways in which Labour maintained its hold on the population in parts of Wales in those days.

Wholesale sell-offs, let alone with huge discounts on the price, weren’t the only possible policy response. And sell-offs per se didn’t need to lead to such a huge shortage of social housing, but the sting in the Thatcher tail was the prohibition on councils using the funds raised from sales to build new houses. It also wasn’t the only way of responding to problems of corruption or clientelism in pursuit of political control, but it certainly achieved that. Or at least, I thought that it had, but it seems that old attitudes die hard.

In a classic throwback to those days, one Labour council leader has suggested that whole families of council tenants should be evicted from their homes if children do not inform on people committing knife crime. There can be few who would argue that those who know about knife crime (or indeed, any other type of crime), even if they are children, should not feel a moral obligation to divulge what they know, although the last time I looked there was still a right to silence when questioned by police, even as a witness, and fear of retribution is a powerful motive. But throwing their families onto the street if they refuse to co-operate – a punishment which can only be meted out to tenants, not to owner-occupiers, and therefore emphasises their perceived lesser status in society – is a return to some of the worst aspects of council tenancies of the past, quite apart from being a way of punishing people who have themselves committed no crime. It is not, apparently, official Labour policy, although espousing such a policy doesn’t seem to be a bar to being a parliamentary candidate, and it doesn’t exactly seem a huge jump from official policy which is to fine the parents of children perpetrating anti-social behaviour.

I seem to remember, though, in those far off days when Labour was merely Thatcherite rather than Farage-lite, one prominent leader talked about being ‘tough on the causes of crime’ (such as inequality) as well as on the crime itself. That’s been forgotten, as Starmer's Labour almost seems to be trying to make Blair and Thatcher look like bleeding-heart liberals.

No comments: