The recent spate of violent crime across the capital has given Corbyn an opportunity to try to wrest back control of the political narrative.
Law and order is historically home territory for the Conservatives and, even now, YouGov’s most recent tracker shows that 31% of those polled trust the Conservatives on law and order compared to 18% who think Labour would perform better. However, May is especially vulnerable on this issue as violent crime has risen on her watch, not only as the current Prime Minister, but also as Home Secretary for the duration of Cameron’s time as Prime Minister.
While the Conservatives can, and have, tried to lay the recent rise in violent crime at the feet of Labour’s London Mayor, violent crime is rising not just in London, but nationally. The most recent statistics show that violence against the person offences rose 20% across England and Wales compared to the previous year. This is clearly a problem for a Prime Minister with such a conspicuous background in the Home Office.
After more than a decade of austerity policies, Labour has a strong argument to make here. Changes in violent crime trends are caused by a wide range of multifaceted, and occasionally oblique, drivers but it is certainly likely that the loss of youth centres, declining support for early interventions, the crisis in mental health support services and the stagnation of real wages have, in combination, contributed to the rise in violent offences. It is also true that police numbers have fallen and it is here that Labour has focused its attention.
It is certainly valid to suggest a link between police numbers and violent crime, regardless of whether the Home Office’s new violent crime strategy deigns to mention the issue. Logically, the sheer size of a police force ought to improve police visibility and the force’s ability to police proactively, which should lead to improvements in the way they deal with violent crime (academic evidence is more ambiguous however). But it is also important to recognise that the size of the police force is not the only driver of increasing crime rates. By reducing the issue to a single soundbite on police numbers (and one that they have regularly deployed in the past with reasonable success), the Labour party are in danger of giving the impression that they are less interested in solving the issue than the political capital they can extract from it.
The difficulty for Labour is that, if it is not handled sensitively, violent crime is an ugly thing to politicise. Homicides, stabbings, and increasing firearms use deserve a more serious, nuanced response than the Labour party’s initial reaction. To Jeremy Corbyn’s credit, he is now meeting experts on gun and knife crime with a view to developing a more detailed policy on crime prevention and it will be interesting to see how Labour’s position develops beyond throwing money at police recruitment.