How the Home Office uses narratives to justify more state control
Law and order has long been an issue that political parties exploit to appeal to voters. Complex social issues are flattened into two-dimensional narratives of good vs. evil that play on citizens’ fear and sense of security.
The world of politics is fast moving. While some issues only remain important for a single election cycle, crime and policing remains high on the policy agenda across different elections, governments, and contexts. Politicians and parties often use the issue of crime and public safety to appeal to voters, from the infamous 1997 ‘New Labour, New Danger‘ Conservative campaign advert to the Home Office’s new Beating Crime Plan. Campaigns and policies such as these intend to push a clear narrative that criminality is inherent to certain individuals who we must, in the words of Boris Johnson, “come down hard on” in order to protect “the law-abiding majority”. Yet, the reasons behind crime are complex, with many different factors driving individuals to break the law.
Instead of acknowledging how society and those in power may be failing individuals and leading them to crime, a simpler picture is painted that plays on voters fears and calls for harsher policing and punishment. Additionally, the ethnic disparities in how crime is recorded, spoken about, and perceived make both the perception of criminality as inherent and the action taken by police particularly harmful to BAMER communities. It has been argued that viewing criminality as inherent is a fundamentally racist approach to crime and punishment, a criticism that has particularly been made against Bill Clinton’s attitude towards crime in the US. It is also hypocritical to paint a picture of criminality that plays on public fears to win votes or policy support, when we now have a Prime Minister who has openly admitted to taking a Class A drug. People have the capacity to do bad things and still contribute to society and flourish — we must facilitate that instead of pitting citizens against each other and implementing measures intended to publicly humiliate those who have broken the law.
Not only does this approach to crime dehumanise perpetrators, but it also does a disservice to victims and their families. Victims cannot be painted as a homogenous group — victims and their families will react to crime and trauma differently, and have different views on what retribution looks like to them. But, despite this, victims are often portrayed as a singular group and used to justify any increase in police powers. ‘We owe it to the victims’, we are told, with little regard for what victims actually want.
For many victims, the best form of justice isn’t increasing sentence lengths or stop and search powers as the government proposes, but taking effective action to prevent anyone else falling victim to the same crime. There are many examples of victims advocating for strategies focused on community or education, rather than harsher policing, to tackle the type of crime by which they were affected. The Ben Kinsella Trust, for example, was set up by Ben Kinsella’s family after he was killed aged 16 as a consequence of knife crime. JAN Trust has long worked within communities to campaign against knife crime and raise awareness of the need to fight against such dangers.
Such nuanced approaches to knife crime, with a strong focus on prevention, are rarely reflected in politicians’ use of victim narratives to justify policing tactics. Instead, politicians lean heavily on the victim characterisation to allow them to pass policy with little scrutiny for its efficacy. Better law and policy would consult directly with victims, rather than using a nameless ‘victim’ to further a particular narrative.
Parties across the political spectrum, but particularly those in power, must view crime differently to take effective action against it and not just rely on binary narratives to score political points. In fairy tales, evil is shown to be inherent, and we rarely see examples of villains changing for the better. We must break away from our reliance on simplistic tropes to help us understand the world and approach the issue of crime with empathy for both sides. Particularly in the wake of Black Lives Matter, Sarah Everard, and the Plymouth shooting, we must be conscious of communities’ needs and growing distrust of policing.
To many, the police aren’t a knight in shining armour committed to protecting them. Calls for more police may do little to address the deep-rooted issues in this country. Abandoning our current narratives around crime is the first step forward. At JAN Trust, we are committed to responding to the concerns and needs of our beneficiaries. We work to empower mothers, and young women and girls against the dangers presented by online extremism and hate crime, including violence. We know that a holistic approach is necessary if we are to truly tackle this issue.