In his inaugural speech as Prime Minister, Keir Starmer promised to govern in a sober way, befitting the challenges of the day. He anchored his opening address in Britain’s small-c conservative, order-loving majority, promising “secure borders”, and “safer streets”.

And yet, the removal vans had scarcely pulled away from No. 10 before news crept out that Britain’s prisons are full, and the Lord High Chancellor, Shabana Mahmood, may be obliged to release some 40,000 criminals less than halfway through their sentences, to ease overcrowding. The domestic violence charity Refuge has already warned that this means domestic abusers may walk free having served barely 40% of their supposed sentence.

To Starmer’s haters, the report is evidence of a broader far-Left utopianism: the ideology that wants police defunded, borders opened, and drug addicts “treated” with free drugs. His defenders, meanwhile, retort that the Tories created this problem. And it’s true that Britain’s prisons were at capacity before Starmer took office; last year, judges were being told not to hand down custodial sentences because there was no room to incarcerate the prisoners. Then, back in May, Sky reported that Sunak’s government had quietly introduced further early-release measures to ease pressure on prisons, even including inmates deemed “high-risk”.

Then, ahead of the election, Sunak reportedly turned his own inaction into a trap for the new administration. In May, he blocked a request to release up to 500 more offenders early, leaving the problem for Starmer to deal with instead. Taken all together, the headlines read more like a Tory landmine than incontrovertible evidence of Starmer being soft on crime.

But even if he isn’t, his problems go deeper than just prison capacity. A glance at law and order in Britain since the last Labour administration reveals that the Tories did little to improve on Blair’s approach, and much to make things worse. And also that the New Labour policy on law and order had its own roots in a long-term trend of declining social trust and growing values pluralism. While the Tories’ record as inheritors to this approach leaves much to be desired, Starmer will find it tricky to do better: he has a far harder hand to play than Blair.

As the last Labour leader to secure a landslide, Blair threaded the needle between aspirational, liberal-leaning, middle-class voters and his more authoritarian Old Labour base by strategically emphasising law and order in measures such as the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act — even as he liberalised many other aspects of the country. This Act took aim especially at “antisocial” behaviour, and introduced new forms of non-custodial surveillance and control such as Asbos. As well as legislation, Blair also turbocharged funding for criminal justice, including a 21% real-terms spending boost for the police. This was all designed to operate alongside increased spending on welfare and social services. The rationale was alleviating the poverty that contributes to crime, while punishing wrongdoers: “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.”

Did the package work? It depends who you ask, and how you count. As one study reports, in 2005, the Blair government bragged about presiding over a 30% fall in crime; in opposition, meanwhile, Michael Howard accused Labour the same year of enabling a 16% rise. Both were right — just drawing, respectively, on the British Crime Survey and recorded police statistics.

Meanwhile, even as competing statisticians bickered over the data, Britain under New Labour continued to grow more intentionally multicultural and socially liberal — a pluralism in turn contained by Blair’s proliferating infrastructures of surveillance, social regulation, and para-judicial control. No one could tell you what to do, the “modern” British norm declared; but if you were too expressive in your individualism, you might end up with an Asbo, or an electronic tag, or a bevy of social workers to “support” you insistently until you did as you were asked.

These new architectures of social control served as a replacement for the shared moral codes that were already thinning under the hot winds of “there’s no such thing as society” Thatcherism, when New Labour were first elected. And arguably they worked well enough, enabling the continued pursuit of pluralism — at least until the money ran out. Then, after the global financial crash, we got Tory austerity plus some mumbling about “the big society”: in other words, much the same society-wide liberal individualism as during the Blair years, only now accompanied by cuts to the public services that had held things together in the previous decade. Blair-esque bureaucratisation of public space advanced, for example in the 2014 introduction of Public Spaces Protection Orders — but now such developments came without the blank cheque. Indeed, both the police and the Labour Party accused the Conservatives of real-terms cuts, by as much as 33%. Certainly, officer numbers fell by around 20,000 between 2009 and 2016, undoing the New Labour police workforce expansion.

In other words, Blair’s legacy of suffocating social regulation has mushroomed, but enforcement has grown increasingly patchy. The corrosive cumulative impression has become that burglars can rob your home with impunity, and shoplifters can help themselves, but mean tweets will get you arrested.

But will matters improve under Starmer? It’s hard to say. So far, Starmer’s law and order approach sounds reassuringly Blairish: he is, for example, a longstanding critic of Tory prison policy, has promised 20,000 new prison places, and also pledged to prioritise antisocial behaviour and recruit 13,000 neighbourhood police officers. But Starmer’s choice of Minister for Prisons hints at some of the pitfalls he may face. James Timpson is CEO of the Timpson shoe repair chain, which makes a point of employing ex-prisoners, who comprise some 10% of Timpson’s workforce. Timpson is also former chair of the Prison Reform Trust, in which role he previously declared that “only a third” of prisoners should definitely be there.

Timpson’s advocacy of rehabilitation over jail time was echoed by Starmer following his election, when he vowed to cut the numbers reoffending and roll out a “tough love” programme focusing on “youth futures”. This proposal, dubbed “Sure Start for teenagers”, promises to bring together law enforcement, mental health specialists, and youth workers, in order to tackle knife crime. Elsewhere, Starmer has pledged to create “community and victim payback boards” involving “local communities” in dispensing justice for low-level offences.

All this suggests that Starmer — or perhaps the party behind him — places great trust in the power of non-carceral measures to address misbehaviour. And this, in turn, implies considerable trust in his government to be able to roll out enough of the social infrastructure this requires, to make such measures work. We will have to hope, then, that Labour can scratch together enough loose change to pay for it all. With post-1997 boomtime funding, “Sure Start for teenagers” might have been both compassionate and hard-hitting. Amid a fiscal crisis, shrinking tax base and stagnant economy, though, it runs a grave risk of winding up as a toothless half-measure: just the “more youth clubs” meme so often parodied on the Right.

Then there’s the pluralism. The mass immigration inaugurated by New Labour, in part “to rub the Right’s nose in diversity”, has now delivered a society so very diverse it’s becoming openly sectarian in some places, with white identity politics on the rise in retaliation. Indeed, His Toniness has already descended from plutocratic Olympus to advise Starmer to rein in immigration, in order not to fan the flames of “populism” any further.

“Blair’s legacy of suffocating social regulation has mushroomed, but enforcement has grown increasingly patchy.”

In blithe disregard of these developments, Starmer’s proposed “community payback boards” will, we are told, bring together “community leaders” with other officials to determine community service sentencing locally. It sounds cuddly and decentralised; but is Britain still cohesive enough to devolve power in this way? Perhaps not; just recently, Labour MP Jess Phillips had her election speech booed by local pro-Gaza Muslims, in a context of such ferocious harassment and intimidation she didn’t even dare acknowledge its drivers directly, instead pretending to blame it on misogyny. In the context of such ethnic and religious fragmentation, anything that further empowers “community leaders” risks being an open door for tribal institutional capture, and even more accelerated fracturing of the polity.

Let’s hope none of that happens. Who knows? Perhaps Starmer will dredge up enough money to fund the police properly, build enough prisons to keep dangerous offenders off the streets, give “Sure Start for teenagers” the resources it needs, and roll out effective local institutions able to impose and enforce appropriate community service. Perhaps none of this will get politicised, or captured by sectarian “communities”. Perhaps all the muggers and loiterers and shoplifters will either be taken off the streets, or cured of their waywardness, and our streets really will get safer.

I hope they do. But I suspect that policing a radically pluralistic polity requires either hard authoritarianism, or a lot of money for the soft, Blairite kind. Starmer has an ebullient, freshly elected party of Left-wingers behind him, making the former politically difficult. And he has very little fiscal headroom for the latter. In that context, we risk ending up with the worst of all worlds: the same fissiparous polity and squeezed funding as under the Tories, just this time with a rueful grin and a side order of progressive humbug.

If that’s so, no amount of noble rhetoric about rehabilitation will disguise the truth for long. And it won’t really matter whether the label on the bottle says vintage social justice, or just sparkling anarcho-tyranny; the sour taste will be the same.

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