What happened to us? When did we stop caring about honesty and integrity?
Line of Duty fans will instantly recognise those words: not mine but those of a fictional police officer, Supt Ted Hastings, on hearing that the anti-corruption unit he led was being neutered after finding one bent copper too many. Yet as someone in Keir Starmer’s office presumably clocked on Sunday night, Hastings’ moral indignation at the sight of a “bare-faced liar promoted to the highest office” is an uncanny fit for current political circumstances. The Labour leader too wants voters to see him as an honest cop, the former barrister still dogged in pursuit of justice, and Boris Johnson as a shifty old lag. No wonder that as he cross-examined the prime minister this week over the Greensill scandal, Starmer crowbarred in a slightly laboured joke about needing Hastings on the case.
Tory sleaze itself may not prove a vote-winner for him, no matter how much it stinks. Such scandals tend to remind voters of everything they most distrust about politicians in general, rather than about one party in particular. But law and order more broadly offers richer pickings, which is why you can expect to hear endlessly in coming months about Starmer’s previous job as director of public prosecutions. The party is experimenting with ways of riffing off the idea of a square-jawed Starmer representing the law and his rumpled, somewhat chaotic-looking opponent representing disorder, in an attempt to turn both the leader’s old career and his rather serious, straight-laced manner into an asset.
To some on the left, crime is an issue on which Labour either can’t win or shouldn’t try, lest it be sucked into an unsavoury bidding war with a home secretary who once backed the death penalty. But crime was voters’ third-biggest worry at the last election, after Brexit and healthcare; it can’t simply be ignored. And if Priti Patel cannot be out-toughed on crime then Labour is realising she can be outmanoeuvred.
Following the shocking death of Sarah Everard last month, it was Labour’s Jess Phillips who articulated young women’s anger, while Patel struggled for a credible response. As Starmer said last weekend, Labour is piecing together its own draft bill on violence against women and girls, drawing together long-running campaigns led by several of its female MPs – making street harassment a criminal offence, bringing sentences for domestic homicides into line with those for killing strangers, stiffening sentences for rape and stalking – with ideas on victims’ rights that Starmer himself developed before getting elected. The opposition called for much of this in the wake of Everard’s murder, but the draft bill is a way of owning the idea and challenging the Tories to back it, at a time when the government has little concrete to say pending its own still unfinished review of violence against women and girls. Here is that rare political unicorn, an issue voters care about where ministers seem to be missing a trick and even Starmer’s harshest internal critics struggle to argue. Who on the left seriously opposes tackling a culture where young women daren’t go jogging alone in broad daylight because of the hassle they’ll get?
The next step should be widening the argument out to an underfunded criminal justice system visibly collapsing under the weight of demand. That covers everything from police forces too busy to deal with your burglary, to tortuous delays in even violent offenders reaching court, during which witnesses’ memories fade and (according to research by Claire Waxman, London’s commissioner for victims) some victims drop out rather than live with the shadow endlessly hanging over them. The anonymous prosecutor known as the Secret Barrister recently described a case of serious domestic violence that took almost four years to get to trial, thanks to delays in analysing both sides’ mobile phones – a service so overwhelmed that in some parts of the country there is up to a year’s wait – and a backlog of cases coming to court. That’s four years during which a defendant might start relationships with other women and a victim will be constantly looking over her shoulder. All of this is natural territory for the former head of the Crown Prosecution Service at a time when these stories are critically starting to filter down into ordinary lives.
Those who argue that the rightwing press will never give Labour a fair hearing on such issues underestimate the power of lived experience. After the London Bridge terror attack in 2019, Jeremy Corbyn managed to reach past hostile tabloids with his argument that police and probation cuts had weakened Britain’s defences because that chimed with something people felt they had seen for themselves in daily life. Twenty years earlier, Tony Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” theme resonated with ex-Tory voters angry about petty crime and anti-social behaviour to which their government seemed to have no answer, as well as with Labour voters concerned about the social ills driving offending.
The lesson is that the Conservatives are the natural party of law and order only until they start taking that position too much for granted. Labour has the glimmering now of a story to tell about a government that talks tough on crime but lets victims down in reality, claps for nurses in a pandemic but refuses them a pay rise afterwards, and wraps itself in the union jack while allowing Brexit to push that union to the brink. It’s not enough to win an election; no story is, in isolation. But it might just be enough to win a hearing.
Gaby Hinsliff is a Hlcarpenter.com columnist