Thursday, 16 July 2009

The British Crime Survey and the recession's impact on the working class

Today sees the publication of the 2008/09 British Crime Survey (BCS). The report has revealed that although "the number of murders and manslaughters has dropped by 17% to a 20-year low of 648," a fact that headlined BBC News coverage, "theft has risen in the last year, with domestic burglary up by 1% and shoplifting rising by 10%."

According to the BCS's own summary, "crime as measured by the BCS shows no change compared with the 2007/08 BCS with no change in most crime types," but "people tend to have less negative perceptions about crime in their local area than nationally" whilst "in general those who read ‘popular’ newspapers are more likely to think crime has risen nationally than readers of ‘broadsheet’ newspapers." The reasoning behind such a difference in perception is evident even from a quick glance at newspaper headlines on this story. The Independent says that "killings hit 20-year low," with the Guardian and Times following a similar line with "murder rate lowest in 20 years," and "murder rate at 20-year low" respectively. Meanwhile, the Telegraph announces "burglaries likely to rise for first time in six years because of recession-fuelled crime wave." The Daily Mail follows suit with "Credit crunch crime wave: Theft, burglaries and fraud rise on the back of record unemployment" and the Daily Express story that "burglaries and pickpocketing rocket" is near-identical.

Coverage by the liberal papers, then, conforms to the view promoted by Home Secretary Alan Johnson;
Figures show that the reductions in crime are being maintained and the risk of being a victim is still historically low. Encouragingly, violent crime continues to fall with homicide figures now lower than they have been for a decade and attempted murder also falling. Overall, violent crime with injury is down seven per cent and there has been a five per cent fall in recorded robberies, now at its lowest level since 2002.


Although figures show signs of some acquisitive crimes increasing, the Government is determined to keep these crimes down by continued investment in preventative measures, tough, targeted policing and historically high numbers of police officers.
Whilst the viewpoint promoted by the more conservative press can be summarised by the comments of Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling;
It looks like the Government is trying to cover up the scale of the problem we face with knife crime, little wonder given its policies have failed to get to grips with the challenge.

Massaging the figures on knife crime twice in two years is just an insult to the families of those who have been tragically murdered in knife attacks and who are campaigning for real action to get knives off our streets.

Even ministers now accept they are being complacent about our law and order problems.

Essentially, the "debate" boils down to those who think that New Labour's crime strategy is "tough" enough, occasionally perhaps a little over zealous, versus those who deem the approach "too soft." Even aside from the fact that the possibility that crime policies are in fact too "tough," and that authoritarianism in government is counterproductive in curbing criminal behaviour, is off the agenda, this narrow question fails to address deeper issues.

With regards to the present climate, the effect of the recession on crime levels needs to be examined in greater depth. Each article, of course, mentions the possibility of a causal link in passing, but fails to grasp the opportunity to explore further. Even the Mail, which actually drew attention to this fact in its headline, offered only that "the figures represent a chilling reminder of fears expressed by then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith last year about a recession crimewave" and the suggestion that this "highlights the need for more bobbies on the beat."

What is missing, however, is any attention towards remedying this root cause of an increase in crime. As BBC News reports that "UK unemployment rose by a record 281,000 to 2.38 million in the three months to May," alternative news outlets are covering the discontent and disaffection felt by workers across the UK and, indeed, the world.

Libcom reports that "Long-term trends show that BCS crime rose steadily from 1981 through to the early 1990s, peaking in 1995. Crime then fell, making 1995 a significant turning point.more than 12,000 postal workers are to strike on Friday in a row over jobs, pay and services," as well as a wide array of other actions such as the "unofficial and unlawful" postal strikes in Scotland earlier in the month, a second round of oil refinery walkouts, and tube strikes. The organisation Free SOAS Cleaners has arisen in response to the seizing and attempted deportations of cleaners at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Further examples abound.

The conclusions to be drawn from this are obvious, especially when longer term crime trends are taken into account. The BCS report tells us that "Long-term trends show that BCS crime rose steadily from 1981 through to the early 1990s, peaking in 1995. Crime then fell, making 1995 a significant turning point." "The risk of becoming a victim of crime has risen from 22% to 23% in the last year, having fallen from 40% in 1995." The period from 1981 to 1995, of course, equates to the succesive Thatcher and Major eras, when the British government was firmly committed to the "free" market or, more accurately, unregulated capitalism for the poor and state-socialism with an inflated welfare state for the rich. The societal effects, whereby unemployment soared and the atomisation of individuals caused by massive poverty and desperation saw a radical increase in crime. And nobody could accuse the Thatcher government of being "too soft."

We now risk heading towards a similar situation, as the token concessions offered by Blair to assuage the people and mask his overall continuation of Thatcherism fall apart under the collapse of capitalism's neo-liberal incarnation. But whilst dominant sectors argue over strategic points and address symptoms rather than causes, the working class are now faced with a prime opportunity. If we take it we can, through concerted and radical direct action, seize the agenda from the ruling class.

If we don't, then we might as well just wait for history to repeat itself. Again.