From the October 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard
The recent spate of gun and knife crime has been taken as evidence that the country is descending into a chaos of uncontrolled violence
There are lies, damn lies and statistics. And beyond that there are the criminal statistics, which are supposed to tell us how much of which crimes have been committed during whatever period but which are so beset by misreporting, faulty mathematics and at times political manipulation as to be pretty well worthless. For example, some offences are not reported because the victim sees no point in doing so; ask someone who leaves home in the morning to find their car has been broken into whether they will tell the police and you are likely to be treated to the kind of pitying smile usually bestowed on the stupefyingly naive. Or ask the same question of someone who has picked up a black eye in a Saturday night fight at the pub and prepare for the scorn at such a slur on their resilient stoicism. Examples like these are drawn together in some of the statistics; between 1995 and 2005 reported serious wounding incidents in England and Wales rose by 50 per cent but some 70 per cent of that type of offence are not reported.
The recent spate of gun and knife crime – including high profile murders such as that of the 11-year-old Rhys Jones in Liverpool, apparently by another young person – has been taken as evidence that the country is descending into a chaos of uncontrolled violence, overwhelmingly the work of gangs of young feral psychopaths hiding their faces under hoods and escaping on mountain bikes while their victim dies on the street – or, in some cases, in their own home. “There is no doubt” said Enver Soloman, Deputy Director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies recently, “there are more kids carrying knives, but it’s not clear why”. In the first eight months of 2007 no less than 17 teenagers were shot dead in London alone, six of them between February and August. The response has been predictable, from the tabloids and from opposition politicians: the government must shake themselves out of their apathy about crime, employ more police officers and encourage courts to send more people to prison for longer terms (a suggestion which the courts have eagerly taken up). In fact New Labour can hardly be accused of complacency about crime; since they came to power in 1997, energised by Blair’s promise to be tough on crime they have added some 3000 offences to the statute book – which means that behaviour which was recently legal will now land you in trouble with the law. At the same time the choice of sentences available to the courts has been extended, for example there is the Indeterminate Sentence which in theory can result in someone doing life for an offence which once attracted a term of imprisonment of only months. And as a result the prisons are crammed and inmates are forced to spend time in emergency cells in police stations and court houses.
This is the kind of mess likely to cost some politicians a lot of votes and to win lots for others. Hoping to be among the latter is Tory leader David Cameron. It is only just over a year ago - in July 2006 - that, in his efforts to establish himself as a new breed of boss of the nasty party, he drew on the insight into the struggles of working class life instilled in him by an Eton education and a posh address in Notting Hill to declare that everyone else had misunderstood the problem of youth crime and that we have to show a lot more love to the people who commit it: “ hoodies are more defensive than offensive. They’re a way of staying invisible in the street. In a dangerous environment the best thing to do is keep your head down, don’t stand out. For some, the hoodie represents all that’s wrong about youth culture in Britain today. For me, adult society’s response to the hoodie shows how far we are from finding the long-term answers to put things right. So when you see a child walking down the road, hoodie up, head down, moody, swaggering, dominating the pavement – think what brought that child to that moment ”. Having spent the last year or so reflecting on this slice of wisdom and spurred on by the latest news of violent youth crime, Cameron has decided that a different approach would be more voter-attractive: no longer in favour of understanding hoodies, on 22 August he lashed out at what he called the rising tide of youth violence and anti-social behaviour: “Common sense suggests that with young people you need to hit them where it hurts most: in their life style and their aspirations” was how he revealed his conversion to a more traditional style of vote chasing with a proposal that young offenders, apart from any other penalty imposed on them, be disqualified from applying for a driving licence. He is apparently under the impression that seasoned practitioners of anti-social behaviour would be impressed enough by such a restriction to persuade them to do as the court and a Tory leader wanted.
Apart from its other defects, Cameron’s suggestion does not have even the merit of being original; in fact it has been in the law since 2004. The same is true about his other proposal, that magistrates courts be able to impose a maximum of twelve months imprisonment instead of six as they are at present. His other views are also stale and impotent, such as his ranting about “moral decline” and a “broken society”, but we must excuse him on the grounds that he also needs a lot more love as a politician desperate to keep his fragile control of his party, knowing that an election defeat would probably see him go the same way as Hague and Howard. The assumption that tougher laws must reduce crime is based on confusion between punishment and an orderly, controlled society, as if putting a new law on the statute book will discourage some types of behaviour and stimulate others – which is not supported by what has been happening over gun and knife crime. There is no doubt that this is a serious problem, which makes life in some places even uglier than it is at present. But apart from the bogus, unhelpful media outrage the reality is that children and young people are the human product of the society they are born into; when so many of them behave so destructively there must be questions about the nature of that society, why it works as it does and the effect on its people.
What is the attraction for young people in gangs (according to the police there are 18 in London alone)? In numerous interviews with reporters and others it has emerged that the gang offers safety, a sense of belonging, of rank and of inviolability – which are obviously missing in the lives of many who are facing the prospect of growing up in a class society where they must reconcile their own denial with the privileges of the other class. A police schools officer operating in the territory of two Liverpool gangs put it: “A lot of them see that life has just left them by+Most of them can’t even read or write+” So far none of the interviewers has pointed out that the values of the gang – loyalty and invulnerability maintained with aggression against those outside – are invaluable requirements in the armed forces, for example among the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan or wherever they are at arms in the defence of the interests of the ruling, privileged class. The analysts, commentators and experts probe for presentable stratagems to repair what they define as gaps in social morality but they pay little useful attention to some of the real hard facts about violent crime.
When, as has happened recently, there is an incident of a gun or a knife being used to kill in a place like Letchworth or Bishop’s Stortford the shock and anger is mixed with bewilderment that something like that can happen in places with a reputation for being green and tranquil. That was a response to the fact that such offences flourish in areas like the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Liverpool and London - where the population is concentrated and the pressures of urban capitalism are especially acute. Within London, for example, the boroughs with the highest levels of gun and knife crime include Hackney, Lambeth and Newham and those with the lowest include Bromley, Sutton and Richmond on Thames. A Council report (Mind The Gap — Strategy To Reduce Inequalities And Poverty 2005) from Hackney, which is about the poorest borough in the United Kingdom, described high rates of infant mortality, cancer, heart disease and mental illness. A Public Health Report from Newham Council for 2006 said the borough has the lowest male life expectancy in England, that 64 per cent of the children there were officially in poverty and 41 per cent of the population were “economically inactive”. Lambeth’s Economic Development Strategy for 2006/10 described it as “among the most socially and economically deprived local authority districts in the country” and set out the link between such conditions and youth crime: “The social and economic pressures faced by young people in a world city can create tensions in some local communities where high levels of crime exist alongside a growing informal economy”.
Does all this matter? Can’t people simply drag themselves up from the deeper levels of poverty, go to evening classes, get a degree, end up as Chairman of one of the Big Five banks? Take the case of Learco Chindamo, who as a 15-year-old gang leader killed head teacher Philip Lawrence outside his school in Maida Vale, when Lawrence was defending 13 year old William Njoh from attack by Chindamo’s gang. There was a great deal of unhelpful media froth about the crime and more recently when the government was legally prevented from deporting Chindamo at the end of his sentence, which obscured the fact that, when he killed Lawrence, Chindamo was unable to read or write and all that was known about his absent father, a hardened and ruthless criminal, was that he was either in prison or on the run from Interpol. The intended victim of the attack, Njoh, subsequently dropped out of school and committed crimes such as robbery and possession of a pistol and ammunition, which brought him long custodial sentences. It is evident that the background to Chindamo’s offence was one of widespread poverty, hopelessness and alienation – and that Philip Lawrence paid for it with his life.
Challenging the popular notion that, in face of the evidence of an increasing incidence of knife-related robberies there is a policing or punishment solution, Richard Garside, Director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, insisted that the problem will require an approach which recognises that “the social antagonisms caused by poverty and inequality are the key”. This a valid comment but it needs to be taken further. The key to social antagonism, poverty and inequality is in the fundamentals of this social system, in the class monopoly which secures and enriches a minority and impoverishes the majority. Politicians who are preoccupied with their next vote will take care not to emphasise that reality – it is more advantageous to stimulate and exploit the latest hysteria. And as long as such a superficial attitude is allowed the problem will endure and there will continue to be blood on the streets.