SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 142 - October 2010

The police: preparing for battle?

Con-Dem coalition plans to restructure the police have met with fierce opposition from the tops of the police. So, why are the Conservatives, historically the party of the ruling-class in Britain and supporters of a strong police force, bringing forward such measures, seemingly prepared to confront such powerful vested interests? ALISTAIR TICE and IAIN DALTON look at what lies behind these proposals.

BRITAIN’S CONSERVATIVE-LIBERAL coalition government is seeking to implement what has been described as the most ‘radical’ reform of policing in 50 years. Its proposals in the consultation document, Policing in the 21st Century: Reconnecting Police and the People, have been described as efforts to ‘democratise’ the police force and make it more accountable to local communities. All the talk is of cutting bureaucracy, transferring power to the people – David Cameron’s ‘big society’ in action. The headline proposal is for the direct election of powerful new police and crime commissioners, which has already aroused the opposition of senior police officers.

At first sight, the consultation document seems to be dishing out to the Home Office the same cuts treatment that almost all other government departments are facing. The document is awash with references to the police force having "to take its fair share of the challenge" and that "value for money will have to drive everything the police do".

Like other areas of the public sector, the cuts are already beginning, with many police forces freezing recruitment. On 10 September, Paul McKeever, chairman of the Police Federation, warned that around 40,000 frontline policing jobs would be under threat if the Home Office budget was cut by 25%. A previous report commissioned by the Police Review magazine said that around 60,000 police officer and civilian posts would be lost by 2015. In September alone, Hampshire constabulary announced plans to shed 1,400 jobs, a fifth of its workforce, while Kent announced 1,500 posts are to go. Police community support officers are under threat from police funding cuts and cutbacks in council funding, as they are part-funded by both.

Allied to this are proposals to cut ‘bureaucracy’. To an extent, these are almost meaningless populist howls against ‘New Labour red-tape’, but they do include cutting duplication within the police force, such as national procurement of police equipment and uniforms, as well as pushing for police forces to share resources more widely. The document also states: "We want to support organisations that can and do make a difference to communities and not just rely on government as the sole provider". As well as referring to the involvement of local communities, this also is a reference to contracting out certain criminal justice functions to charities and the private sector.

Privatisation was carried on apace under New Labour, with hundreds of private finance initiative (PFI) deals signed for the construction of new police headquarters and facilities, including some police cells run by private companies. Nottinghamshire police contracted out its entire fleet of vehicles in 2001 at a cost of £4 million a year for 25 years, while Cleveland police authority is pushing through a £175 million deal to contract out all support services, including transferring 475 staff. Northumbria police mounted services even privatised their horses!

So there is no doubt that the Con-Dem government wants to make big cuts in the Home Office and police budgets as part of its overall cuts programme. But, as with its health and education reforms, the cuts are also seen as a useful cover to push through a broader ideological and political agenda.

Erosion of social support

WHAT WORRIES THE Tories and sections of the ruling class is the decline in public support and trust in the police over the last 30-40 years. Crime has increased over that period and public concern has continued to go up even when the crime figures suggest otherwise. The Tories exploited this in the pre-election period by attacking Labour for its ‘broken society’. But, now that they are in government, the Tories have to come up with policies to deal with crime, or at least to be seen to be dealing with crime.

The real reasons for increasing crime and anti-social behaviour, however, are rooted in the social effects of capitalist economic crises since the mid-1970s and, in particular, the socially divisive policies of Thatcherism since the 1980s. These have resulted in de-industrialisation, the break-up of traditional occupations and communities, mass unemployment, insecurity, no future for young people, despair and desperation. The police are seen as increasingly unable to deal with the resulting increase in drugs, crime, gangs and anti-social behaviour.

Home Secretary, Theresa May, says that the police have become disconnected from the public they serve and that "only just over half the public have confidence that the issues that matter locally are being dealt with". This is a serious problem for them, because the police need public support to fight crime and, more significantly, to effectively carry out their other function of dealing with the social unrest that could result from the economic crisis and the government’s savage cuts policies.

The other reason for the fall in support for the police is the growing ‘political’ role they have been seen to play over the last three decades or so. As working-class struggles increased in the 1970s and 1980s, the police were more openly used by governments, as in the 1984-85 miners’ strike and against anti-poll tax protesters in Trafalgar Square in 1990. Having used Northern Ireland as a training ground for more repressive policing methods and techniques, these have been increasingly deployed in Britain in the inner-cities, and against environmental and anti-capitalist protests. This more open political use of the police – necessitated, from the ruling-class point of view, by increasing class and social conflict – undermines the appearance of the police as ‘independent’ or ‘neutral’ law-enforcers, eroding their social support in society.

This is even more the case because of the complete lack of any accountability, most recently highlighted by the non-prosecution of any police officer for the death of Ian Tomlinson, an innocent bystander at the G20 protests in London last May, and the non-enquiry into the News of the World phone-tapping allegations because of police collusion with Rupert Murdoch’s business empire. The police, acting as a law unto themselves, undermine public trust in them, which erodes their ability not only to fight crime but to deal with social unrest in the future.

While the threat of social unrest is not referred to in the government’s consultation document, it is implicit in its line of argument. For example, it says that "effective local policing which provides the police with legitimacy and the confidence of their communities is essential for supporting the wider police mission of protecting the public from serious harms and threats".

Far more explicitly, pointing to the recent anti-cuts demonstrations in Athens, McKeever said he was worried that the UK could suffer industrial unrest and race riots over the next few years. McKeever showed the Police Federation conference delegates in May an emotive video that juxtaposed present-day pictures from Greece with television images from 1977 of a National Front march in Lewisham and the Grunwick industrial dispute in north London. He said: "We could have that sort of distress on the streets again… I have real fears we might go back to something like that… history tells us it happens again and again".

Similarly, Derek Barnett, president of the Police Superintendents’ Association (PSA), made the point at the PSA annual conference in September that "when, as history shows us it is inevitable… there is widespread disorder on our streets, it will not be police community support officers, or special constables or non-warranted police staff, journalists or politicians [who will be needed] to restore order on our streets. It will be our police officers".

While these warnings are aimed at attempting to head off big cuts in police budgets, they also show that sections of the ruling class and state are fearful of the industrial and political unrest that is likely to develop over the next few years. It is towards this end of beefing up a politically controlled national police force that can deal with national ‘emergencies’ that many of the consultation proposals are aimed.

Taking on the police chiefs

THE KEY PROPOSALS in the consultation document, which are likely to feature in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill due this autumn, can be broken down into three areas.

Firstly, and what has made most of the headlines, is the proposal for directly elected police and crime commissioners (PCCs) to oversee each regional force, with comparisons made to US-style elected sheriffs. This idea seems to combine a large dose of ‘big society’ populism with an attempt to break the power of Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) over police policy.

The Tories are proposing to scrap the existing police authorities in England and Wales. Instead, PCCs will be directly elected from May 2012 for four-year terms, serving a maximum of eight years. Police commissioners will have wide-ranging powers, including agreeing a local strategic plan, setting the police budget and precept, and hiring and firing chief constables.

As with New Labour’s promotion of directly-elected mayors, the Tories can propose the election of PPCs because, like in the US, there is now no mass workers’ party in Britain. However, this will change in the future and the election of police chiefs could become a political battleground.

While the Tories, short-sightedly, probably do not worry about this at present, they are aware that with the stock of politicians being at an all-time low, it is quite likely that ‘mavericks’ and ‘populists’ could get elected for some forces. So they are also proposing, as a check on the new PPCs, the introduction of police and crime panels, similar to the police authorities they are abolishing, but even less democratic and with fewer powers. So, ironically, the Tories are having to propose more bureaucracy because they do not trust the very elections that they want to be seen as championing! Significantly, they are not proposing elected commissioners for the Metropolitan Police, City of London Police, British Transport Police, Civil Nuclear Constabulary and the Ministry of Defence Police – those forces related to national security.

However, it is through the creation of elected police commissioners that the Tories are trying to break the monopoly of ACPO on police policy. ACPO represents the 360 most powerful police chiefs in the country. Its statement of purpose claims that it "leads and co-ordinates the direction and development of the police service in England, Wales and Northern Ireland", rather than ministers or parliament.

ACPO was initially promoted by sections of the ruling class as a voice for chief police officers – partially to curb the negative impact on public opinion of outspoken reactionary chiefs such as James Anderton in the 1980s – with the head of ACPO automatically being at the head of the National Reporting Centre co-ordinating police strike-breaking and harassment of pickets during the 1984-85 miner’s strike. Since then, ACPO has forced successive governments, especially New Labour, to retreat on plans to reform the police. These Tory proposals aim to reduce ACPOs power of veto and make it more accountable. The police are a key part of the capitalist state, but the ruling class needs them to be under their political control, not a law unto themselves.

Police it yourself

THE SECOND AREA is that of local policing, in which the Tories are proposing what has been described as ‘do-it-yourself’ policing. The consultation paper says that neighbourhood policing is the key to Cameron’s big society: "We want more active citizens taking part in joint patrols with the police, looking out for their neighbours and passing on safety tips as part of neighbourhood watch groups or community crime fighters". May says she wants to see more special constables, whose numbers have plummeted from 67,000 in the 1950s to 15,000 today.

Legislation was originally passed in the 1830s to allow chief constables to call up special constables in response to specific outbursts of unrest – thousands were enrolled in response to the Chartist demonstrations demanding political rights for workers, for example. The role of special constables was further increased in the early 20th century, during the first world war (when specials became a regular part of the police force not just to be called up in emergencies), and in the run up to the 1926 general strike.

And the paper adds that the government wants to go further and explore new ideas to "unlock the potential of police volunteers in the workforce, for example, as police ‘reservists’." It says that they would be a "clear manifestation of the ‘big society’ in action". The public are also to be asked to get involved through "virtual beat meetings" with the police using Facebook and Twitter!

The paper points to more ‘third party’ and private sector involvement. It says: "We will work… to develop a way forward with the voluntary and community sector, including mutuals, co-operatives, charities and social enterprises". These ideas seem like a populist cover for policing on the cheap and privatisation. Alternatively, if the coalition leaders think they will really work, it only proves what a different world the 18 millionaire cabinet ministers live in compared to the rest of us.

Towards a national police force

FAR MORE SERIOUS are the third area of proposals aimed at centralising and strengthening the police, particularly through the establishment of an FBI-style National Crime Agency (NCA).

By 2013 it is proposed that the new NCA will replace the existing Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) set up by New Labour in 2006. The NCA will also take on many of the responsibilities of other agencies, such as ACPO, which is set to lose its influence over operational matters at the national level.

Significantly, counter-terrorism strategy is to become the responsibility of the NCA, and the agency will also be tasked with stepping-up security on Britain’s borders. The police and security forces in Britain already enjoy significant powers that were brought in under the guise of the ‘war on terror’. The Labour government lengthened the period of time during which suspects could be detained without trial, implemented a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy that resulted in the death of an innocent man, Jean Charles de Menezes, and oversaw ever more brutal police responses to protests and demonstrations. The power of the police to stop and search individuals was also expanded.

Although much remains unclear about the extent of the powers which the NCA would wield, the establishment of a national agency would allow for more coordinated and stronger measures to be taken against "threats to the public", as May has described it. She said: "There are some issues of sufficient risk or national importance to warrant national oversight and requirement, and the Home Secretary intends to retain powers to ensure that these are dealt with effectively".

According to the Financial Times, the power to mobilise a national police force could be handed to the new body. Another indication of the character of the new organisation was given when it was revealed that personnel working for the NCA would be known as agents rather than officers.

The reform of the police is not merely the work of the new coalition. It has been under consideration among ruling circles for some time, with a number of think-tanks producing studies into how best to alter the system. One view with which all the reports agreed is that more power over policing must be concentrated at a national level, to tackle issues such as organised crime, ‘terrorism’, and ‘domestic extremism’. Currently, there are 43 local police forces in England and Wales, each of which has significant operational independence.

A study from the Institute for Public Policy Research published last November called for a strengthened national policing agency, whose focus would be very similar to that now being proposed. On the eve of the general election, a report from the Royal United Services Institute urged the incoming government to push forward with reform, the key part of which would be to encourage the merger of police forces, if not the creation of a national body.

While the merger of forces is not proposed at this stage, probably so as not to antagonise ACPO and chief constables even further, national procurement of services and cross-force co-operation will take place. The Tories want to ‘embed’ these reforms into the existing force boundaries, suggesting that mergers and even a national police force are still the direction of travel.

Tension at the top

AHEAD OF THE publication of the government’s consultation document, there was a howl of opposition to these reforms, particularly from the tops of the police and police authorities. Most notably, Sir Hugh Orde, ACPO president, could barely conceal his contempt for the idea of elected police commissioners: "Do they think the public are so interested in policing that they would turn out and vote? And for whom? A politician? Or do they mind if they get a lunatic or a retired copper? All of these questions need to be answered", he said in September last year.

Also, police authority chiefs, in a letter to The Observer before the queen’s speech outlining the new coalition government’s policies, voiced outright hostility to the measures saying that they are "uncosted", "driven by dogma", and "undermined by absence of debate". The letter was signed by the Tory chairman of the Association of Police Authorities (APA), Rob Garnham, who expressed fears that the public "is unaware of the turmoil that may be unleashed by these proposals".

The Liberal Democrat Home Affairs and Justice spokesman, Tom Brake, warned: "These proposals should not be seen as the green light for the election of ‘Judge Dredd’ characters more interested in populism than effective co-operative policing". And, of course, New Labour’s former home secretary, Alan Johnson, opposed the coalition plans as "unnecessary, unwanted and an expensive diversion". But Labour’s opposition is stymied by the fact that it had proposed similar reforms in its own Green Paper in 2008 but dropped them due to institutional opposition.

Much of this opposition is now being concentrated on affecting the detail of the proposals to be included in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill. ACPO and APA pressure has already established checks against maverick or ‘extremist’ police commissioners and won guarantees of ‘operational independence’ for chief constables. However, there is still institutional opposition to the many of these reforms. Of course, vested interests are at stake. ACPO’s power will be reduced and police authorities will be abolished. But there is also real unease among police chiefs about political interference in what is a key part of the capitalist state machine.

Reforms to the police are not the same as those to education, the NHS or other public services. The police are part of what Friedrich Engels described as "the armed bodies of men" which, ultimately, act in the interests of the economically dominant class in society, ie the capitalists. The key positions in the police, army, civil service, judiciary, prisons, etc, are in the hands of people who have been specially selected by education, outlook and conditions of life to loyally serve the capitalists. These institutions remain to serve capitalism while governments come and go, so their tops will resist changes that undermine their position.

However, there is a widespread consensus in ruling circles that the police have become increasingly out of touch and even out of control. As a consequence, their support in society has declined, and this reduces the force’s effectiveness not only in fighting crime but for more overtly political policing against social unrest in the future. The Tories’ reforms are an attempt to arrest political control back over the police in order to try to restore their effectiveness. This is what lies behind the debate and even split between different sections of the ruling class.

Police on strike

THE ESTABLISHMENT OF the first modern police forces from 1829 onwards had such features of political control. These police forces were controlled by watch committees made up of local council members who had absolute powers over appointments, pay and the work of these police forces. After all, the newly formed police were paid for by the newly emergent capitalist class so why shouldn’t they control them?

Yet this position of control over the police force was threatened by two developments in the early 20th century. During the first world war, the National Union of Police and Prison Officers had been formed and led a dispute in 1918-19 over pay, disciplinary procedures and conditions of service. After a Metropolitan Police constable and leading union member was dismissed, a strike began on midnight 29 August which was solid throughout the Metropolitan and City of London police forces. For the year afterwards policemen refused to contribute to strike breaking and, as Robert Reiner noted in The Blue-Coated Worker, "the union’s leaders were all sympathetic to the labour movement, and the latter on the whole was favourably inclined to the ‘democratisation’ of the police force".

This was a serious threat to the interests of the capitalist class. In the words of the prime minister, David Lloyd George, "this country was nearer to Bolshevism that day than at any time since". The government granted concessions but prepared to smash the strike through appointing Boer war veteran, General Nevil Macready, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and preparing a replacement body, the Police Federation, which was elected on the basis of equal one-third representation of constables, sergeants and inspectors, to break the power of the militant constables.

This period was before many workers had acquired the vote – most working men only achieved this in 1918 and many women not until 1928. Over the following years, the power of chief constables and the role of the Home Office in relation to police authorities were dramatically increased. In the immediate aftermath of the strikes, powers of appointment, promotion and discipline were transferred from the watch committees to chief constables. This process was crowned with the 1964 Police Act which abolished watch committees, replacing them with police authorities, as well as almost completing the reduction of police forces from around 200 in the mid-19th century to the 43 that exist today.

The currently existing police authorities are largely toothless bodies – their powers over the appointment of police chief constables and finances are subject to veto by the Home Secretary. Their composition is usually 17 strong, with nine from elected councillors delegated from local authorities covered by the police force and eight ‘independent’, unelected members, at least one of whom is a magistrate, all of which are appointed by the authority itself.

Will these reforms happen?

THE TORIES HAVE already amended some of their proposals drawn up when they were in opposition to accommodate the fears of police chiefs and authorities. They may make further amendments in the autumn bill. But they will push ahead with the main thrust of more political control of the police and moves towards a national police force.

Of course, the Con-Dem coalition could split and be ousted within the next year or two, especially if a mass movement against the cuts develops. However, if Labour was then returned after an early election, it would probably introduce similar police reforms to the coalition’s – probably not directly elected police commissioners but more elected mayors with police powers or directly elected police boards.

Cameron’s big society ideas for DIY policing are not likely to materialise. At best, they are wishful thinking from the shire counties and leafy suburbs; at worst, populist froth that will be blown away by the reality of life in inner cities and council estates. Do coalition ministers really think that tens of thousands of volunteer recruits will agree to devote 16 hours a month of their precious free time to pounding the pavement hoping to catch a criminal?

It is this complete lack of social reality that stands out in the consultation document: 50 pages with no reference to economic or social issues! All that the Tories see wrong with the police they put down to Whitehall interference, New Labour targets and bureaucracy. But crime and social unrest are products of poverty and inequality in capitalist society, something that the coalition cannot admit, but whose policies will make much worse.

These reforms will not and cannot lift public confidence in the police or effectively fight rising crime. What they will do is lead to a more centralised and politicised national police force which will be more openly used by the ruling class against ‘domestic extremism’, in other words, social unrest in the future. This must be opposed by socialists and the trade unions and countered by a programme of democratic accountability and real community control of the police.

The first step would be the establishment of local, democratic committees made up of elected local representatives, which would include representatives of trade unions and community organisations. These committees should control policing priorities as well as having powers of appointment of senior police officials to ensure these officials carry out democratically decided policies. Disciplinary powers should be restored to such bodies, and the Independent Police Complaints Committee, which is mostly made up of ex-police officers rather than really being independent, should be scrapped.

With police officers and civilian staff facing massive job cuts, pension cuts and attacks on shift patterns and pay, the question of real trade union rights, up to and including strike action, will come back on the agenda, alongside the replacement of the Police Federation with a real trade union without a hierarchical representative structure. The cuts will push such groups towards active participation in the ranks of the trade union movement, as was seen, for example, in the participation of trade unionists within West Yorkshire Police on the anti-cuts demonstration in Huddersfield in September. As in the past, the government will attempt to use the police to sabotage workers’ industrial action, but the strengthening of such links would surely undermine this.

Furthermore, the cuts agenda being pursued by the government is likely to make the blight of crime that affects many working people much worse. Undoubtedly, there will be some calls for protection of policing budgets at the expense of other sectors. Socialists reject this. While fighting for the provision of resources to tackle the everyday problems affecting the working class, including crime, we also call for a fundamental socialist transformation of the capitalist society that breeds such problems. This would be possible by releasing the huge resources of society that are currently diverted into the pockets of big business. Putting the most important sectors of the economy into public ownership under democratic workers’ control and management could ensure the provision of decent housing, education and jobs for all and would make a massive start in tackling the fundamental problems of society that lay at the root of crime.


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