SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 147 - April 2011


Police cuts: a thinner blue line

BRITAIN FACES the biggest onslaught on public services and cuts in government spending since the 1920s. Every aspect of public spending will be hit by the Con-Dem coalition to one extreme or another, including the operational budgets of the UK’s 43 police authorities.

These cuts are as vicious as those facing workers in many other public-sector departments, with the aim of cutting the overall police budget by a fifth by 2014-15. Police chiefs estimate that this will cut 28,000 jobs – 12,000 officers, 16,000 civilian staff. This is on top of a two-year pay freeze and the threat of increased contributions for lower pensions, as outlined in the Hutton report.

The impact will be felt disproportionately across the country. Police authorities have two separate sources of funding: locally, from the council tax; nationally, from the Home Office. The 20% cut outlined by the government is to the Home Office element. The council tax levy is organised on an authority-by-authority basis. More affluent areas are less reliant on the Home Office for their funding. For example, Surrey police rely on the Home Office for 51.5% of its funding, whereas Greater Manchester police currently receives 87.6% of its funding from the Home Office.

The disproportionate effects this will have on working-class areas will be further exacerbated by legislation introduced by New Labour in the Police Reform Act 2002, which allows for private companies accredited by a police chief constable to provide ‘beat bobbies’ for a fee paid by individual residents to the company. This ‘topping up’ of public services fits the Tories’ conception of how services will look after they have taken the axe to them. Although enacted in legislation in 2002, private security services are only now beginning to patrol the streets, the first being rolled out in Brentwood, Essex. It is probably no coincidence that this falls within the parliamentary seat of local government secretary Eric Pickles.

It is that ethos of privatisation which underpins the coalition’s cuts to police budgets, just as it underpins all of its so-called ‘reforms’. The government is attempting to use the cover of economic crisis to carry out shock therapy and fundamentally alter the way that all public services are provided.

However, these particular cuts have been greeted by a sense of incredulity in some quarters. Blairite journalist, Michael White, wrote in The Guardian: "I’m not sure ministers know what they are doing. At a time of turbulence for British society, I get jittery when I see a government taking on the police. It’s not a mistake Margaret Thatcher made in the 1980s". Many working-class people will remember that bitterly. White goes on: "Her complaint – the old Tory jibe – that Labour tries to solve problems ‘by throwing money at them’ was not applied by her to the boys in blue. The result was that, when they confronted striking miners in the long battle of 1984-85, the coppers waved their overtime slips at the strikers".

Clearly, it is still the case that the police are used to help maintain the present system and put obstacles in the way of working-class and young people’s right to organise, protest and fight back. The university, college and school students involved in last year’s inspiring protests against increasing tuition fees and the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance experienced this first hand. Demonstrators were forcibly kettled for up to twelve hours in some cases. Understandably, among a layer of these young people, there will not necessarily be much sympathy towards the police for the cuts they face.

This raises the question of what position socialists should take. The Socialist Party has been unique on the left in very clearly arguing for opposition to all cuts. We have been firm in explaining that the cause of the current economic crisis is not anything to do with the actions of working people but is a systemic crisis made worse by the grotesque levels of greed on the part of the bankers and financial speculators.

This is the demand which should be raised in relation to cuts to the police force. However, to leave it at that would not be enough. It is also necessary for socialists to raise demands about the character of the police, democracy and accountability, alongside opposing the cuts.

The way that all public services are provided is inadequate and reflects the way the capitalist system is currently organised. For instance, socialists oppose cuts to funding in the National Health Service. But we go further than this. We demand an end to privatisation, the public ownership of the pharmaceutical industry and other steps that would put control and management of the service into the hands of the majority in society, so it could be organised in our interests.

In relation to the police force, these further demands, beyond the immediate headline of ‘no cuts’, are doubly important because of the role that it plays in class society. For instance, many young people would support the call for the immediate disbandment of the Territorial Support Group. This is the central operations unit that specialises in ‘public order containment’, and which perpetrated most of the violence against protesters on the youth and student demonstrations last year. We agree!

Socialists would also call for democratic control over how police resources are used and forces are deployed. It is estimated that the policing of April’s royal wedding will cost in excess of £20 million, the most expensive public police operation in British history. An elected body of representatives from the communities and trade unions with control over the police would likely decide that there are better ways to spend that money.

Bodies of this type should also have control over recruitment to the police. Communities should have the right to demand the removal of police officers who they feel are discriminatory or abuse their positions. Such a level of direct democratic control may seem a stretch from where we are now, but is not without precedent. The roots of the modern police lie in the early 19th century when it was the responsibility of local magistrates, and watch boards were directly elected. These represented the interests of the newly-enfranchised middle-class. What we demand today is for working-class communities to have a say.

Of course, these cuts do not just affect wider society. The individuals in the police force who now fear losing their jobs and worsening pay and conditions will feel the material effect of the proposed cuts. That will have an effect on their political outlook. Already, individuals in the leadership of the Police Federation have raised the idea that police should have the right to strike to defend their jobs, terms and conditions. Police Federation chief, Paul McKeever, reflected this when interviewed before the 26 March TUC demonstration: "The great irony is that officers policing marches like the TUC are actually facing greater detriment than many of those protesting against the cuts. We’re not members of the TUC and have to be careful about having too close an association, though there will be a lot of sympathy towards those marching".

Individuals in the police force come under opposing pressures: from the organisation they are part of and from wider society. This includes pressure from the trade union movement and the working class. Young people on tuition fees protests last year recognised this when they chanted at the riot police: ‘Shame on you, don’t your kids need uni too?’

At a certain point in mass movements, this pressure can weaken the allegiance of the police and other state forces to the capitalist class whose interests they defend. An example of this was seen in Wisconsin, where trade unionists battled against draconian attacks on their right to organise and collective bargaining. When police were sent in to break up an occupation of the Capitol building, they refused, announcing to protestors: "We have been ordered by the legislature to kick you all out at 4:00 today. But we know what’s right from wrong. We will not be kicking anyone out. In fact, we will be sleeping here with you!"

This weakening of allegiance could be on the cards over the next period in Britain. It is something that socialists should actively encourage. It could be helped along by opposing cuts to police budgets and supporting calls for their right to strike and full trade union rights. As outlined above, however, we must not lose sight of the role that these forces play. We must continue, therefore, to advocate genuine democratic accountability and control of the police.

Greg Maughan

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