SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 163 November 2012

Police elections window-dressing

ON 15 November, elections will take place in England and Wales of new police commissioners. With polls suggesting a 20% turnout, queues at polling stations are unlikely. For the Con-Dem coalition, the timing of these elections is not good. They come in the aftermath of the Hillsborough Independent Report, exposing industrial scale police corruption, undermining the government’s attempts to inject new credibility and public confidence in the police.

The combined effect of funding cuts and the shooting of two police constables in Manchester has intensified the turmoil within police ranks. An unprecedented demo of 35,000 police in London took place in May. Calls are being made for the formation of a genuine trade union, including the right to strike.

The revisiting of the Hillsborough events – when 96 Liverpool football supporters were crushed to death – is a further dramatic shattering of the authority of the British capitalist establishment. This had already been undermined by the MPs’ expenses scandal, the Levenson inquiry into illegal phone-tapping, last summer’s riots and the worst economic crisis since the 1930s.

Attitudes towards the police are mixed. Enormous anger at the corruption exposed by the Hillsborough report, alienation among many youth from constant harassment through ‘stop-and-search’, the bitter experience of student protesters and others kettled on demonstrations, trade unionists’ anger at arrests on picket lines, exist alongside the desire among working-class communities to tackle the problems of crime that blight many areas.

In the face of growing scrutiny, the state is sounding alarm bells. Following the G20 protest in 2009 when Ian Tomlinson died after being hit and pushed to the ground by police, the chief inspector of constabulary, Denis O’Connor, said that "British police risk losing the battle for the public’s consent if they win public order through tactics that appear to be unfair, aggressive or inconsistent. This harms not just the reputation of the individual officers concerned but the police service as a whole".

The police are a key component of the capitalist state which, ultimately, upholds the interests of the ruling class. However, capitalism attempts to hide this reality by cloaking the police in democratic window-dressing, claiming that their role is to serve the wider interests of society. The elections are part of an attempt to give this pretence a fresh lease of life.

These attempts are struggling to counter the real experience of wide sections of the population to the reality revealed by events such as Hillsborough. From the horrific scenes in 1989, almost a quarter of a century passed before the establishment was pushed kicking and screaming into acknowledging the views of the families and the city of Liverpool that the police authorities were culpable what took place.

What has been revealed is a cover-up that engulfs not only the police but also the governments of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair which attempted to place blame on Liverpool fans. A colossal 164 police statements were altered, 116 to remove or change negative comments about the policing. This operation goes to the very top of the police, government and their cronies in the media.

Only the mass pressure of families, Liverpool fans and the wider working class has forced the Tory prime minister into an apology in parliament. The lessons of Hillsborough are that only independent action by working-class people will get to the truth and expose the hypocrisy of the establishment, reveal the true political character of the police and be the basis for winning important democratic checks on the police.

Hillsborough represents living proof of the real nature of the police as a tool of the capitalist state. This is accepted even by sections of the establishment. The editorial of the Independent on Sunday said: "The Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 people died, is an issue of class: of how people with power treat those without a voice when they are able to get away with it". (16 September)

The hope raised now is that justice will be done. The omens, however, are not good as the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) is wheeled out to conduct the inquiry. Previous investigations by the establishment into the police have meant systematic cover-ups to protect police officers from court and custody.

Formed in 2004 to replace the Police Complaints Authority, the IPCC’s failure to deal with deaths at the hands of the police has led to widespread criticism over such cases as Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson. The Economist noted at the time of the latter’s death that "no policeman has ever been convicted of murder or manslaughter for a death following police contact, though there have been more than 400 such deaths in the past ten years alone". (16 April 2009) The IPCC’s ten operational commissioners and two non-executive commissioners are appointed by the home secretary. The chair is appointed by the crown on the recommendation of the home secretary. This is a body independent in name only.

The idea that electing representatives of the very parties that have supported the decades-long Hillsborough cover-up – mired in the expenses scandal and who are the representatives of austerity – will restore some credibility to the authority of the police is a forlorn hope of the political establishment.

These elections will not tackle the crime or social problems prevalent in working-class communities. The growing anti-cuts movement, led by the trade unions with the involvement of socialists, will have to tackle the issues of crime and the police response.

In working-class areas the response to poverty-fuelled and drug-related crime generally amounts to blanket repressive measures, such as curfews and the widespread harassment of the community, especially the youth. Combined with the harsh sentencing of offenders, the police and government aim simply to clamp down on society. Such an approach completely fails to deal with the causes of crime and generates widespread resentment.

Socialists and the trade unions need to oppose measures such as curfews, stop-and-search, etc, with increased democratic accountability of community policing. There should be democratically elected committees of local representatives, including from trade unions and community organisations. They should control policing priorities and have powers to appoint senior police officials and make sure they carry out democratically decided policies. They should also have disciplinary powers. The IPCC should be ditched. This has to be combined with campaigns for improved community facilities, especially for the youth, alongside demands for jobs, training and affordable housing.

Tensions within the state are growing at all levels, with the political establishment attempting to subject the police to greater control against the pressure of the Association of Chief Police Officers, who are critical of the elections and the ‘politicisation’ of the police. Equally, among the ranks of police officers facing cuts to jobs, pay and working conditions, the demonstration in May reflected increasing anger towards the government. Calls are growing for a genuine trade union to replace the Police Federation, with the right to strike.

While police strikes have not been seen in Britain since 1918-19, evidence across Europe is clear of the impact of growing social and political movements on the police. In Greece, sections of the police have gone on strike and have protested against the repressive action of the riot police. Army officers have also demonstrated, indicating splits within the state forces.

Huge struggles of the working class and youth are set to unfold in the coming period. These will create the conditions for building a new mass workers’ party to challenge the austerity agenda. Alongside the struggle for jobs, a living wage, pensions, benefits and affordable housing, demands will grow for increased democratic rights.

Calls will grow for an end to the draconian anti-trade union laws, to end the widespread harassment of youth, and to challenge the brutal and semi-dictatorial powers of the police and courts to intimidate

anyone who dares to fight back. Socialists will support these demands and link them to the urgent task of building a new society, a socialist society, which will eradicate the social conditions that give rise to crime and the need for a repressive state police force to protect the interests of the 1%.

Nick Chaffey

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