From Soundings special issue 1997
Robin Blackburn has described Labour's victory as
'Blair's Velvet Revolution'.1 Indeed, the new government has surprised
even the most sceptical with its reforming zeal, at least in the range
and rapidity of new measures. Thus, foreign policy is now to be focused
on human rights as well as international development on tackling poverty
rather than promoting the free market. Constitutional reform includes
incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights, as well as devolution
in Scotland and Wales. Attitudes to Europe have been transformed: accession
to the EU's Social Chapter has been accompanied by the less widely noticed
but no less significant signing of the Council of Europe's Charter of
Local Self-Government. Martin Jacques and Stuart Hall, writing before
the election, posed the question 'Tony Blair: the greatest Tory since
Margaret Thatcher?' Are there now grounds for revising that expectation?
Some analysts, LSE Director Anthony Giddens among them, believe that Tony
Blair, with his huge majority, now has the opportunity to 'pioneer a political
philosophy that could influence the rest of the world'.2 Giddens defines
this as a 'third phase' (following the Keynesian welfare state and Thatcherism):
a 'centre-left project', combining a long-term perspective in economic
policy, education and investment, underpinned morally by 'an emphasis
on the traditional family, moral education and to some extent a substituting
of new obligations for rights.' This analysis is, of course, consistent
with Giddens' view that the distinction between left and right politics
no longer signifies, that there are radical problems which demand radical
solutions for which wide cross-class support can be built. There is also
his thesis that globalisation entails a 'risk society' in which a 'positive
acceptance of uncertainty', and the ability to make successful 'investments
in life' are as essential to personal as to national prosperity. Even
Blackburn refers to the 'radical and hopeful note' struck by a number
of cabinet ministers in their early speeches. But Blackburn also points
disquieting strain on New Labour politics that could easily curdle the
hopes which have now been aroused, namely its personalism and authoritarianism.
New Labour has often seemed to exult in populist appeals for punitive
measures - curfews on young people, the harassing of beggars, 'zero tolerance'
and the like. This 'tough on crime' approach often entirely eclipses the
supposed corollary of tough on the causes of crime.
What better area in which to test these fears than Labour's attitude to
crime control and law and order Labour has inherited, in addition to its
£200 billion financial 'black hole,' a sad context for crime control
and law and order policy. As Blackburn notes, during the Thatcher period
Britain became one of the most unequal of the advanced capitalist societies.
Unemployment may be low by western European standards, but the poorest
tenth of the population are actually 13 per cent worse off in 1997 than
they were in 1979, while the richest tenth are twice as well off. A recent
OECD survey put Britain in 17th place out of 21 member states in the proportion
of Gross Domestic Product spent on social security, health and education.
Not only are the poor increasingly excluded from active citizenship; more
and more poor/people are excluded from society altogether. Michael Howard
s 'prison works' strategy, launched in 1992, achieved a new record just
as he fell from power. On 29 April 1997 the prison population in the 135
prisons of England and Wales passed the 60,000 figure - 60,012, of whom
2,580 were women. That is an increase of 50 per cent in the last 5 years.
From mid-April 1996 to May 1997 the prison population rose by 6000, or
11 per cent. From the start of Howard's policy in 1992, the increase was
40,606 prisoners, or 48 per cent. In a context where the weekly increase
is of the order of 250 prisoners, 29 April also witnessed an announcement
that the Home Office is seeking sites for 12 new jails.
Young people - many of whom did not vote in the election - are disproportionately
represented in the prison population. There are more than 10,500 prisoners
aged less than 21. In a recent survey, half of all young men and a third
of women aged 14-25 admitted to having committed a crime.
Britain's prison population is the highest per capita of the general population
in western Europe, but, as in so many other respects, British experience
is in some respects only somewhat ahead of a more general trend. At their
recent 10th annual conference, at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg,
the Directors of Prison Administration of the then twelve EU states noted
an 'internationalisation in European penal practice. There was in all
countries a general increase in the numbers of people sent to prison,
an increase in sentence length, a parallel growth of prison and alternatives
to prison, the toughening of alternatives, the proliferation of new penal
sanctions, and an erosion of welfare and educational facilities in prison
systems. Traditionally liberal states such as the Netherlands and Sweden
have moved in similar directions. There are also disturbing statistics
which show that much of the rise in prison population has to do with exclusionary
policies of immigration control. For example, the numbers of foreign Nationals
in European prisons in the 1980s rose by 297 per cent in Spain, 118 per
cent in Portugal, and 102 per cent in Luxembourg. In Belgium, France,
Switzerland and Luxembourg, more than a quarter of the prison population
is composed of foreign nationals, many of them in prison for breaches
of immigration laws. In France, 85.5 per cent of new offenders are charged
with public order offences, of which about half are immigration related.
In Britain, the increased use of prison as punishment and deterrent also
reflects increased public concern. A study published in May 1997 (the
1996 International Crime Victimisation Survey) concluded that English
and Welsh society is 'one of the most pressurised by crime'; England and
Wales are top of an international crime league of 11 countries including
the US. The statistics show that residents are more likely to become of
victims of crime, be burgled, or have their car stolen, than any other
country in the survey. They also face as much risk from more serious crimes,
including robberies, assaults and sexual attacks, as people living in
It follows that the new government has more than the legacy of Howard
to deal with - and there is without doubt a change of emphasis and a new
language in this area, not least in relation to immigration, as noted
below. The question is whether New Labour is also capable of a decisive
turn away from policies of increasing social exclusion.
The Queen's Speech had nothing to say about prison policy, and only a
few words on law and order. But on 12 June 1997 Alun Michael, the Home
Office Minister, put some flesh on the bones in his speech to the Local
Authority Working Group on Anti-Social Behaviour. He spoke about the proposals
in Crime and Disorder Bill, announced in the Queen's Speech. These were
proposals to improve the youth justice system and to combat disorder in
local communities. 'Disorderly, anti-social behaviour causes alarm and
distresses the public, heightens the fear of crime and if unchecked can
lead to escalating criminal behaviour, he said.
The Bill will be the first major step in implementing our strategy of
zero tolerance on crime and disorder ... What we will do is place a new
joint responsibility on the police services and local authorities to develop
statutory partnerships to prevent crime and enhance community safety by
means of Community Safety Orders. We recognise how plagued many neighbourhoods
are by continual anti-social behaviour by individuals or groups of residents.
He meant, and could have said, that these individuals and groups were
the very same young people so well represented in the prisons.
This sounds as if it reflects a substantive and articulated agenda. It
reflects what Jack Straw was saying long before the election. For example,
in a speech in September 1995 Straw told his audience that... in an increasingly
privatised and private world, street life remains a crucial shared and
free experience, critical to the maintenance of functioning communities
and society'. Furthermore, in a passage which was widely noted, often
with some astonishment, he said: 'Aggressive begging along with graffiti
and in some cities "squeegee merchants" all heighten people's
fear of crime on the streets... the result is a vicious circle in which
people use the streets less, society becomes atomised and community life
Have his views changed? In an interview with Steve Richards of the New
Statesman on 23 May 1997, Straw remained consistent as to his essential
philosophy. However, he did state that the Home Office is not 'just' a
department of law and order, but also a department of human rights. For
example, he had already shown a more humane approach to immigration, 'a
concern for human rights and justice'. Thus, on 5 June 1997, Straw announced
the end of the 'primary purpose rule', to 'make the immigration system
for marriage partners of British citizens fairer and more effective'.
He did not expect a fall in the overall prison population. 'I think we
can stem the rise,' he said, 'but in the short term it will not be possible
to get the figure down.' This means, as he frankly admitted, a continued
reliance on prisons which are not only privately constructed but privately
run. On 20 June 1997 he announced that the government would allow two
more private prisons to be built, and ordered the Prison Service to look
into the use of private cash to design, build and maintain prisons that
would be run by the private sector. In principle, he said, incarceration
should be a direct function of the state. 'However, we live in an imperfect
world, and if the alternative to overcrowded prisons is to go ahead with
this type of contract, we will go ahead with it.' He also wanted the return
of the youth justice system which, he believes, obtained 16 years ago,
when kids were 'caught and dealt with... Now they are not.' He has decided
to form a Task Force on Youth Justice, drawn from the police, social services,
the probation service, the courts, Crown Prosecution Service, the Audit
Commission and others, to advise on changing the system.
He has also announced a rapid expansion of the trial of electronic tagging
as a means of punishing people in the community. This means of enforcing
home curfews would strengthen the community punishments which will be
a major part of the Government's law and order policies.
However, his clearest statement of principle has been that liberalism
in whatever sense plays no part in his vision. 'I don't adorn my approach
to these matters with the adjective "liberal", but I certainly
hope to adorn it with the adjective "effective". Some of my
critics are trapped in a past that doesn't take account of today's realities.'
This should not, of course, be taken to mean an absence of philosophy.
In New Labour terms, Straw is orthodox and consistent. Straw's 1995 remarks
were matched by Blair's December 1995 radio interview, in which he responded
to the stabbing of a London head-teacher by describing a 'new barbarism'
on the streets, and arguing for the 'goal of vibrant, operative communities'
where people would accept responsibilities and look after each other.
The 1995 Policy Document Safer Communities, Safer Britain: Labour's Proposals
for Tough Action on Crime announced that 'We are now the party of law
and order. The breakdown of law and order is intimately bound up with
the break-up of strong, cohesive local communities...' New Labour was
committed to 'rebuilding communities and reclaiming the streets for ordinary
people.' New Labour did not invent the rhetoric of community. Phil Scraton
has traced the way in which a new language of ‘community policing'
was deployed, in particular by the then Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall,
John Alderson.3 His objective was to establish 'democratic communal policing'
which would respond to the 'common good' of communities and create 'domestic
peace and neighbourly trust'. Lord Scarman's 1981 Report following the
Brixton riots endorsed 'community policing', especially specialist training
for Community Liaison Officers; the return to neighbourhood 'beat' systems;
close contact with community agencies; self-help groups; and community
The cosy rhetoric of community seems inevitably to carry with it its harsher
corollary. By the mid 1980s the rhetoric of community policing, Scraton
points out, dominated British policing, and community consultation became
a statutory obligation under the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act.
But, far from heralding a new dawn in police-community relations, it was
welcomed as providing a new dynamic of social regulation: behind the rhetoric
of prevention, the police could achieve greater regulation and discipline
within communities identified and targeted as problems. The police have
labelled, targeted and pathologised groups as 'criminal', 'violent', 'militant';
terms such as the 'dangerous classes', the 'underclass', the 'political
subversives' and the 'sexual deviants' have become institutionalised.
It has been argued by McLaughlin and others that the central state has
created a formidable discourse which employs terms such as 'community'
and 'consumer' in a new way.4 Thus, the concepts of community, representation
and participation have become repositioned, successfully heading off demands
for democratic control of the police, and contributing to 'the institution
of a totalising community-wide policing strategy, involving the local
Indeed, New Labour's rhetoric of community is inextricably coupled with
the targeting of dangerous, even barbaric, individuals and groups. This
is the inevitable consequence and counterpart of the communitarianism
which they have espoused, which is based on a distinctive philosophical
The source of this philosophy is well known: the 1994 book The Spirit
of Community: The Reinvention of American Society by Amitai Etzioni.5
Etzioni's communitarianism is militant and overtly programmatic. He focuses
on three areas of concern. First, the shoring up of morality in civil
institutions such as the family, school and voluntary associations; second,
engagement with and reversing of the problem of 'too many rights, too
few obligations'; and third, the assertion of the importance of the public
interest as against special interests in political life. In the preface
to his 1995 British edition of The Spirit of Community, Etzioni describes
the politicians, like Blair and Straw, who have so enthusiastically taken
to his ideas, as 'visionary people who have seen the power of a compelling
set of ideas whose idea has come'. These ideas include, of course, the
much-hyped 'parenting deficit'.
Etzioni puts forward his own ideas on law and order, and 'public safety',
with the aim of enhancing obligation and 'shoring up our moral foundations'.
He supports community policing and crime watch schemes. For first offenders
only, he recommends a strategy of public humiliation to allow re-integration,
since it would 'serve to underscore society's disapproval of the crime
committed rather than of the people themselves... Temporarily marking
out those convicted in open court, after due process, seems a legitimate
In a large article which appeared in The Guardian on 28 June 1997, Etzioni
expands on these ideas, in the British context. He is rather opaque in
his qualified support of community policing, which, he says, '...does
not quite cut it. While it is helpful to move more police on to the beat,
it is also necessary to change the demographic composition of local police
forces so they will not differ too much from the communities they are
supposed to co-operate with'. Addressing liberal concerns, he adds: 'Stigma
is a useful device for addressing criminal behaviour, unfortunately it
ruffles the feathers of liberals'. But 'negative sanctions are unavoidable.
Stigma is the least costly and the most - yes, the most - humane'. He
is careful to stress that his proposals are 'not intended to supplant
the conservative's law and order measures or the liberals' job-creation'.
Communitarianism is presented, in a curious echo of Giddens, as above
or beyond mere right-left politics.
Etzioni's Communitarian Network has achieved considerable success in the
US. Its sales-pitch is seductive, especially to a disoriented left, not
least because of its careful distancing from the political right. This
is how the Network presents itself:
The easy part is identifying what has gone wrong with America: the pendulum
has swung too far toward a preoccupation with individualism. Too many
people shirk their communal and civic responsibilities. Special interest
groups have gotten out of hand. Moral agreement has crumbled. The difficult
part is finding effective ways to restore social and moral consensus without
a small group of people imposing a set of behaviours and values on all
of us. We need ways to restore the family, without reviving a 1950s mentality;
to stop criminals and drunk drivers, without opening the door - even a
crack - to a police state; to curb the spread of AIDS, while protecting
privacy. In other words, to restore social responsibilities and a commitment
to community, without puritanism or authorit¬arianism. This centrist
philosophy is at the core of the communitarian movement.
The Network has carried out its own opinion survey. Its findings, while
surely not to be replicated in the UK, are illuminating, in that they
throw some light on the reasons for the success both of Bill Clinton and
Tony Blair in their recent elections. A random poll of 792 people, conducted
by the Survey Research Center at the University of Maryland in October
1996, found that 54 per cent agreed with the communitarian position that
individual rights should be balanced with social responsibilities. Only
15 percent believed that the main focus should be the vigilant protection
of individual rights against government intrusion, while 26 per cent said
that what was most needed was to live up to social responsibilities.
Asked what they considered to be the major source of America's social
problems, 45 per cent indicated that the source was moral, while only
28 per cent saw it as political and 17 per cent as economic. That is precisely
the sentiment to which Blair and Straw appeal.
The survey also addressed specific social institutions, such as the family.
58 per cent of those surveyed favoured the two-parent family where each
shares responsibilities equally, while only 24 per cent preferred the
social conservative concept of having the mother stay at home and the
father work, and 17 per cent said they did not prefer any one family structure
to another. On the issue of poverty, 48 per cent of those polled felt
that the community should be the primary source of assistance to the poor,
22 per cent preferred a libertarian position of allowing the poor to work
their way out of poverty, while another 22 per cent would leave the problem
in the government's hands. There were similar findings with respect to
education. 63 per cent supported the communitarian position that state
schools should teach shared values. Only 10 per cent were against such
education, while 22 per cent preferred instruction in religious values.
In a recent interview with John Lloyd in the New Statesman, Etzioni claimed
he is probably right - that the new Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution
reflects his influence, in its insistence that the goal of the party is
to create 'a community where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we
owe'. However, he is cautious about reform, particularly constitutional
reform, in the British context, which he believes to have achieved an
approximate balance. He does consider that Britain, and the US, should
entrench social and economic rights; 'The gap between rich and poor is
too great. It is destructive of community. You can't get equality and
you don't want it. But you should make things less unequal'. Then he adds:
'The best way to go for that is through dialogue'.
In other words, Etzioni's politics are entirely consistent not only with
Giddens 'third phase', but also with the contention of many theorists
of postmodernism that ethical and political problems are to be resolved
discursively, through a re¬arrangement of language. An example is
Etzioni's June 1997 International Herald Tribune article, in which he
argues that introducing a multiracial category into the US census would
'help soften the racial lines that now divide America by making them more
like transitory economic differences rather than harsh, immutable caste
lines'. This short passage contains some surprising assumptions as to
the causes of both racism and poverty.
Etzioni's approach has been widely criticised - see Hughes important article.6
Anna Coote, formerly of IPPR, now special adviser to the DSS, has argued
that this brand of communitarianism does not tackle the uneven distribution
of power around divisions of gender, class, 'race and generation: 'The
argument that the roots of underachievement and deviance can be traced
to past injuries and impacted layers of exploitation' can be lost in the
quest for moral responsibility for 'failure'. Lasch believes that the
logic of Etzioni's argument leads to 'the regimentation of opinion, the
repression of dissent and the institutionalisation of intolerance, all
in the name of morality'.
For Clarke, the use of the word 'community' could be a prescription for
bigotry and parochialism, 'given its attempt to resolve the complexity
and antagonisms of an increasingly diverse population through the ideological
device of a "regressively imagined people" which excludes "aliens,"
"lone mothers" and the "underclass" from its naturalised
From a liberal, or Liberal Democrat, position, the issues are clear. Conrad
Russell writes in New Left Review of an interview he conducted with Jack
Straw in June 1996. He says he was not much worried about 'communitarianism'
or 'social authoritarianism until he asked Straw about his curfew proposals.
Straw assured him that these proposals could not possibly be authoritarian,
since they would not be impositions from above, but would instead be empowerments
of the local community. For Russell, the 'notion that nothing a community
does to its members can be authoritarian is positively breathtaking.'
However, arguments for a 'progressive communitarianism' have been gaining
ground on the left. For example, Michael Walzer has propounded a vision
of ‘critical associatiomsm' in which citizenship would mediate the
other attachments an individual has and cut across them, in an inclusive
fashion: 'It would appear to be an elementary requirement of social democracy
that there exist a society of lively, engaged, and effective men and women
- where the honour of "action" belongs to the many and not the
few' This approach is one of several which criticise liberal individualism,
whether from a Marxist or more religious - Catholic - standpoint.
Indeed, it is a concern for ethical questions, and the rejection of the
social atomism and egoism of liberal capitalism, which provides the core
of attraction for Etzioni as well as for New Labour. This also induced
the financier and philanthropist George Soros to launch his recent attack
on the dangers of unregulated capitalism. It is highly likely that similar
sentiments motivated large numbers of those who voted Labour on 1 May
So what about the critique of New Labour's law and order and crime control
policies? One source of such critique is the critical legal studies movement,
which, in Nicola Lacey's words, is 'specifically concerned to dig beneath
the surface of legal doctrines and practices; to go beyond a project of
explication and rationalisation and to interrogate the deeper political,
historical and philosophical logics which underpin the power of law'.8
Referring to the new relationship between the ethical and the political
captured within the discourse ethics of Benhabib and Habermas, as well
as Maclntyre's analysis of a contemporary world 'which has progressively
evacuated the questions of the moral, the good, the virtuous from political
life', she recognises the sense of loss and nostalgia expressed in such
arguments, but does not neglect the feminist legal scholarship which concludes
that there is 'a need for practices which express values and attachments'.
In an extension of such feminist positions, Beatrix Campbell has argued
that the possibility of’ community' or a 'progressive communitarianism'
rests in the hands of women: 'Solidarity and self-help are sustained by
networks that are ... open, expansive, egalitarian and incipiently democratic.
Their challenge is to the systems that bear upon their daily life. Crime
and coercion are sustained by men. Solidarity and self-help are sustained
by women. It is as stark as that'.9
Lacey's own conclusion is one with which I would agree: '...the idea that
there are ethical arguments which bear on law and its reform, and indeed
that law could be less unjust and unethical than it is, remains central
to progressive legal scholarship'; to which she adds-that '...as Marxists
saw, the deep reconstruction of the legal has to be premised on the reconstruction
of economic, political, social relations: on massive changes in the configuration
of power at every level.'
New Labour seems to be committed to a studied indifference to relations
of power and oppression in contemporary society. This is manifested, for
example, in the location of the source of social crisis in parental irresponsibility,
or in the malicious wrong-doing of barbaric individuals or groups. The
logic of this position is the social censure and exclusion from society
of those who will not take responsibility, or persist in deviant behaviour.
It can only lead inexorably to further growth in the prison population,
and to still further loss of public confidence in or support for law enforcement
agencies and the courts. Few expect, or even consider it desirable, that
New Labour should adopt a Marxist perspective. Nonetheless, moralism that
is not firmly connected to an analysis of the deep structures and causes
of exclusion and oppression is likely only to lead to an ever more authoritarian
and regressive style of government.
1. R Blackburn, 'Reflections on Blair's Velvet
Revolution', New Left Review, 1997.
2. A Giddens, 'Centre left at centre stage', New Statesman, May 1997.
3. P Scraton, 'Community Policing in Britain: Context and Critique', Statewatch,
4. E McLaughlin, Community Policing and Accountability, Avebury 1994,
cited in Hughes (note 6).
5. A Etzioni, The Spirit of Community, Fontana 1995.
6. G Hughes, 'Communitarianism and law and order', Critical Social Policy,
7. A Coote, 'A Bit Too Much of a Prig and a Prude', Independent, 3.7.95;
C Lasch, 'The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy', Norton
1995; J Clarke, 'Public Nightmares and Communitarian Dreams: the Crisis
of the Social in Social Welfare', paper, Berlin 1995; M Walzer, 'The Civil
Society Argument'-, in C Mouffe (ed), Dimensions of Radical Democracy
- all cited in Hughes (note 6).
8. N Lacey, 'Normative Reconstruction in Socio-Legal Theory', Social and
Legal Studies, 1996.
9. B Campbell, Goliath: Britain's Dangerous Places, Methuen 1993.