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Thursday, January 31, 2008 

Sussed out.

There is little more nauseating sight than politicians queueing up to attempt to outdo each other. If you were still harbouring the belief that New Labour under Gordon Brown were going to or had abandoned the policy making by headline way of governing, then yesterday's pathetic display by both Brown and the Conservatives ought to have been enough to shatter that impression once and for all.

The Grauniad's Alan Travis summed the day's events up succinctly, but it more or less came down to this. Cameron gives an exclusive interview to (who else?) the Scum, promising that police will be encouraged to use their powers to stop and search far more frequently, by abolishing the "foot-long" form they have to fill in when they make one and having to have the permission of an inspector or above to make random searches in a specific area. The government instantly replied that was exactly what it was about to do as well, using the Mirror, and more or less making clear that was what Ronnie Flanagan's report on cutting police bureaucracy is also going to conclude. This most pitiful battle royale continued at prime minister's questions, and ended in a similar stalemate.

Cameron's actual interview with the Scum is slightly more conciliatory than it appears at first sight, saying that he will consult with communities on the powers, although whether he'll agree if they come to the wrong predestined conclusion is doubtful. Cameron's argument though more or less amounts to this: I know what's best, and whether you like it or not, you're going to take the medicine.

This is not about race. It’s about stopping crime and reducing the number of victims of crime. The statistics are undeniable and it’s clear by carrying out more stops and searches it is the black and Asian communities who will benefit the most.

I know this is controversial but Britain has changed. We cannot solve a 2008 problem by looking at it through 1980s eyes. It’s a critical debate and one we have got to confront.


The statistics are indeed undeniable. Compared to whites, black and Asians are six times more likely to be stopped and searched. You can argue all you like about whether this is because there's more crime in areas with a higher "ethnic" population or otherwise. I also don't think anyone will deny that the police have changed to a certain extent, thanks partly to the Macpherson report and due to the institution of the IPCC, for example, and also natural wastage, with some of the older guard retiring, but you perhaps ought to ask the black and Asian men routinely stopped in certain areas simply because they're driving a "flash" car for their view on whether the police have changed. As the priest on Newsnight last night said, the first few times those who have been continuously stopped accept it or write it off as acceptable and understandable; when it gets to the fifth or above it's when they start getting angry.

Perhaps far more pertinent than the initial objections based on the proportion of how many black and Asians are stopped compared to whites is another simple fact bared out by statistics. Stopping and searching is about as blunt a weapon against crime as there is, which only very rarely results in charges being brought; what it offers is a deterrent, not anything even approaching a solution, and as a deterrent it's one that turns attitudes against the police that are often never won back again.

But this isn't just a race issue. It's a class issue, it's a youth issue, it goes to the very heart of the debate on the casual slide towards authoritarianism. It's surely not a coincidence that the least likely people to be stopped and searched are white, middle-aged and middle or upper-class, and they also just happen to be the overwhelming occupiers of the Westminster village and the upper echelons of the media. The most offensive thing is that Cameron thought that if he dressed up in the clothes of being concerned about the "black and Asian communities" that they would welcome the de facto reintroduction of the sus laws with open arms. Sure, come on in, shake us down, it's for the
children. This was by far his most laughable argument:

"This is a moment in our history when we have to wake up, sit up and have massive social, political and cultural change. We are never going to deal with it unless we free the police to do far more stopping and far more searching. I am quite clear the current rules have to go."

Every politician has to pretend that this latest outrage demands complete change, so we can't really object to that. What is objectionable is that he somehow imagines that it's the police or stop and searching that will bring about any change whatsoever, except for the worse. He says forget about the 80s, but he surely needs to do the opposite: he needs to learn the lessons from the 80s and realise that those days aren't gone by a long chalk. The clichéd quote is that those who refuse to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, but that sums up what Cameron really ought to do.

Is it really too much to ask that instead of looking for short-term, self-serving solutions designed for political gain, that we invest in intelligence-led policing that targets the criminal rather than the poor sod who just happens to be walking down the street as the plod also happen to be? Today's report in the Guardian from Stockport provides something approaching a model, but it's one that doesn't allow for a soundbite to give to the Scum. That the Tories and the populist press are going for such measures is understandable, that Labour, faced with crime coming down is even contemplating the bringing back of open discriminatory police practices shows that they've abandoned any pretence of correcting the numerous Blairite failings.

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