As Labour talks about crime, Boris Johnson talks about bees

“DON’T TAKE OUR COPS BORIS” was the splash headline and full-page inside story in last week’s South London Press. It was based on a call by Steve Reed, Labour leader of Lambeth council, who said: “People living in Lambeth are very worried about the recent upsurge in violent, gang-related crime.

“We are calling on London’s Mayor to get real about what’s going on…we need to stop police being taken away from Lambeth to carry out duties in other parts of London. We need you to stop the cuts in civilian staff that mean uniformed officers are left sitting on reception desks instead of patrolling the streets.”

The claim of an “upsurge” in violent crime doesn’t entirely stack up. Over the last year in Lambeth, rapes and murders have risen, but there has been a 6 per cent fall in violent crime and a 24 per cent drop in gun crime. Nor does the claim of a more “recent” rise quite hold water. There were 598 crimes of violence in Lambeth in May 2011, compared with 555 in April and 600 in March. But that is not the point.

Ken is trying to do in 2012 what Boris managed in 2008 – undermine his opponent’s broadly positive record on crime. It’s a totally legitimate tactic, and the smartness of this particular attack is that the words “Ken” and “Livingstone” are nowhere to be seen. Ken is still a turn-off for many voters and using his name would look like electioneering.

Of course, the idea that small changes in police numbers – plus or minus a few per cent – have any effect on crime is facile. Crime started falling in the mid-90s, a time when police numbers were also falling. The rise in police in the last decade didn’t affect the trend much – it carried on
falling at a similar, sometimes actually lower, rate.

But the argument that the Mayor was somehow responsible for the outbreak of kids killing each other (Boris’s 2008 equivalent of “police numbers”) was just as phony – and it worked. We’re talking politics here, not rational debate.

Oddly, if Ken has done a Boris, Boris has sometimes seemed to be doing a Ken. Livingstone failed, fatally, to focus on crime in 2008, instead majoring on what for most voters were second-order issues, like the environment. In the last three weeks, as Labour campaigns hard on police numbers, Boris has been…er…”meeting Peter Andre to help recruit Reading Ambassadors” and…well…”joining his Street Party Ambassador, Barbara Windsor, at the ‘Big Lunch’ festivities on the South Bank.

The top item on the front page of the mayor’s website was, at the time of writing: “London’s bees are in trouble. Find out how you can help them.” I know all this stuff builds the cuddly brand, mate, but it can look, well, gimmicky.

Fortunately, Boris did do something this week that was not the usual microscopic City Hall PR initiative or forgettable B-list photo-op. He wrote a piece about crime for the Sun. It was significant not just because it is the kind of thing he should be talking about, but because it demonstrates his most important and unusual political skill – the ability to craft a message pleasing both right and left.

He targeted his Tory core vote by attacking Ken Clarke’s now-dumped plans for “soft” justice, “short sentences and get-out clauses.” But in the same piece he appealed to liberals with a stress on rehabilitation. “I’ve taken a different approach to the revolving door of offending with the prison wing – Heron – I opened at Feltham Young Offenders Institute,” he wrote.

“On the wing we’ve managed to halve that national youth re-offending rate of 78 per cent by allocating each prisoner an individual “motivational” member of staff who helps them sort out their lives during their jail term, then works with them for a year after their release.”

The Feltham project only started in September 2009, so it seems a little early to make claims about reoffending rates; an interim assessment published by the GLA this month made no such sweeping claims, and the number of offenders so far released – a few dozen – is surely too few to draw such conclusions. It is also a little cheeky of Boris to take entire credit for this scheme – his London Development Agency (soon to be scrapped) is funding the rehab counsellors, but there are lots of other partners too. Again, however, none of that is the point. Politics, not rational debate, remember?

Politically, Boris’s Sun argument on crime is actually quite clever, and more sophisticated than Ken’s one about police numbers. The slogan with which he ends his piece – “No rehab, no release” – has clear and doubtless intentional echoes of the highly effective Blair/Brown triangulation, “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.”

That kind of skill is one reason why the latest poll puts Boris 7 points ahead. But to be sure of winning, Boris needs to spend more time exercising it on the big issues, and rather less time meeting the Bee-List.

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