It’s all about crime

There is usually an increase in coverage of crime and criminal justice matters during the Parliamentary recess when political news dries up in August and non-home affairs reporters take their holidays, and this year has been no different.  But even keen crime-watchers might have got a sense that there seems to be noticeably more “shock” cases around at the moment (unprovoked stabbings, people murdered on their own driveway in Kent at 8.20am, teenagers being shot in their own beds, etc.).  And with this in mind, it is no surprise that the popular assumption is that crime is too high, and violent crime in particular is getting worse.

This has been confirmed by a large opinion poll, commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and undertaken every five years.  The really important question asked respondents, without prompting, to name what issues they thought the Government should be dealing with.  The results, including responses from three earlier surveys starting in 1993 are as follows:

At first glance, these results may not look that interesting.  As the DEFRA press release itself states, the top four issues (Crime, Health, Education, Environment) are the same as five years ago.  However, looking in more detail, there are a number of conclusions to draw from this poll. 

The first and most obvious is that crime is the most important issue in Britain today - period.  Not only is it mentioned by one in every two people as the biggest issue the Government should be dealing with, but it has massively increased over the last decade – up almost 20 points since 2001 (to 49 per cent), and more than doubling since 1996-97.  What is striking about this result is that its in direct opposition to the trend in crime rates as recorded by the British Crime Survey (the Government’s preferred measure). 

This divergence is now too great to be dismissed and most would suggest it is the authorities – not the public – who are underestimating this problem.  It is now simply academic (and the smug attitude of too many academics) to try and argue that public “fear of crime” does not relate to actual rates of crime in our society. The police and the Home Office clearly have a big problem when it comes to measuring crime accurately and public faith in the annual crime statistics has sunk very low.  People overwhelmingly think we have a serious crime problem in Britain today and that is all that matters.

Just on the politics of this reality, three thoughts come to mind.  Firstly, those politicians who think this issue is not relevant (because the crime figures are robust and the public have an irrational fear that cannot be assuaged) need to question their faith in the figures.  They should also ask themselves whether their personal experience of crime as a politician is truly representative – in the vast majority of cases, their lifestyle, where they live and their high income will suggest it isn’t.

Secondly, those politicians who think crime is an important issue but support the dated progressive policies espoused by the prison reform lobby and liberal criminologists that emphasis societal explanations and favour “long-term solutions” and “better education” need to ask themselves whether at this rate, as members of our already mistrusted political class, they have the luxury of time? If they want to tackle high crime by spending more money on education and welfare while cutting back on prison places and expanding community sentences, just how many more years of the highest crime rate in Europe do they think the taxpaying British public are willing to tolerate?  If this issue doesn’t deserve effective responses in the present to contain the problem with conventional (and proven) deterrent-based criminal justice responses, most effectively through tougher sentencing, then we can all expect the situation to get worse, and the next poll in 2012 to show an even bigger increase. And this is on the very generous assumption that all other things – especially the health of the economy – will be equal.

Thirdly, certain Conservative politicians and commentators who think “crime” is akin to tax and the EU – a core vote issue that turns people off – couldn’t be more wrong.  Treating it like a fringe issue by not mentioning it, or worse, allowing it to be over-intellectualised and therefore made to look like an interesting social problem for London dinner parties, rather than a daily nightmare for millions of people, will meet with a predictable response.  The figures in this poll should tell Conservatives all they need to know about why David Cameron’s “hug a hoodie” speech (as it was widely reported in the press – even if he didn’t use those actual words) was such a disaster.  When crime is so high in people’s list of priorities, these things cut through and people don’t forget them easily.

Other insights from this poll highlighted some other fascinating shifts in public opinion – and not in the direction you’d necessarily expect.

1. Despite local protests over NHS reorganisation and the closure of some district hospitals, this remains an issue of local controversy not a national political handicap.  After almost 15 years, for the first time the general view in the country has finally shown a fall in those saying that “health / social services” should be the Government’s top priority.  There has been a similar (though less marked) decline since 2001 in education. 

2. Those saying tax should be a top priority has increased every year since 1993, in line with the rising tax burden, and has tripled since 1993.  Unemployment has predictably fallen very significantly since 1993, and is no longer in the top five. In 1993, 46 per cent of people mentioned unemployment but only 9 per cent did so in 2007. This could be partly the result of unemployment becoming less visible.

3. Immigration has exploded as a political priority in the minds of voters.  Not statistically significant in 1993, 1996 or even 2001 (despite notable rows at the general election around breaches of asylum rules), it has now registered as one of the top six issues and is mentioned as a subject the Government should be dealing with by one in every five people.  This has occurred at the same time as mass immigration has accelerated, and particularly following EU enlargement.

4. Despite the current political obsession with climate change and the environment, and saturation coverage of green issues in the media at a level never seen before, the proportions of people mentioning the environment has actually fallen from 25 per cent since 2001.  This would seem to suggest that when compared alongside the “bread-and-butter” issues of health, education and crime, the limits of public concern about the environment is roughly no more than one quarter in these types of poll, and has already peaked.   The rest of the DEFRA poll is largely focused on the environment, with the survey showing that public attitudes to green issues right across the board are far from the metropolitan BBC mainstream.  The Guardian was one of the only papers to report the poll incidentally, and has a fairly accurate write-up of the main environmental questions.

5. On other results, pensions remain an important issue (though down from 2001), and housing has risen in people’s sense of priorities.  The European Union has declined at every poll since 1996, despite the country as a whole becoming progressively more eurosceptic. Europe is now a minority concern.   

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