Shelly Asquith: How Labour can take a lead on tackling knife crime

17th April, 2018 8:10 am

London recently woke to the news that six people had been stabbed in the space of 90 minutes – bringing the total number of suspected murders in the capital this year to 50. Following a sudden, sharp rise in violent crime, Labour has been quick to establish a response. Police cuts have dominated headlines, but communities are crying out for serious, long-term support: the kind that only Labour can deliver.

Emotions have been running high in the party. Each of these recent deaths has occurred in a Labour constituency. In several interviews, David Lammy spoke out, accusing the government and mayor of London of being absent. Frustrations are understandable, but Khan and Corbyn have took steps last week to engage communities and put forward policies to tackle the crisis. The mayor even gathered politicians from rival parties, including Home Secretary Amber Rudd, for a roundtable to discuss areas of shared commitment.

On Tuesday, Jeremy Corbyn also hosted a policy roundtable, involving experts in the field and those directly affected by violent crime. Notably, he was joined by representatives from the Violence Reduction Unit in Scotland, which has seen success in reducing the level of knife crime – particularly in Glasgow. Corbyn stressed the need to put those affected at the forefront of decision-making, saying “we must urgently listen to the communities affected and those on the frontline”.

When a murder rate rises rapidly, politicians predictably want to appear tough. At the start of the week, at London Labour’s local election campaign, both the Labour leader and the mayor put a focus on police numbers and stop and search powers. Sadiq Khan has put 1,000 more Met officers on the streets and created a new violent crime taskforce. Nobody can accuse him of not taking the issue seriously.

Increasing the number of police on the streets will reassure some sections of the public – and it is crucial that Labour shines a light on the devastating police cuts imposed by this government. However, many children and young people simply do not trust the police. That fact has not been helped by a growing rate of deaths in custody, of which young Black men are affected more than any other group.

Nor has it helped that stop and search has for decades been accused of being employed on a discriminatory basis. Black people in England and Wales are eight times more likely to be stopped and searched. Any pledge to place more bobbies on the beat won’t fully wash with a community that doesn’t trust police. So authorities – and the Labour Party – must think carefully before responding to this issue simply by increasing such methods.

An additional policy allows every London school a ‘knife wand’ – a hand-held metal detector, the kind you may have had waved at you at the airport. Teaching unions have been heavily critical of these routine searches however, claiming they will “undermine trust and respect” between pupils and professionals. Teachers are not experts in tackling knife crime, nor are they contracted to carry out searches. Schemes like this are also often rolled out in haste, and without training. For example, the government’s response to tackling what it terms “home-grown terrorism”, the now toxic Prevent Duty, has taught us that a top-down, securitised agenda is not the way to encourage trust in authorities – nor to necessarily reduce crime.

Others have scrambled to point to a ‘cause’ of the crimes. One of the worst takes this week was the offensive suggestion that UK Black music is to blame. Ben Lindsay, who works as a consultant on violent youth crime, argues that no one cause can be singled out. He pointed out that there is often a spike during the school holidays, as young people face a prolonged gap in services and supervision. But he said: “I have never seen a clear strategy produced from any London authority for the holiday period”. This is clearly something Labour could take a lead on.

Youth workers made a similar argument during the summer riots of 2011, demanding an urgent reinstatement of funding. Their calls were ignored. Colenzo Jarret-Thorpe is the National Officer for Youth Workers in Unite. He told me that “in London alone, £145m has been cut from youth services and 800 youth workers have lost their jobs. Young people have been among the first and most impacted groups of government sponsored austerity.” Cuts to youth services are not disputed in the party as a key resource needed to tackle violent crime. Sadiq Khan has previously said: “The only way we can truly beat the scourge of knife crime on our streets is by properly funding youth services”, laying blame with the government for its cuts.

The mayor’s investment of £45m through the Young Londoners Fund goes some way towards addressing this. A pot dedicated to delivering youth services, as well as mental health support; it allows local communities to bid and run initiatives themselves. But when youth services have been cut by 36 per cent on average, it won’t go far enough. We need a government that will seriously step up and commit to reinvestment.

The type of killings of that have occurred recently often take place late at night, when traditional youth services are closed. It is clear that a form of 24-hour support is needed. In another positive step forward, Sadiq Khan has increased the number of youth workers placed in major trauma centres and A&E departments. This will help those who don’t reach the figures reported in the press: those who were stabbed or shot but didn’t die, or who have lost a friend or family member and need psychological support and aftercare. While the murder toll in London this year has surpassed 50, the attempted murder rate is presumed higher. Politicians should be attending funerals, yes; but action on this issue must go deeper than simply looking like they’re doing the right thing.

Sadiq Khan has also called for more pressure on social media platforms to take down videos that glorify gang violence. Some Labour MPs have consistently demanded tougher action on hate speech posted online – so could this now be incorporated into the Reclaim The Internet campaign that seems to have fallen quiet? We need concrete action that goes beyond simply replacing the gun emoji with a water pistol.

Khan’s London Needs You Alive campaign is a hugely positive initiative that should be rolled out further. There are notable figures in music and sport that could be approached to help promote it – on the Underground or in schools, for instance. For young people whose trust in the police is low, the message has to come from somewhere else. Taken to them, rather than it be expected that young people will simply stumble upon positive initiatives themselves.

Families are planning funerals, communities are grieving and young people have few services to turn to. It is crucial that Labour makes light of the Tories cuts to policing, and promotes our pledge to recruit a further 10,000 police officers – one for every electoral ward in the country. This cannot be the main focus if we are to get to the root of the problem, though. That is: decades of neglect, and enforced austerity that is affecting Black, working class communities the most.

Beyond the tough talk on policing, Labour’s leaders have bright ideas that could build trust and save lives. As well as youth services that need reinstating as a matter of urgency, there are incredible grassroots organisations that could – and should – be funded. The solution has to be centred on empowering affected communities; and Labour-controlled councils, both before and after May’s local elections, can go some way in re-prioritising youth work. In opposition, Labour must ramp up pressure on the government to adopt new ideas and adequate funding to services that can help stop the shattering loss of life.

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