ANOTHER VIEW: Good neighbours start here

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The Independent Online
For one so involved in public affairs, Anna Coote displays surprising naivety about that distillation of high ideals and gut instinct that should make up any political party's policy. In her polemical essay in yesterday's Independent against Tony Blair's alleged "flirtation with communitarian ideas", she implies that Mr Blair, and the rest of us, decided to "crack the whip on the community" because "we can do little to control interest rates", and that we have "calculated" that a tough line on "crime and the family" could win more plaudits from the media than appeals for understanding, preventive measures and tolerance.

Let us take as a test Labour's proposals for a new criminal offence of un-neighbourly behaviour, which Ms Coote derides as "authoritarian" but which have already gained widespread support. These proposals are indeed tough. They include a"community safety order", a special form of injunction to restrain criminal, antisocial behaviour that has not been curtailed by the existing process of the law.

These proposals were based on the fact that the criminal law provides no effective remedy for those law-abiding citizens whose lives have been wrecked by bad neighbours. Let us understand what we are talking about: "While the family watch television, the front door is kicked in, the perpetrators walk into the sitting room, switch off the television and walk out with it. As they leave, they inform the owners that they are 'dead meat' if the incident is reported to police." That is the narrative of one lawyer familiar with this behaviour, which is commonplace across the country.

In my Blackburn constituency, this has not yet happened, so far as I am aware, but the terrorisation of neighbourhoods, the torching of vehicles and the intimidation of those who go to the police certainly has. It was this practical experience of my constituents' misery and despair that led me to develop our proposals.

Of course, I understand the social conditions that contribute to this kind of unbelievable behaviour. Labour intends to tackle these. Meanwhile, is it not the duty of serious politicians to take preventive measures for the innocent victims of these crimes, whose social condition may be no better than that of the perpetrators? Don't the innocent have civil liberties, too? Should not those of a liberal instinct be concerned about what happens to communities when social decay takes hold? What is wrong with "proper discipline" in schools? Has Ms Coote ever imagined what it is like trying to learn in a school class without discipline?

What Mr Blair has recognised is that the old ideological arguments of Ms Coote's youth and mine are over. If we want the opportunity of power to put principles into practice, our moral and political message must be built on the concerns of those whom we seek to represent.

The writer is shadow home secretary.

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