John Rentoul: Tough on the causes of rhetoric about crime

Young Tony Blair battered the Tories with statistics on law and order. David Cameron is reprising the tactic on Labour
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'The Government has given up on crime. The best that they can hope for now is to get a few headlines in the newspapers." This is how a smart opposition leader responds to a moral panic over murders that are newsworthy precisely because they are so unusual. You have to be emphatic: "These things are wholly unacceptable." You have to bemoan the breakdown of society: "Moral chaos." But you also have to sound realistic: "A solution to this disintegration doesn't simply lie in legislation. It must come from the rediscovery of a sense of direction as a country."

That was Tony Blair in 1993. A decade and a half later, his little echo, David Cameron, repeats him almost word for word. The Labour Government, he says, has "given up" on crime. All we get, Cameron said last week, is "an ever more hysterical announcement of rules and regulations".

Fifteen years ago, it was the murder of two-year-old James Bulger by two 10-year-olds that horrified the nation. Last week it was the conviction of the teenagers who murdered Garry Newlove after he remonstrated with them for damaging cars outside his house.

So Cameron was emphatic: "Let's really say enough is enough." He bemoaned the breakdown of society: "Today, I want to speak about the senseless, barbaric and seemingly remorseless prevalence of violence in our country," he said in a speech in Salford. "We're collapsing into an atomised society, stripped of the local bonds of association which help tie us together." But he also sounded realistic: "Passing a new law is not enough. We need a big social, cultural and political change about our whole approach to these issues," he said in a GMTV interview.

That cultural change didn't happen just because Blair expressed all the winning sentiments that a clever leader of the opposition should express. So why should we think it will happen now? In fact, I would argue that Cameron has less chance of reversing the tide of violence and public incivility than Blair did.

At least Blair had a sort of argument: that the Government should try to stop crime at source. Cameron said last week that "the tragedy of Tony Blair was that he gave up on one half of his slogan, he gave up on being tough on the causes of crime".

He is right in that the great promise of that famous sound bite (author, G Brown) has not been realised in its full, New Jerusalem glory. But a great deal has been done in schools and pre-school stuff that was not being done before.

And Cameron's argument appears to be that state action is counter-productive. "We've got a Government that has eroded the control they have over their own lives and sucked their sense of responsibility out of them," he said in his Salford speech. Blair's policy ideas were thin enough in opposition, but the idea that teenagers like the killers of Garry Newlove would suddenly discover the virtues of thrift and modesty if only the Government took less of an interest in their upbringing is just daft.

What should be obvious by now, even more than it was before, is that the causes of crime are complicated. I remember Michael Howard, who as Home Secretary had to respond to the quicksilver appeal of his shadow, telling me through gritted teeth: "We are all interested in what the causes of crime are."

What is striking to anyone not in the grip of the gets-worse delusion is how little things have changed since then. Not just the words deployed by the leader of the opposition, but the criminal statistics.

There were 755 murders in England and Wales last year. In the year that Labour came to power there were 734. In the year that Blair complained of the "disintegration" of society, 1993, there were 673.

So you could say that the total went up a bit in the Major years, except that the figures are a bit up and down, for disturbing reasons. The figure for 2001 included 58 Chinese nationals who suffocated in a lorry entering the country. That for 2003 included Harold Shipman's 218 victims, who had been killed over several years. That for 2005 included the 52 killed in the London bombings.

The homicide statistics have the advantage, however, of not being affected by changes in police procedure. Nor are they based on the British Crime Survey (BCS), which suggests that crime overall has fallen substantially over the period. As the Home Office statisticians note: "The BCS, by its nature (i.e. being reliant on victim interviews), cannot include homicide."

But it is the human condition to believe that everything was better in the good old days, and to be swayed by plausible rhetoric promising a future that resembles a misremembered past.

In last week's column I mentioned the admiration of the Cameron team for Words That Work, a book on the uses of rhetoric by Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster. At the time, I could cite no examples to support what I had been told.

Re-reading Cameron's Salford speech, however, I found one. Luntz says in his book that one of the most powerful words in political communication is "imagine". In his speech, Cameron invited us to "imagine what it could be like" if we had the "will and determination to change". He said: "Imagine a society where families are living together rather than being paid by the state to live apart."

Another six sentences beginning, "Imagine", and "... and you can imagine just how we can end our culture of violence and reclaim our streets". It is a striking parallel with the influence of American language on New Labour – of which "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime" was the most famous example.

In both cases, the uplifting rhetoric promises more than any government could ever deliver. Labour has done some good things, even if it has ended up in the ludicrous situation of setting targets for "the percentage of people who have meaningful interactions with people from different backgrounds" – with "meaningful interactions" defined by the Department of Communities and Local Government as "engaging in conversation or some other form of social interaction", not at work, school or college, "at least once a month".

Cameron has some sensible ideas, such as reform of police bureaucracy. But he also has some rather tired populist ideas, such as six weeks' national service for 16-year-olds, which is the sort of thing that would be taken up by those who don't need it. It is rather like my local council putting silly little notices on lamp posts saying "Don't dump rubbish", which will be heeded only by people who don't dump rubbish.

I do hope that in 15 years' time, the Leader of the Opposition – a polite and responsible young woman who is now doing the photocopying for a Labour MP – will not be saying that the Government has given up on crime.