Devolved authoritarianism

Through Antisocial Behaviour Orders, New Labour thinks it can police its way to a better society.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

It would have been easy to get the impression in recent weeks that the British government’s obsession with smoking and smacking is distracting it from weightier issues. In fact, ministers have been keen to remind us that they are equally concerned about loitering, graffiti and young women vomiting in the street.

Anyone who thinks that the proposed smoking and smacking bans are merely symbolic should note the government’s persistent campaigns against what it calls ‘antisocial behaviour’. In his spending review on 12 July, chancellor Gordon Brown announced funding for 20,000 community support officers and neighbourhood wardens to help tackle antisocial behaviour. On 9 July, home secretary David Blunkett urged local authorities to make more use of Antisocial Behaviour Orders (ASBOS) to clamp down on low-level crime and disorder (1).

ASBOS were introduced in 1999 to deal with disorderly behaviour that lies beyond the remit of conventional criminal justice measures. Persistent vandals, menacing teenagers and ‘neighbours from Hell’ can be issued with ASBOS ordering them to desist from unruly (but not strictly criminal) behaviour on pain of criminal penalties. Orders might also require people to stay away from certain areas or not to associate with certain people. ASBOS can be used in cases where genuinely criminal behaviour is suspected but can’t be proven, since the standard of proof needed is lower.

This is a typically New Labour innovation. Far from simply being a practical response to a practical problem, it reveals a great deal about the government’s political approach. Before Tony Blair’s famous ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ speech when he was shadow home secretary in the early 1990s, crime was seen as a right-wing issue. New Labour didn’t simply steal the Tories’ clothes by talking tough on crime, but incorporated that rhetoric into its broader vision of a new Britain. ASBOS express the core New Labour belief that it can police its way to a better society.

Ministers respond to civil liberties objections by arguing that it is the poor and downtrodden who suffer most from crime and disorder, and caricaturing their opponents as what home secretary David Blunkett calls ‘the Liberati’ (2), who invariably live in ‘leafy suburbs’ and not ‘on the ground’ in ‘communities’. While New Labour’s welfare policies could be described as post-Thatcherite, its left-wing credentials are apparently to be found in its policies on antisocial behaviour.

Indeed, Blunkett’s call to arms came shortly after Home Office minister Hazel Blears announced that ‘ordinary people’ are to be allowed to apply for ASBOS. Concerned citizens are to be encouraged to get together in ‘neighbourhood action teams’ and apply for ASBOS against miscreants as required, to be rubber-stamped by the police and local authorities (3).

Conservative critics of the government’s fondness for bans tend to fall back on a ‘nanny state’ caricature, but what is striking about New Labour is its willingness to devolve its authoritarianism. Indeed, ministers seem impatient with the old-fashioned notion that it is the state’s responsibility to deal with disorder. As Blears said of the new initiative: ‘It is about being on the side of decent, law-abiding people, but saying the government can only do so much, you have to do something yourselves.’

Instead of laying down the law from on high, the government prefers to encourage ‘active citizenship’ and enter into partnerships with community groups and businesses. This isn’t simply about sharing the financial burden of policing. At a time when the political class is anxious about popular disengagement from politics and government, ministers are keen to experiment with anything that might give people a stake in their communities and generate a sense of social cohesion.

The law is seen as an obstacle, protecting troublemakers from justice rather than enabling communities to take control. ASBOS were meant to get around the supposedly over-stringent demands of the criminal justice system, allowing the authorities to curb antisocial behaviour without having to prove criminality. But ministers are clearly frustrated that local authorities haven’t taken full advantage of this opportunity.

Labour MP Frank Field, author of Neighbours from Hell and a prominent ASBO enthusiast, argues that this is because many professionals in local government are ideologically opposed to ASBOS. For example, he argues that many members of local authority Youth Offending Teams are reluctant to make examples of the young offenders they work with, preferring to see their role as helping those young offenders to reform, and consequently looking out for their welfare rather than that of the wider community.

It seems likely that directly empowering that ‘wider community’ to apply for ASBOS is supposed to circumvent professionals’ reluctance, putting local authorities under pressure to act themselves, as well as encouraging community involvement in the process. It remains to be seen whether this will work, and whether ASBOS will be used as extensively as the government always intended. After all, it will be a strange kind of community that goes around issuing antisocial behaviour orders against its members.

What is not in doubt is that antisocial behaviour is at the heart of New Labour’s political programme. With its new-style brand of authoritarianism, the government can’t be satisfied with bans issued from Whitehall. It wants the rest of us to join in too.

(1) Councils urged to combat yob culture, Guardian, 9 July 2004

(2) Blunkett and the Liberati, by Rob Lyons

(3) Terrorised communities win right to curb thugs, Observer, 4 July 2004

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Topics Politics


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