ASBOs: Politicians behaving badly

Why 'kids hanging around' in hoodies have become a key focus for public policy.

Dolan Cummings

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Magistrates in Manchester, in the north of England, on 3 November 2004 served a 17-year-old with an antisocial behaviour order (ASBO) banning him from engaging in various kinds of unruly or abusive behaviour. The order also prevents him from publicly associating with more than three people, and in particular with five named friends, on pain of criminal penalties of up to five years in prison.

This comprehensive curtailment of the teenager’s activities, antisocial and otherwise, was justified on the basis that he had brought a ‘climate of fear’ to his estate (1). It is a telling phrase, and one that echoes through a number of similar cases and in the speeches of politicians at the highest level.

While in some respects it may be accurate to talk about a ‘climate of fear’ in certain British estates and neighbourhoods, and indeed in society more generally, the idea that this climate can be attributed to groups of teenagers is dubious. Rather, the fact that the unruly behaviour of teenagers has taken on such significance suggests a profound shift in the way society is understood.

The contemporary focus on youth crime in particular expresses a moribund culture unable to exploit the virtues of youth or imagine a future for young people. The term ‘kids hanging around’ has become a kind of shorthand for perceived social decay, and conveys a sense of anxiety greatly out of proportion to its literal meaning. This essay explores how this culture has been institutionalised in recent years through ‘the politics of antisocial behaviour’, which puts such concerns at the top of the political agenda.

What is antisocial behaviour?

Fifteen years ago, the term ‘antisocial behaviour’ was barely in use. Through the 1990s the term grew in currency, as the perception increased that community was breaking down and that people’s behaviour, in particular young people’s behaviour, was deteriorating. Concerns about social problems increasingly became focused on individual behaviour rather than the economic or structural factors that had hitherto dominated politics. Local housing authorities were especially exercised by the issue, and sought new mechanisms to deal with wayward tenants.

The profile of antisocial behaviour in national politics gained a particular boost in 1995, before the election of the New Labour government, when then shadow home secretary Jack Straw, taking his lead from the ‘zero tolerance’ policing popularised by Mayor Giuliani in New York, railed against aggressive beggars, winos and squeegee men. Coming a year after Labour leader Tony Blair’s famous ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ speech, this move consolidated New Labour’s grip on the issue of crime, traditionally very much a Tory issue, but now intimately bound up with Labour’s strategy to remake Britain, and reposed in terms of community safety rather than Victorian values.

Since then, stories of ‘neighbours from hell’ and ‘neighbourhood terrorists’ have become staples of the news, both locally and nationally, and all the major political parties have taken up this agenda.

‘Antisocial behaviour’ is an issue in the current general election campaign only inasmuch as all the parties are committed to doing something about it. While the Conservatives are trying to reclaim the issue of crime by calling for tougher antisocial behaviour orders (ASBOs), the Liberal Democrats have coined the term ‘tough liberalism’ to signal their own endorsement of the politics of antisocial behaviour. Outside party politics, however, there is concern that this approach, and ASBOs in particular, are excessively authoritarian.

The most common objections are legal or humanitarian. Legal objections centre on the fact that ASBOs allow people to be imprisoned for non-criminal offences. ASBOs are not penalties for criminal offences, but breaching an ASBO is a criminal offence. This effectively creates personalised laws for particular individuals. ASBOs can also be applied using hearsay evidence, but most problematically perhaps, there is no satisfactory legal definition of antisocial behaviour. The Home Office’s definition,‘behaviour, whether or not in itself criminal, that causes or is likely to cause harassment, alarm and distress to other people’ (2), could conceivably apply to just about anything, giving an alarming amount of discretion to magistrates.

Humanitarian objections, meanwhile, focus on the use of ASBOs against vulnerable people such as children, drug users, prostitutes and the mentally ill. There are a number of horror stories about absurd and clearly inappropriate applications of ASBOs: alcoholics told not to drink, a suicidal woman banned from throwing herself in rivers, a prostitute forbidden to carry condoms, and so on. More generally, it is argued that ASBOs are used to sweep problems under the carpet, and critics suggest that resources would be better spent on help for such people, and facilities for the young loiterers at the centre of the issue.

Both sorts of criticism are, in most cases, well made. But it is necessary to go further, and address the assumptions that underlie the politics of antisocial behaviour. Specifically, understanding the role of New Labour in developing this approach is important to appreciating its true character, and an effective critique must challenge the roots of New Labour’s political approach.

Of course, any argument about antisocial behaviour must concede that thoughtless, not to mention vindictive, behaviour on the part of others can make people pretty miserable. But we should recognise that there are two different issues here. One is nuisance behaviour by unruly children and others, which can indeed cause distress, particularly in areas already blighted by more serious problems. However, the issue of badly-behaved youngsters is not new, and is arguably not susceptible to policy ‘solutions’.

The second issue, and a different thing entirely, is the politics of ‘antisocial behaviour’. When politicians seek the moral high ground by pointing out that it is often the poorest and most deprived members of society who suffer most, they conveniently bundle all the problems of living in poorly maintained estates with low employment and few amenities into a single issue that can be blamed on unruly children and ‘neighbours from hell’, implying that all would be well if only people would behave themselves.

This rhetoric encourages the wider public to interpret all nuisance behaviour as part of a general social problem that requires a concerted authoritarian response, rather than as localised inconveniences that can be dealt with in their own terms. By labelling our neighbours and their children as ‘antisocial’ rather than occasionally inconsiderate, it undermines trust and intensifies the anxiety that pervades contemporary society.

The politics of antisocial behaviour

Faced with persistent nuisance from local kids, there are a number of options we might pursue. Ideally, we would approach the kids directly and ask them to be quieter or to go somewhere more suitable (or simply shout at them to clear off). Failing that, we might approach their parents and ask them to take care of it. If the kids were actually damaging property or deliberately menacing passers-by, and responded aggressively to intervention (which is much rarer than generally supposed), we might feel the need to involve the police. In any case, such problems are most practically dealt with informally, and with as little fuss as possible.

For the political class, however, ‘antisocial behaviour’ calls for nothing less than a transformation of the relationship between the citizen and the state. This seemingly trivial issue has become profoundly political.

Tony Blair told a pre-election meeting in the Midlands in March 2005 that he had probably attended more meetings on crime and antisocial behaviour than any other issue since becoming prime minister (3). So why has this become such a hot issue? Frank Field, a Labour MP and leading proponent of the politics of antisocial behaviour, has argued, ‘Our country faces two major threats. One comes from international terrorism, the other from neighbourhood terrorists.’ (4) A similar parallel was drawn in the 2004 Queen’s Speech, and it is tempting to see the issue of antisocial behaviour along with the global ‘war on terror’ as part of a concerted political effort to rule through fear.

But it would be wrong to see the politics of antisocial behaviour as a deliberate attempt to manipulate the public. Field himself explains in his book Neighbours from Hell that as an MP he observed over the past two decades a major shift in the concerns of his constituents, with complaints about noisy neighbours and badly behaved children rising in inverse proportion to those about traditional political issues like jobs and housing (5).

Politicians like Field go out of their way to insist that antisocial behaviour is not their agenda, but one that has emerged from ordinary people who suffer the effects of such behaviour. As erstwhile home secretary David Blunkett puts it: ‘I’ve been learning from listening to people in the community and what they say to me is, you don’t have to invent antisocial behaviour, you don’t have to invent fear of walking down the street late at night… you just have to live it and see it, and feel it.’ (6)

Politicians have not invented antisocial behaviour out of nothing, but they have popularised a vocabulary and developed a quasi-legal framework that encourage people to interpret certain kinds of behaviour in a particular way. There is little evidence that young people’s behaviour has deteriorated over the years, but undoubtedly that behaviour has been experienced as increasingly problematic. In embracing what were previously considered to be trivial concerns best dealt with informally or even ignored, politicians have transformed the framework within which people make sense of their experiences.

In particular, the notion that certain problems lie outside the remit of official intervention has given way to an expectation that something must be done. A variety of experiences ranging from minor irritations such as noisy children to serious incidents such as assaults are now brought together under the category of antisocial behaviour, with prescribed solutions involving the authorities. In that sense, the general problem of ‘antisocial behaviour’ has been politically constructed.

The significance attributed to these local problems by politicians, and their determination to be seen to deal with them, is testament less to political cunning than to a lack of political imagination. There is in fact an implicit recognition that the issue has emerged in the context of declining communities and social atomisation. Whether this had led to a significant increase in nuisance behaviour or has simply left people feeling more vulnerable and less able to check such behaviour is a moot point. What is striking, however, is that the political elite has no idea how to go about counteracting atomisation and cohering society, beyond simply targetting its most obvious manifestations.

More thoughtful advocates of ASBOs and other, similar civil orders will acknowledge that these are a poor substitute for genuine civility or community. The question is whether they are better than nothing, or indeed, for some, like Frank Field, a step towards generating those things. With political parties increasingly unable to develop radical new social or economic policies in an age dominated by Margaret Thatcher’s dictum ‘there is no alternative’, the focus of politics has shifted to the everyday.

The politics of antisocial behaviour is as much about the broader problem of social disengagement and atomisation as it is about nuisance neighbours. Lacking anything to replace the cohering political ideologies of the past, politicians are left with no choice but to adopt a more direct ‘hands-on’ approach to community-building.

That diverse problems and issues have come together in a criminal justice category is particularly telling, as it suggests that broader social problems are being reinterpreted as susceptible to police solutions in the absence of more progressive political solutions. Richard Garside of the Crime and Society Foundation has described this as the expansion of the ‘criminal justice state’ at the expense of the ‘social state’ (7).

New Labour may have abandoned economic welfarism, but no political party can do without some idea of how it is going to improve people’s lives. In New Labour’s case, it seems that policing antisocial behaviour is seen as a way to bring about a better society. In this sense, the politics of antisocial behaviour is an attempt to achieve ‘social justice by any means necessary’.

At a local level in particular there are a number of ‘true believers’ in this approach. Manchester City Council’s deputy executive for housing told Guardian journalist Decca Aitkenhead: ‘We’re dealing with Mrs Thatcher’s grandchildren. We’re dealing with the children of people who grew up under Mrs Thatcher, and were brutalised. We’re recreating society. Putting back some of the social glue. We have nothing – nothing – to be ashamed of as socialists. If you’re rich, you can buy yourself out of it, but these things take place among deprived communities. They want social glue and that’s what we’re trying to give back to them.’ (8)

This impressive oration is a better expression of the politics of antisocial behaviour than any jittery tirade about the need to deal with ‘neighbourhood terrorists’, because it captures the peculiar utopianism that drives these developments. While this approach may put liberal critics of ASBOs on the defensive, however, the politics of antisocial behaviour fails to convince as a strategy for social progress.

David Blunkett imagines that the fear of crime is all that stands in the way of a new civic citizenship: ‘people say that actually feeling safe to walk down the street, is the first and primary goal that they want us to achieve. That way, they’ll come out to public meetings, they’ll go down to their local school, they’ll join in in being part of the solution.’ (9) This is optimistic to the point of being delusional, and it also depends on an unrealistically bleak presentation of the current situation. Can he be serious? People won’t go to public meetings because they’re literally afraid to leave their houses? And this is so common as to account for popular disengagement from political life?

The weakness of the politics of antisocial behaviour as a strategy for social progress means that it often takes on an overtly reactionary character. Labour has struggled to convince potential supporters of the merits of ASBOs in particular. In fact, the government has often seemed to sabotage its own strategy with right-wing rhetoric, and there is widespread hostility to ASBOs among those involved in youth work and related fields as well as what remains of the political left. The government is often accused of appealing to a Daily Mail-reading, ‘Middle England’ constituency.

For example, in recent months there has been much discussion of the strategy of ‘naming and shaming’ as part of the conditions of an ASBO. Charitably, this can be seen as an attempt to substitute for the ‘natural policing’ that occurs in close-knit communities, using posters, leaflets and the local press to make the orders known to the public. As home secretary Charles Clarke argues ‘With the local community knowing who they are – and keeping an eye on them – offenders will feel pressure to behave.’ (10) But to the extent that ‘antisocial behaviour’ reflects a breakdown of community, this kind of surveillance must be of a very different type.

ASBOed youths are introduced to the ‘community’ not as erring sons and daughters, but as ‘neighbourhood terrorists’ to be feared and reviled. ‘Yobs will see their names in the papers’, Clarke continues. ‘Their offences will be publicised and their picture will stare out at them from posters in shop windows.’ The rhetoric of rebuilding community has slipped rather, and, understandably, there have been strong objections to this punitive tone. But given Labour’s bigger ambitions for antisocial behaviour policy, it would be a mistake to dismiss such measures as a sop to the Daily Mail. For all the clumsiness of ASBOs, the anxiety that underlies this approach is shared by many of its critics.

Indeed, much of the opposition to the politics of antisocial behaviour endorses its core assumptions. It is argued, for example, that young people are forced to gather in groups for their own safety, such are the risks posed by other groups of youths, and such arguments are readily repeated by teenagers themselves, keen to defend themselves in the same fearful terms employed against them. Perversely, a few critics have even suggested that some children are safer on the streets than in their own homes, where their parents may be drinking or taking drugs, or may be likely to abuse them.

In a climate of fear, child abuse trumps antisocial behaviour, but again, this approach only reinforces the misanthropic assumptions and sentiments that drive the politics of antisocial behaviour.

The subjective character of antisocial behaviour

Of course, specific forms of behaviour are real problems in specific contexts. In most cases, such behaviour is actually against the law. For example, people can be prosecuted for vandalism, burglary and assault without recourse to imaginative new laws and orders.

The extreme cases are depressing and unenviable, but the miserable experience of the most deprived members of society is certainly not what is driving the politics of antisocial behaviour. The idea that antisocial behaviour is a problem resonates much more widely. Indeed, a focus on actual complaints and prosecutions obscures the broader cultural effect. The politics of antisocial behaviour is not just about ASBOs, but about how individuals relate to one another, and how we respond to perceived threats and negotiate uncertain situations.

There are undoubtedly forms of behaviour that, while not strictly illegal, do nonetheless cause intimidation and distress. Probably we all know what people mean when they complain about ‘kids hanging around’. There is a difference between teenagers standing and chatting with friends, which few people find worrying, and kids loitering menacingly and shouting in uncouth language, which is what people mean when they complain. Unfortunately that difference is largely in the description, and both could apply to exactly the same behaviour.

Whether people are intimated by such behaviour depends as much on whether they know the kids, and on their own expectations and indeed prejudices, as it does on the specific bearing, attitude and volume of the kids themselves. One of the factors determining how people respond is their more general quality of life. For example, people who spend most of their time at home and are constantly exposed to it are more likely to be annoyed and upset by the behaviour of their neighbours than those who have rewarding jobs and active social lives. And those with the confidence to talk to others and confront problems are more likely to be able to resolve those problems than those who are suspicious and fearful.

A crucial point missed by most commentators is that the fear of crime is an expression of atomisation as much as a cause of it. And except in a few extreme cases, it is a nagging sense of unease rather than crippling fear that people feel, even in rough areas. People generally get on with their lives, while worrying that they are vulnerable to unspecified threats.

The politics of antisocial behaviour gives shape to these threats by focusing people’s unease on clear targets, typically young loiterers or ‘neighbourhood terrorists’. This institutionalises atomisation rather than overcoming it, by officially endorsing a fearful attitude and undermining people’s confidence in their ability to negotiate problems without official support.

To return to the example of young people gathering outside shops and in other public spaces, one might indeed see it as a problem that adults are so ill at ease with the younger generation, while seeking to address the issue more constructively. Instead, the alleged ‘intimidation’ is taken at face value, and the putative solution is simply to remove young people from such spaces, either sending them home or into designated and supervised ‘youth centres’.

While a nationwide curfew would no doubt reduce the likelihood of these youths ‘getting up to no good’, it would hardly overcome the distrust and unease that underlie the problem. Indeed, isn’t a policy that prevents people from meeting and talking in public more properly described as antisocial than the ‘intimidating’ conviviality it seeks to prohibit?

Ultimately, an emphasis on antisocial behaviour is always likely to have an atomising rather than cohering effect. A political approach based on fear and distrust, which encourages the belief that every minor irritation is the tip of an iceberg, is never going to overcome public anxiety. What is needed instead is an approach that transcends the atomisation of contemporary society, and allows people to put their problems in perspective by pointing towards a better future rather than a quieter one.

This essay is adapted from the introduction to ‘Who’s Antisocial: New Labour and the Politics of Antisocial Behaviour’, the second of the Institute of Ideas’ series of occasional papers, written by Craig O’Malley and Stuart Waiton and edited by Dolan Cummings. To read the full paper, see here.

(1) ‘Asbo for youth who threatened television crew’, Guardian, 4 November 2004

(2) Anti-Social Behaviour Orders Guidance on drawing up Local ASBO Protocols

(3) ‘Blair vows to stiffen the thin blue line’, Daily Telegraph, 31 March 2005

(4) Quoted in ‘The war on incivility’, The Economist, 22 July 2004

(5) Field, Frank (2003) Neighbours from Hell

(6) David Blunkett interviewed on The Politics Show, BBC1, 14 November 2004

(7) ’Welcome for Home Affairs Committee critique of anti-social behaviour strategy’, Crime and Society Foundation press release, 5 April 2005

(8) Quoted in ‘When home’s a prison’, by Decca Aitkenhead, Guardian Weekend, 24 July 2004

(9) David Blunkett interviewed on The Politics Show, BBC1, 14 November 2004

(10) ‘Clarke: name and shame is way forward’, Daily Mirror, 2 March 2005

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