Tag Archives: anti-social-behaviour

Has Labour got two Balls?

Is it me or is there a disconnect between Ed Balls, the stalwart defender of playgrounds and opponent of compo culture, who two months ago was saying this:

“If you don’t want to do something a bit risky, too often people say ‘we can’t do that because of health and safety’.

“It is the risk aversion in some cases which stops things happening which I want to tackle head on,” he said.

The Government’s consultation paper says: “We need to work together as a society to create popular attitudes that embrace children in public space and challenge inappropriate ‘No Ball Games’ cultures.

“This means adults being willing to share public space with children and understand that play can, at times, test boundaries.”

And the killjoy who today was saying this:

“Tougher enforcement powers are needed to tackle under-age binge drinking, but enforcement measures alone are not the solution. We need a culture change, with everyone – from parents, the alcohol industry and young people – all taking more responsibility.”

You could argue I’m being unfair and comparing apples with oranges, but I do wonder. We’ve had ten years of this approach, providing people with more advice while making the law even more draconian at the same time. It doesn’t appear to have helped. It does appear to have gone hand in hand with a rise in anxiety about this issue.

Why do we need screeds of new health advice about safe alcohol limits? It isn’t as if young people are unaware that if they get drunk they lose the full use of their faculties; that’s kind of why they do it in the first place. And parents will either be the relatively responsible type who teach their kids how to drink socially, or the type who aren’t going to be interested in a leaflet giving them advice in the first place. What next? Parenting lessons?

It seems to me that youth binge drinking isn’t a problem in and of itself, it is a symptom. On the one hand you have a lack of facilities, meaning that kids have literally nothing else to do. On the other hand, increased hysteria about youth drinking has meant that instead of experimenting with alcohol in the relative safety of their local, they are doing their experimenting in either vast impersonal drinking halls (if they can afford it) or, more likely, downing Diamond White while sitting around in those playgrounds that Balls is so keen on.

The fact is, those sneaky night time park binges are as much a part of childhood as falling off climbing frames. The same anxiety that leads councils to closing down playgrounds is behind the current anxiety about youths drinking. Even if we had the best youth service in the world, generations of young people will go through that period in their lives. To use Balls’ own language, it is all about “testing boundaries”. Along with all other kinds of so-called anti-social behaviour, the main impact of turning naughtiness into a criminal offence has been to allow adults to excuse themselves of any responsibility for it. The result has been, young people are testing boundaries only to discover those boundaries growing ever larger.

Labour can’t really afford to have both Balls at the same time. To be fair on the man, he has previously expressed scepticism about the whole Blairite approach to anti-social behaviour in the past. His announcement today though just sounds like more of the same.

Get tough on the fear of crime

One of the things that most irritated me about the Orange Book a few years ago was David Laws hectoring the Lib Dems for not doing enough to acknowledge how the fear of crime affects people’s daily lives (I paraphrase as I don’t have the book in front of me right now). Boris Johnson made a similar comment during the launch for his bid for London Mayor today and last week the Observer wrote:

The state cannot order civil society back into being, but it can facilitate the process. A first step is to recognise fear of crime is not irrational just because recorded crime is down. It is a reasonable response by a public feeling remote from the police.

Nonsense. Well, half nonsense. Because it is certainly true that the fear of crime is a debilitating thing, and that it needs to be dealt with. But we will only be able to get a grip on it once we recognise that it is indeed irrational, and stop pretending otherwise.

If the fear of something is greatly out of proportion to the possibility that it might happen, then that fear is irrational, full stop. All parties have been going on about the semi-mythical “bobbies on the beat” for decades, yet it is simply impossible to have a policeman on every street corner, at all times. The level at which a visible police force would start to ‘reassure’ the public would be simply unattainable. Spending a fortune on recruiting, training and retaining policemen who will then be given nothing more to do than walk around to ‘reassure’ people would be simply silly.

It simply isn’t good enough for parties and journalists to persist with this line. We don’t need the police to reclaim the streets, as the Observer suggests, but the public to. How we tackle such a seemingly intractable notion is the big question, but by asking it we might just find the answer.

One thing we, as a society, might try is to reverse the trend towards viewing anti-social behaviour as criminality. 12 years ago, we had more crime, but no-one knew what anti-social behaviour was. One of New Labour’s most pernicious legacies has been to convince people that naughtiness, rowdiness and petty vandalism is something the police should handle when in the past it was something the community itself sorted out. The more we concentrate on anti-social behaviour, the worse it seems. We can never win the war on anti-social behaviour because it is so mutable: unless all young people transform into angels en masse, there will always be someone doing something that upsets someone.

Worse, it seems to have created an antagonism towards the police that eclipses even the attitude when I was a teenager. I remember my sixth form being chased down Bromley High Street by coppers with dogs simply because the landlord at a pub we had paid to hold a party at smelt a spliff. That was a moronic over-reaction by the boys in blue. Now they are charged with enforcing curfews on any kid who doesn’t look like they have a place to go. You couldn’t invent a better system for alienating young people from authority if you tried.

I’m sure that round the edges there are things that governments could do to sort this unholy mess out, but ultimately it is up to all of us to actually turn this situation around. In my view, we need to develop a mass participation consciousness-raising campaign such as Full Stop or Make Poverty History, to persuade people that they are the agents of their own destiny, that they need to take responsibility over their own children and that they need to rebuild the adult solidarity. Such a campaign, if it could be made a success, would be one of the most liberating mass movements in our history. As such, it would inevitably come up against a political and cultural establishment – politicians, the police and of course the tabloid press which would all be emasculated by it.

How could we achieve such a thing? Haven’t the foggiest, sorry. Answers on a postcard please. All I know is that the alternative – to continue indulging the fear of crime – leads to a vicious circle of self-destructive madness.

In the meantime, I suggest we can make a start by doing things such as getting former policemen who admit to finding the concept of anarchism appealing elected as London Mayor. Just an idea.