A terrible tragedy has struck two separate families on the same day. 17-year-olds Yousef Makki and Jodie Chesney were both murdered on the same evening in different cities, Manchester and London. Knife crime now dominates the front pages of the papers as much as Brexit does.
Knife crime has been increasing steadily over the last five years. A year ago I volunteered at a community centre in Tottenham, North London. In the two weeks I was there, a teenage boy was stabbed in our car park, another was shot outside a nearby tube station and another was stabbed outside a local cinema. It was unclear whether these were related attacks, part of a conflict between local gangs, or isolated incidents.
Knife crime has been in the news, but it has taken on a new political salience now that the victims are white, well-educated and suburban. Stabbings and other knife crimes have long been a feature of life in inner cities and poor estates, but neither the government nor media cared when the victims weren’t white. While I lived in Tottenham from 2010 to 2012, there were three stabbings in our quiet, side street alone, but none of these attracted national attention.
One reason why these stabbings have attracted a lot of attention is that they have occurred at a time when the damaging effects of Tory austerity can no longer be denied. Theresa May denied that there was a link between cuts in police numbers and rising knife crime, but the evidence shows that crime has risen over the last five years while police numbers have declined.
May’s premiership is a disaster. Whatever Brexit we ultimately get will be unpopular with huge swathes of the public and we may yet end up with a disastrous No Deal exit. Now May’s legacy at the Home Office is unraveling. Her draconian hostile environment policy to bring down immigration resulted in the Windrush scandal. Now the cuts she oversaw are resulting in blood on the streets.
Of course, the rise in knife crime is not just due to the cuts to the police. Social service, community centres, educational programs, employment programs, even after school services and youth clubs have been decimated by austerity. The willful neglect of huge areas of the public realm collectively impacts on crime on our streets.
The fabric of British life has been ripped apart by the cuts. We can see this in rising numbers of people sleeping rough. We can see it in schools that have to ask students to bring in their own toilet paper. We can see it in the return of Victorian diseases such as Rickets and TB. We can see it in rising knife crime.
In all these instances it is the most vulnerable who are hit the hardest. The poor, those with insecure accommodation, children and the people who have been so massively failed by society that they have turned to knife crime. Austerity was a policy designed to an advance the political goal of a smaller state and larger private sector that was achieved by making life worse for the people who would never vote Tory.
The impact to cuts across a whole range of public services are felt most acutely by those who have multiple social problems. This may seem like academic jargon, but consider the following. People with low paying jobs and insecure accommodation are most at risk of homelessness. Children in families whose benefits have been slashed and who attend schools that are underfunded are the most at risk of malnutrition. Many repeat offenders grew up in care. Communities hit by the closure of youth and social services and cuts in police numbers are seeing rises in knife crime. This is not just about cuts to the police. This is about the complete failure of society to look after vulnerable people, because of a callous political project.
The question I ask myself is: what would the radical left do differently, given the huge power that comes with being in charge of the British state? Our solution to complex social problems needs to be more nuanced than just spending lots of money. Austerity is a cause of many of these problems and I am not opposed to state spending, but we need to do more to tackle the effects of austerity.
The left also needs to do more than just beef up the police. Heavy-handed policing is another cause of the breakdown in trust between communities and the police that has led to the rise in crime. Although the police need more money to do their jobs, we won’t make people’s lives measurably better by turning disadvantaged communities into police states.
I am not an expert on crime or in gangs, but whilst volunteering in Tottenham I attended a gang training day, run by a charity that works helping people out of gangs. The key thing I learned is that there is no single cause of gangs, or of activities often (but not always) associated with gangs such as knife crime. Gangs grow when the soil is fertile for them to grow in and what makes the soil of society fertile for gangs brings in issues to do with racism, poverty, culture, gender, economics and localism. There is no magic bullet for this that the radical left can purchase once we have control of the state’s coffers.
Our response to knife crime must be varied and complex. It will involve listening to communities that have suffered from heavy-handed policing. It will involve giving the initiative to teachers, social workers, community organisers and a whole host of other people. It will also involve giving these people the money they need to do their jobs, that will be an important part of this, but the money must be spent on the people who are already working hard to make a difference in communities ravished by austerity. The money must not be spent on increasing the power of the police or reach of the state.
The radical left needs to recognise the deep and complex causes of knife crime and have a sophisticated response to it. Austerity is a huge factor in the rise in knife crime and we must work to undo the damage done by the Tories. We need to remember that every victim of knife crime is a tragedy, not just the white and suburban ones. Above all, we need to offer hope that the future can be better than the despair of the present.