For the third article in our series responding to Labour’s election pledges and manifesto, SJ looks at Corbyn’s promise to reform the criminal justice system and increase the number of police officers on Britain’s streets.
Given that the key meme of this General Election has been stability, strength and security, it seems timely that any evaluation of the Labour manifesto needs to include a quick thought about how ‘safety’ is used, and what that means. It is particularly pertinent in light of recent terrorist attacks in Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge to consider what would make the world a ‘safer’ place to be.
In response to the panicked ‘pragmatism’ of the commentariat, others have already written lucidly on how increases to armed policing is never a panacea to avoiding imperialist wars. In light of this, we should resist the temptation to criticise Theresa May on cuts to police numbers. Even policy makers and researchers invested in the legitimacy of the state, the police and their monopoly on violence recognise that the correlation between police numbers and the stated aim of ‘public safety’ is questionable. But it is disingenuous for socialists to pretend that an institutionally racist structure like the police can ever deliver anything resembling real safety when that structure is directly involved in killings, the systematic failure of support for rape survivors and continuous racial profiling – to do so is a political dead end. Following from that analysis, I want to look at the Labour manifesto’s proposals on prisons. These include increasing the number of prison officers, and a commitment to no new private prisons.
Socialism requires a belief that building a world without punishment and incarceration – responding to harm with barbarism – is both possible and desirable. Who gets made into a criminal and who is considered deserving of punishment are powerful means of preserving inequality under the law. The idea of criminality is a deeply racialised tool, and one with a similar function to the dualism of ‘sometimes deserving refugee’ and ‘scrounging economic migrant’. These ideas focus on individual responsibility for suffering, and ignore the structural causes that limit the range of actions and responses available to people. In the same way that the EU’s response to people’s increased need to migrate is to build more walls and gunboats, labelling someone a ‘criminal’ provides the legitimacy to respond to the desperation caused by systemic injustice with punishment. And then, in addition but no less crucially, criminality is gendered too. The material reality of incarceration for women and gender non-conforming people is overwhelmingly of punishment for surviving abuse, for mental illness. We need to question and challenge the necessity and funding of the criminal justice system – does it really make us safe? Does it work to reduce harm?
Prison is deeply traumatising, and acclimatises most of the people who pass through it to a life of desperation. Combined with a lack of social support on the outside, and a housing crisis, many people become homeless and struggle with addiction, ending up committing petty crimes and being imprisoned again for survival crimes, stuck in a cycle of misery. A huge proportion of people who are incarcerated have been through the care system or have had traumatic episodes. The most vulnerable, who deserve the most care, are often those who experience the most bitter punishment.
That the manifesto recognises overcrowding and a failing prison system is positive. That said, what would it mean for Corbyn to commit to reducing prison numbers, to recognise that prisons are ineffective at preventing re-offending? What would it mean to hold an inquest into the status of over 3000 people held in prison on IPPs – indeterminate sentences for often minor crimes? The thousands of people inside for drug possession? Does it reduce harm, or undo addiction, to incarcerate people in highly stressful and traumatic environments? Just before the election the Tories announced a 10,000-place expansion of the prison estate, at a cost of at least £1.3billion. The Labour manifesto remains unclear on whether that would continue. What if that money were instead diverted towards re-funding front-line services, asylum support and mental health? What if the Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre was closed, the contract with G4S rescinded, and the money diverted towards supporting those imprisoned there? These are crucial questions that Labour needs to ask before they invoke the idea of recruiting more prison officers.
Of course, the persistence of incarceration is not simply down to a tyrannical state – we rely on criminality and incarceration because it remains, in the vast majority of capitalist states, the most acceptable method of approaching harm. The use of therapy, rehabilitation and reform are also used, but always as adjuncts to the core disciplining force of prison. Yet prison does little to justly reduce harm, to prevent things from happening again, or to address the material reasons that have motivated the harm. When a woman is imprisoned for not paying her TV license, the sanctity of private property trumps the harm done by incarceration, by a society that leaves so many people unable to afford to pay rent. So it is difficult to imagine a society that reduces incarceration without envisioning dramatic changes to wealth and economic justice.
In many senses the Labour manifesto is halfway there – it recognises and celebrates the way that well-funded services can give people choices and opportunities, and that a country beaten down by austerity needs healing. You can see that in the manifesto’s mental health section, and in the commitments to the NHS and justice at work. Corbyn’s manifesto is strong where it displays a bold commitment to giving ‘the many’ the opportunity to grow and thrive from society’s wealth.
Corbyn was also strong when he challenged Trident, and when he spoke about re-tooling infrastructure and jobs from nuclear subs towards renewable energy and public transport. It’s a powerful message because it doesn’t do what liberals do when they’re desperate to be taken ‘seriously’ – it doesn’t surrender to the idea that imperialism is the way we sustain our welfare. It makes the bold claim that reducing the means of state aggression makes the possibility of human solidarity stronger, not more vulnerable. I think we can envision a re-tooling of the ‘carceral state’, or at very least its resources. Sisters Uncut’s occupation of the former prison at Holloway has done fantastic work in showing us that using resources to address harm, rather than to punish, is a choice within the realm of possibility. It can be difficult to convince people of that choice and it can’t just be done with a manifesto point – it will depend on how communities affected by incarceration organise, whether and how they are supported, and it will take consistent and committed work to challenge the ideology of incarceration. But Momentum and Corbyn could surely help make that change.
This isn’t a ‘gotcha’; it’s not a hot take on why Corbyn is secretly reactionary. It’s logical to recognise that Corbyn’s leadership requires a degree, however much less marked than in the past, of triangulation – of populist policies that answer fears about uncertain futures. However, that fear does not have to be channelled into expanded powers of state punishment, whether by incarcerating people in prisons or ‘excarcerating’ them with borders. We have the possibility of answering fear with a constructive, collective response to injustice, climate change and war. Our role in that is probably not proposing new manifesto policies. We need to continue challenging pernicious ideologies and state actions that have a negative effect on class solidarity.
Whilst abolitionism is a key part of the US left, it seems that, in the UK, the relatively lesser scale of ‘our’ carceral state enables us to ignore just how large it is, and how powerful the idea of criminality is. (England and Wales have the highest rate of incarceration in Western Europe, and a greater proportion of BAME people in prison than the US.) Perhaps, in part, it is precisely the strength of criminality as an idea that disincentivises solidarity with those who can’t be portrayed as innocents. If it seems messy to question their punishment, that makes it difficult, but that’s precisely why it needs to be done. This is an issue of class power and class solidarity – how violence against the surplus population is justified.
These questions are entirely necessary to raise. Revolutionary socialists share a goal with Corbyn and Momentum – we want to offer a better vision of life than the one most people experience now, and to show that a more effective use of society’s resources can help realise the potential of the many, not just the few. The ideology and the process of criminality are not the responses of a just system to individual responsibility. And with a little tugging, the sanctity of legality under capitalism crumbles: eviction is legal yet non-payment of rent is not; stealing a Starbar is illegal yet it’s legal to let unsold food rot. A materially just vision of the future cannot be built without a new, transformative sense of justice.