A central part of the Labour Party’s response to the Manchester atrocity has been to emphasise its call for more police officers — and now also more intelligence personnel. Labour is also promising more prison guards and borders agents.
With a lead from Momentum nationally, wide swathes of left-leaning Labour activists have picked up this narrative. In many cases comrades go beyond arguing the Tories are hypocrites to agitate against Corbyn on terrorism when their police cuts have made us less safe, to positively advocating more police and even sometimes using slogans like “support our police”. Is the argument about public safety right? What should the left advocate?
The work of monitoring, tracking down and dealing with potential terrorists involves a, relatively-speaking, small number of police officers as well intelligence officers working for organisations like MI5. Unlike the police force in general, which has experienced cuts under “austerity”, these operations have had their funding substantially increased by the Tories — by about 10% between 2014-15 and 2015-16, following repeated boosts in the years immediately before.
A more nuanced version of this argument says that what is needed is more funding for “community policing”. In so far as “community policing” has any distinct meaning, what is generally meant by it has little to do with directly preventing terrorist attacks. But it is said that police based in the community can provide basic low-level intelligence which helps the security forces in their work. And could the argument around community policing work on a more general level? That community policing helps to strengthen “community cohesion” and social solidarity, thus undercutting the ability of jihadist-Islamists and other anti-social forces to recruit?
The idea that more police is any kind of answer to the social decay, atomisation and despair in which Islamism as well as nationalism have undoubtedly grown (internationally as well as in Britain) is wrong. The police do not exist to deal with such problems. They exist to keep them from leading to unmanageable outbreaks, particularly of a left or anti-capitalist kind but more generally as well, and to repress those outbreaks when they occur.
Look at what the police were used for, only three decades ago, during the last great flare up of working-class militancy in the miners’ strike, the Fleet Street printers’ strikes, and so on. Then they were used even against relatively unthreatening left-wing student protests in 2010. Look at the way they relate to people, particularly young, non-white and migrant people, in every working-class community.
Socialists need to inculcate distrust of and hostility to the police into the labour movement and among workers. Until we are in the position to build a viable alternative, based on workers’ and community organisations, we cannot reasonably advocate abolishing the police. But we can fight for the abolition of special organisations with a particularly repressive role (including MI5, with any legitimate investigatory powers transferred to the mainstream police) and for greater democratic accountability.
Instead of more police, the labour movement and left should advocate more teachers, more youth workers, more social workers, as well as more decent jobs young people can take up. We should advocate the rebuilding of the public services and social provision whose gutting has helped to turn much of Britain into a desert, starting with the reversal of all cuts and privatisation since the Tories came to office (which, let’s note, Labour has not clearly promised). We should wage war against poverty and inequality.
Rather than advocating more resources for the prison system and more prison officers, we should advocate radically fewer people are sent to prison, which functions as a breeding ground for Islamism as well as other social maladies. The prison population should be rapidly reduced; most people imprisoned should be released. We need more and better jobs, a rebuilding of Further Education, and so on, not more prison capacity.
None of that provides a quick or easy solution to a situation where very small but but not insignificant numbers of young Muslim people are attracted to jihadist groups and white people to nationalist forces, and so on. But — beyond police/security operations of the kind which are already heavily-funded — there is no short-term solution except to make a start changing society.
It is not just a matter of fighting for more resources. That should be part of building up a much stronger labour movement (including the Labour Party), trade unions, community organisations and youth organisations, to create a movement which can reinstate a strong sense of solidarity and collectivity in workplaces and communities.
That is the only way we can effectively take on right-wing movements of all sorts and undermine the ability of extreme reactionaries like Daesh to appeal to some of the most angry and disillusioned.