Thursday, 16 April 2009

Policing the Police

When was the last time the police received so much negative media attention? To compound the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests, the last 72 hours has see the so-called 'pre-emptive' arrest of 114 people who were planning an action at Ratcliffe power station near Nottingham, and footage of a police attack on an unarmed protestor has emerged - also from the G20 protests. The officers involved have now been suspended. In the mean time the Independent Police Complaints Commission has been forced to acknowledge the events surrounding Iain Tomlinson's death have in fact been captured by CCTV. In one of the most heavily surveilled corners of London, to claim otherwise - as they originally did - was an incredulous step too far. Therefore news of a review into 'public order' policing is to be welcomed

This spotlight on police behaviour is welcome. Under the Conservatives and New Labour the police have been deployed as a political tool, from aggressively and ruthlessly prosecuting class struggle from above to intimidating and criminalising dissent. The police themselves have enjoyed ever greater arms-length management and are actively lobbying for more power, and mainstream politicians are only too happy to indulge them.

There is one thing lacking in the mounting print and blog commentary on the left: what is to be done about the police?

Marxists have no illusions in the police. They are the first line of the repressive arm of the state. This state is, to paraphrase Marx, a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie. One of these 'common affairs' is the problem of managing the working class and ensuring it is never in a position to threaten private property in the means of production - the wellspring of bourgeois power in all capitalist societies. For Marxists the police represent a serious obstacle to realising socialism. This is why, traditionally, many a revolutionary programme has argued for disbanding the police and its replacement by militias formed from the conscious workers themselves - to defend and strengthen working class power. The obvious difficulty is outside a revolutionary situation, calling for the abolition of the police invites derision and dismissal. The far left in Britain has either tended to argue this position regardless, compounding their isolation from the bulk of the politically interested population (take your pick from among the colourful array of ultra-lefts), or have maintained a strategic silence, as this otherwise okay piece in Socialist Worker illustrates.

This has tended to leave the far left with very little to say about crime and everyday policing. It may be good on the diagnosis of crime but is decidedly poor in what can be done about it, creating the impression the left is soft on criminality and completely unserious about it. Obviously, this is not good enough - it leaves us disarmed in front of those communities where crime and anti-social behaviour is endemic. And from an 'orthodox' point of view of progressing the class struggle, there is no development of a strategy to neutralise the police as the first line of the capitalist state. It's an issue left hanging in the air, presumably to be sorted out at some point down the line.

Among the revolutionary left the Socialist Party stands unique for developing a set of transitional demands on law and order issues. It recognises working class communities bear the brunt of crime and argues for a variety of strategies to tackle it - more resources is one part, but the other is about empowering those communities through the democratic control of policing. At the moment accountability is haphazard and indirect. Localised policing is overseen by local authority police committees on which sit elected councillors, police liason officers do the rounds at community centres, plus the IPCC quango deals with complaints. Democratic accountability exists partially through the police committees only, and even then they have no rights over policy or personnel. For example, last year Staffordshire Police were very pleased with themselves for clamping down on cannabis factories and raiding businesses for illegal workers - but these are not the crime and policing issues that exercise the press or Potteries people at large.

In the USA, with some variation, there is limited democratic input into policing - for example Sheriffs can be elected. And also looking back into Britain's past there once existed watch committees comprised of notables, but were largely done away with as mass suffrage came into being. Today so-called community policing and neighbourhood watch schemes place greater public expectations and diffuse "demands" on the police from below - but none of these are up to the accountability job. A tier of locally and regionally-based committees made up of lay community representatives in conjunction with a beefed up and democratised police watchdog with powers of scrutiny, policy direction, suspension and dismissal is what the situation demands to rein the police in. In addition the Police Federation (the SPF in Scotland) should be accorded the status of an independent trade union with the full rights enjoyed by other unions. The anti-democratic Association of Chief Police Officers should be abolished.

Reforms of these character are not a magic bullet that would clean crime up over night. Looking at what can be done to regenerate crime "black spots" from the ground up as well as pursuing more intelligent policies on drugs have to be part of any socialist crime and policing strategy. But reforming the police would certainly do more to create the kind of responsive policing the public expect.

Democratising the police would also blunt their role as the gendarme of the ruling class - as with all democratic demands placed on the state it weakens their class power and makes it more difficult for them to use it to defend their interests. It can also act as a response to policing ideology on two levels. It challenges the police on their hegemonic strengths - they portray themselves as the thin blue line between "decent people" and the deviant underworld. These reforms are designed to make sure the police stick to their 'official' role. And secondly, as difficult as some might find this to swallow, a lot of police join up because they subscribe to this ideology - there could exist a base of support from within the police themselves to make the reforms work.

Ultra-leftists are bound to spit blood at these sorts of measures. Some in fact take the SP's position on democratising policing as evidence of its "reformism", because it refuses to parrot the orthodox position. That's fine - they can indulge their love for the sacred texts as much as they like. It's up to them if they want to treat politics as preparation for a re-enactment of 1917, the Spanish Civil War or the French 'May Events'. However, as far as I'm concerned the SP's basic thinking is about making socialism relevant to the situation as it stands and not how we would like it to be, and the call to democratise the police reflects that.


Roobin said...

One of the thing that strikes me about the SP is it tends to give very detailed answers about most things. I would say that's not a virtue or a vice but (more or less) a fact.

The thing with programmes is every party has one whether they (a) deny it or (b) ever formally write it down. The problem of programmes is whether they connect and how they connect, most importantly whether people can pick up a demand and start trying to bring it to life themselves.

I would say this is a little bit beyond being a practical set of demands... But then I would ;-)

Mick Hall said...


This is a thought full and well thought out piece, in my experience beyond shouting fascist at them we on the left have never had a strategy towards the police and as you write as the working classes are often the victims of crime this lack of a strategy has always been a major flaw.


nationofduncan said...


Phil's just doing his bit to keep the Socialist Party's reputation for brevity intact...

jewbonics said...

I would add one thing:
Marxists serious are preparing for a coming struggle should organize within state security apparati--right, I mean police and the military. revolutions, after all, often happen when the police and military refuse to fire on their own people.

Phil BC said...

Comment moderation on to prevent troll derailment of the thread.

Phil BC said...

You may have discerned a veiled polemic in there, Roobin ;)

I do agree with you - all parties do have programmes of varying degrees of articulation, and actually, going from my experience with your comrades when you were still in Respect, I think the experience for them was positive in the sense of having to concretise positions on issues that may generally go unthought.

Phil BC said...

Glad you found some food for thought, Mick. I think we need to address this issue collectively and come up with something workable.

During last year's campaign in Burslem South anti-social behaviour and drug addiction came up more than a few times on the door step. We had a less detailed version of the above on our leaflets and I remember one woman being particularly impressed. If I'd told her we didn't have a position except all coppers are bastards and they need abolishing, well, I think my impression would have been less than favourable.

Charlie Marks said...

Having a developed position is a good thing for people new to politics, or to interested outsiders - which helps in building alliances with other groups to achieve common aims. So, if the SWP had a clear outline of its positions on various issues, it'd be better placed to recruit and retain members. I reckon.

North Briton Hunter said...

These suggestions might make a difference but really it is quite unlikely.

The localisation of the police force would only work if local government is strengthened and made truly accountable. Without this, any vote for a local police chief, even with committees made up of a local lay community, would be pretty inadequate. The turnout would be lower than the local and European election turnout we will see on June 4.

No major political party wants to tackle the police not because they are 'the gendarme of the ruling class', but because of the political capital that can be made out of being 'tough on crime'.

All governments give the police exactly the powers they want. Hence the recent development that photographing an officer can be against the law. A disgraceful measure.

The further politicisation of the police would probably be extremely counterproductive too as it would attract few voters other than the far right and far left. We would end up with neo-fascists, with beggars and hangers on sitting on boards, controlling these bodies. I realise one should have more faith in the electorate but.....

Far more simply, the police should be made to justify their cost. They are the most costly in Europe. Why should they submit a policing cost for the G20 before the event actually happens. How did they know it would cost £7.5million? They have an unlimited budget.

At the same time, the IPCC should be replaced with a much tougher body which actually does prosecute officers when they abuse their power. And seeing a few senior officers prosecuted for nurturing a culture of abuse could bring about significant changes.

Roobin said...

"I think the experience for them was positive in the sense of having to concretise positions on issues that may generally go unthought."

The above demands would make most sense if a group of socialists faced the serious prospect of taking over a council. There are two dangers I can see with putting pen to paper and listing what you for. One is making a list that is simply reasonable, reasonable-ness only depends on context. Bread, peace and land are actually quite modest demands, except that they once carried a revolution. The other is programme polishing. If only the programme is right then we'll win the day.

I would rather leave the formal programme out entirely or write one with people beyond the immediate organisation.

Bent Society said...

The Govt should forbid itself from goving police toadies honours and titles. Remember James Anderton and Stalker? How many cops are seeking to give the Govt of hte day political advantage over our civil liberties in the hope of being knighted or damed?

Phil BC said...

I'm with you on the devil of the detail, Roobin, but what i've presented here is just the general shape of how we can deal with the issue of policing - the gaps can be filled in when appropriate to do so. But to avoid the issue all together and leave it for the indeterminate future, well, that might be all right for recruiting a few excitable young 'uns but it doesn't really make socialists look serious. And let there be no doubt about it, building a socialist alternative is a deadly serious and complicated business.

Phil BC said...

Sorry for not writing sooner, North Briton.

These reforms do not stand by themselves. They are only likely to be enacted if there was a mass upswell from below in support of them. It follows other elements of the SP's (or whoever's) programme would be won as well, including a restructuring of local government.

But we're not there yet. These general principles might be useful for polemical purposes and/or doorstep campaigning -at least I've found them helpful when tackling an issue the left, at best, has tended to avoid.

djinbrighton said...

Nice theoretical debate.But what action are the left,greens etc taking to force a full public inquiry into Ian's death/G20 policing/IPCC lies/BBC misreporting.We need to keep the police on the defensive so they (and some anarchists) can't turn all future protests into a fight with the police.If that happens the only outlet for workers resisting the effects of recession - job & home losses,tax rises,public service and pension cuts - will be the BNP.We need vigils outside police stations,public meetings representing all democratic viewpoints,local marches,letters to local media,public statements by local politicians and "worthies".
Get off your computers and get out onto the streets.We might not be Greece but we will not forget Ian Tomlinson

Phil BC said...

Djin - you assume all we do is blog. We don't - the comrades in the comments above who I know are all activists. As far as I'm aware there's plenty of activity going on around justice for Ian Tomlinson - it's a bit difficult for me to upsticks and travel 200 miles to cover it.

Roobin said...

There's no real chtat delo here. One of my biggest bugbears is when, for example, street stalls don't have co-ordinated petitions and leaflets to go with the front page. Otherwise it's just shilling.

As far as I can see you can knock on someone's door and say "vote for me this is what I will do for you" or you can say "this is what I want you to do". We'll leave elections aside for a moment, how does the ordinary person go about democratising the police?

"... building a socialist alternative is a deadly serious and complicated business."

Which is strange because I'm most often struck my how absurd it is, and yet, sometimes, it works.

Phil BC said...

"We'll leave elections aside for a moment, how does the ordinary person go about democratising the police?"

Encouraging them to get involved with a campaign or a party with that as an aim would be a start!

Roobin said...

"Encouraging them to get involved with a campaign or a party with that as an aim would be a start!"

Yes, I know. I know a lot of people who hold the line what's-the-point-we-marched-against-the-war-and-it-didn't-do-nuffin. If they're either (a) obnoxious or (b) a good friend I remind them that if mass campaigns don't work neither does pouting.

"Why don't you get involved" is fine to begin, but, as you point out above it doesn't suffice for long. It makes all that fine detail redundant.

djinbrighton said...

Phil.I'm not claiming your commentaters aren't activists.I'm just surprised by the lack of action in cities outside London after Ian's death. I tried,unsuccessfully,to get a vigil in Brighton a few days after in order to keep the issue live.Forcing a public inquiry will aid this and help keep the police on the defensive.How about nationwide vigils for Ian one month on from his death? I've posted similar on a few other left & green sites,but I'm new to the internet and maybe I'm going about this the wrong way.

Left Luggage said...

In my experience people's views on the police are more subtle than simply unqualified support.

The majority of working class people appear to support strong police powers in order to deal with what is widely seen as an increase in crime. At the same time, however, there is a lot of resentment at the priorities the police follow and the way they operate. Criticism of police reponse times and the use of speed cameras are examples of this. Among young working class people, it's not uncommon to find uncompromising authoritarianism on crime combined with a hatred of the police.

There seems to be some space, then, to construct a left narrative on crime that demands police accountability and points out that the police can be corrupt and self serving, but at the same time recognises the corrosive effect of crime on working class communities.

There's a recent post on our blog which addresses some of these issues:


Phil BC said...

Hi there Djin

Well it does look as though something is definitely happening re: justice for Ian Tomlinson - take a look at Ian Bone's blogfor example, but be prepared for some whinging about "the trots".

Left Luggage, I agree with what you say. Most "normal" people I've talked to about this would much favour the police deal with crime issues they define as important, regardless of the enthusiasm or lack thereof they have.

Btw, welcome to blogging. I'll give you a plug in my next shout for new left blogs.

Anonymous said...

"also looking back into Britain's past there once existed watch committees comprised of notables, but were largely done away with as mass suffrage came into being. "

That's not really true. Here's my take on it, which you need to read:

PS - check out what Red Action have had to say on this topic, which is half-decent.