The world turned upside down

[Now also on Comment is Free]

Ken Livingstone was on virtuoso form on Today this morning, defending Met Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair as robustly as he could (and that’s pretty robustly), and freestyling over a range of topics – from the iniquities of Health and Safety culture, to the superiority of continental inquisitorial courts to our adversarial model – like a saner version of Heather Mills.

Even more dazzling than the Mayor’s gladiatorial skill is the curious sense that we have passed through the looking glass. A Labour Mayor, elected from the left of the party, stands behind a police chief whose officers shot dead an innocent immigrant worker, and whose force has been found guilty of ‘catastrophic’ failings as a result. On the other side are ranged Conservative Party figures, from the curiously Edwardian figure of Dominic Grieve to the just plain curious mayoral candidate Boris Johnson, calling for resignations and considerations of positions. It will make for an interesting mayoral election next year.

But underneath all this opportunism and inversion of political normality some longer games are being played out. Compared to his predecessor, ‘copper’s copper’ Sir John Stevens, Sir Ian Blair has been a force for reform within the Met, pushing managerialist battles against waste, as well as ideological warfare on the ‘institutional racism’ that was diagnosed by the Stephen Lawrence Enquiry.

As such, Sir Ian is an important ally for Ken Livingstone, whose anti-racism is only matched by his strong (and sometimes 1950s-nostalgic) law-and-order focus. But there is something deeper too. When Ken Livingstone was elected in 2000, the Mayor’s powers over the Met Police were pretty limited: he could appoint 12 of the 23 members of the Metropolitan Police Authority, which oversees the Met Police, and even these were essentially nominated by the party groups on the London Assembly. He could also agree the Met’s annual budget (subject to the ability of the Government to stipulate a minimum).

This was not the relationship between a US City Mayor and Police Commissioner, but something far weaker, stymied by Government’s traditional reluctance to cede power over policing in the capital to any form of local government. Ken Livingstone set about changing this confused structure of accountability by ignoring it. He proclaimed himself an ally of first Stevens then Blair, boosting their budgets in exchange for promises of specific action on crime, on waste, on racism, beating up the hapless London Assembly when they sought to challenge these hikes in Council Tax, and presenting to the world an image of the Mayor as the man in charge.

This tactic has worked: from next year the Mayor will be able to appoint the Chair of the MPA, or even to take the role himself, as well as taking power over many other policy areas where he has staked his claim. By seeming, or even pretending, to be in charge, Ken Livingstone has clawed power from a possessive and nervous state. That’s why the man who has no right to hire or fire the Met Police Commissioner was defending him on the radio this morning.

Siren songs

I live on a busy road near Brixton Police Station, so I get to see – and hear – plenty of policing in action. From morning to night, police cars and vans rush past in a blur of sirens and blue lights, sometimes zipping past each other in opposite directions.

But you rarely see police officers out of their vehicles. Friday night was an exception. Emerging from Stockwell tube station, I was confronted by ten or so police officers in the ticket hall, with dogs nosing at passengers’ briefcases and shopping bags. What was this all about, I asked? ‘Public reassurance’, I was told, then (when I insisted that I was not feeling re-assured), ‘drugs’.

It made me think of another incident a few weeks earlier. A crowd of school kids had gathered opposite my flat at about 4pm, and were argy-bargying about. The man from Brixton Cycles, who keeps a close eye on the street, came out and told them to calm down, which they did.

A few moments later, a police car screeched to a halt, and two officers leapt out. As the crowd began to scatter and slink away, two more vehicles appeared: an unmarked car with two plain-clothes officers, and a minibus with several more. It’s worth noting in passing that all the kids were black, and all the officers white.

Meanwhile, within the past ten days, two black teenagers have been shot dead within half a mile of my flat: Nathan Foster near Brixton tube on Friday night, and Abukar Mahamud a week earlier in Stockwell. The lack of volume control shown by the police – their inability to deploy anything less than full force – is thrown into sharp relief by this horrific backdrop.

The police can’t be everywhere, of course, and cannot be expected to anticipate where crimes may take place, but this style of policing seems to have no sense of proportion, to allow for no half-measures. Police charge around in their vehicles, either chasing after crimes that have already taken place, or swarming over every infraction, however minor, as if facing the combined force of Osama Bin Laden and the Kray Twins

I know that many police officers deem the ‘bobby on the beat’ to be a public relations strategy that does nothing to prevent crime or catch criminals, but this approach – it would be tempting to call it the \’Hot Fuzz School of Community Policing\’ if it wasn\’t so serious – does not look efficient or effective. A few policemen and women patrolling on foot, particularly at night, might even deter the impression that our streets are war zones requiring personal protection, sirens and high speed driving skills to stay alive.

It’s hard to say whether a more visible presence on the streets might have saved two young lives, but we need to try something different. Whatever is happening now – however much it is presented as ‘scientific’ or ‘evidence-based’ – is clearly not working.