Neither the man from the Met nor London’s mayor could be accused of presentation fatigue. At a joint press conference at City Hall on Wednesday, Boris Johnson and Sir Paul Stephenson hawked Scotland Yard’s new, London-wide crime mapping website with the uncrushable optimism and huckster guile of door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. Is law-breaking soiling the deep pile of your neighbourhood? We have the answer! It beats as it sweeps as it cleans!
That sounds too cynical, and is. Oh, doubts are justified. Johnson likes crime maps because they were part of Rudi Giuliani’s “miracle”, but the Right never addresses why the miracle happened everywhere else too. The Met’s site is, in any case, not the same or as the CompStat system used in New York. Add the usual data debates about changing categorisations, under-reporting (especially in poor areas) and concentrated police action making the stats look worse rather than the problem appear addressed, and you’ve good reason for wondering if the 210 grand it cost to set the system up has been well spent.
Against all that, though – and here’s where the pitch was smart – the emphasis was all on enhancing police accountability and public confidence. Never mind, we were told, that including data about clear-up rates is only being “considered” or that the stories it tells about each ward – “sub-ward”, even – of the capital might differ sharply from the one told on the ground, the point was that the maps would encourage “a more detailed conversation” with people, Sir Paul said. Johnson stressed that he wanted Londoners to see and therefore believe that when they become a victim of an offence, it does not go unnoticed.
Well, fair enough. These are desirable goals and good luck with pursuing them, gentlemen. I just hope you’re never accused of over-selling. Crime-busting initiatives, especially when a groovy bit of high tech kit is involved, raise expectations that seem doomed never to be satisfied. Johnson profited in the mayoral election campaign by siding with public scepticism about every official claim that crime is down. In a climate of horror about teenage knife attacks in particular, Ken Livingstone’s cold numbers cut little ice with London’s electors compared with Johnson’s warm promises to listen to their anxieties and act. But will his actions produce results?
It’s an indictment of ten years of Labour in government that a sometime figure of fun like Johnson now intones a version of the crime-and-its-causes mantra more convincingly than the party whose former leader invented it. Has there been a sadder feature of all those years in power than the risible “tough” posturing of successive Labour Home Secretaries or Blair’s Dirty Harry strutting at the dispatch box during his final months? As Labour has degenerated into craven tabloid-pleasing, Tories often look enlightened by comparison.
Johnson has a chance to translate appearances into reality. It’s early days and so no surprise that he’s offered mostly gestures so far: the public transport booze ban might not be enforceable; he may be sort of right that every knife seized under Operation Blunt 2 represents a potential life saved, but there’s always another blade in the kitchen drawer. The true tests are yet to come, and public opinion – unreasonable, irrational and driven by fright – will set the hardest of them.
I returned from my summer travels to learn that two more teenagers had died within walking distance of my east London home. One fell while trying to climb down the side of the block of flats where he lived, apparently fearing that a group of youths was coming to kill him. The other, just 14 years old, was stabbed after being attacked by a gang within yards of his front door. The rate of teen murders in London this year is close to one a week. Sooner or later, citizens will start asking why Johnson hasn’t brought it down.
The question won’t be fair. Unlike other crimes, the incidence of murder is not difficult to measure – it’s hard to miscount corpses – but its causes and the secrets of its prevention are as complex and varied as with any other kind of offence. No London mayor – no politician - can solve all of these and any deep and substantial difference he makes will not be easy to quantify, let alone claim credit for - especially when he got elected rubbishing Met figures. Moreover, Johnson’s powers to tackle the entrenched inequalities that help to nurture barbarous tendencies are limited.
What he has, though, is energy and big promises to keep. His policies for combating youth disaffection – the “causes” side of his Blairite equation – will be unveiled in the coming months and may surprise us with their scope. It will be ironic and, to a degree, deserved if his exploitation of the crime issue becomes a rod for his own back, and the cynicism I felt at the crime-mapping launch won’t go away. But Johnson is making braver and wiser noises about crime than any other politician at this time. For that alone, let’s wish him well.