Just six months ago today London was emerging from its third night of rioting, with a semblance of order only just beginning to take hold as a massive police presence descended on the city. The fear in the streets was palpable. We had been given a brief and terrifying glimpse of what sheer anarchy looked like, the rage and shameless opportunism of London’s marginalised youth provoking deep existential questions about what was wrong with our society.
Yet, as the contest for London Mayor begins to build up momentum, Ken and Boris’ campaigns continue to revolve around the same old topic of public transport, ignoring the deeper societal issues at stake . Whether it’s Ken promising to slash fares, or Boris pledging to take over Greater London’s railway lines, every day the Evening Standard seems to contain yet another headline pandering to its readership of tired commuters.
These debates are no doubt of significant concern to voters who are feeling the squeeze of recession. Yet with the Mayor recently gaining significant powers over the Metropolitan Police, and polls showing that crime is the number one issue for voters, policing should be at the top of the agenda. On top of this, there needs to be more of a debate about how to tackle the underlying causes of crime, in particular how to regenerate those neglected parts of the capital which remain blighted by violence.
These are issues on which Lib Dem Brian Paddick has a real advantage over the other two candidates, with his extensive experience in the Metropolitan Police working in some of London’s most difficult areas. This is perhaps why the two main candidates have been so keen to steer the debate towards issues of transport, where vote-winning pledges are easily made and complex societal problems easily avoided.
Admittedly, Paddick has also made public transport an important aspect of his campaign, with his proposal for fairer fares through one-hour bus tickets and part-time travel cards. However, he’s also managed to address some more difficult issues often overlooked by the other two candidates. Paddick’s visits to riot-afflicted areas such as Tottenham stand in stark contrast to Boris Johnson’s notorious refusal to cut his holiday short when the disturbances initially broke out. Moreover, Paddick’s proposals to improve community relations with the police, for example by stopping discriminatory stop and search practices, have shown an innovative approach to addressing some of the deep-seated issues which fuelled the riots in the first place.
The Lib Dem Mayoral candidate has also shown he is willing to go against the status quo and take bold decisions. As Police Commander in Brixton, scene of so many anti-police riots in the past, Paddick won huge cross-community support by shifting policing efforts away from cannabis arrests and towards tackling street-crime. That may have earnt him widespread vilification in the tabloid press, but it won him the admiration and support of the local community. Brian also repeatedly criticised the Met’s handling of the 2005 Jean Charles de Menezes’ shooting, and more recently criticised the police investigation into the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, of which he himself was a victim. This unique perspective, combining a direct experience of policing with a willingness to address entrenched institutional problems, puts him in an ideal position to tackle some of London’s most pressing issues.
Ken Livingstone’s recent pledge to increase police numbers may be a sign that the issue of crime is finally gaining prominence in the campaign for London mayor. This may in turn help to spark a much-needed public debate over crime, and give greater prominence to some of Brian Paddick’s proposed policies to improve policing. After all, vote-winning promises may make good headlines, but they do nothing do tackle the problems of social exclusion which continue to plague our capital.
An edited version of this article appeared in Liberal Democrat Voice