Policy of Force – and the Need for Democratic Control


The riots which erupted in Brixton, Toxteth and other cities in the summer of 1981 once again focused attention on the role of the police. In particular, they highlighted the almost complete lack of accountability, and the need for the labour movement to campaign for the democratisation of the police.

The explosion of anger on the streets arose from the terrible conditions faced by workers in the inner-city areas, especially black workers and youth: mass unemployment, rotten housing, inadequate education, health and social facilities etc. But the street clashes also reflected widespread resentment and anger at the police which had built up over a period of years. The labour movement, while defending workers’ rights to defend their areas from attack, cannot support looting, arson and petrol-bombing as forms of protest. However, it has to be recognised that in almost every case the riots were sparked off by provocative police action. In Brixton, as was soon revealed, there was the intensive Swamp ’81 operation, and a number of brutal arrests and raids. Similarly, in Toxteth a number of arbitrary, heavy-handed arrests sparked off the conflict. These particular incidents, however, were only the tip of the iceberg.

In March 1979, Lambeth Labour council, completely dissatisfied with its lack of control over policing in the area, set up its own Working Party on Community/Police Relations. It concluded (in January 1980) that there was evidence of widespread racism by the police and that they were regarded, particularly by black people, as “an army of occupation”. In London and other cities there has been growing anger at the racial bias of the police. The increasing number of “passport raids” has highlighted the police’s role in enforcing racialist immigration laws. There is also anger over racial attacks. In the past five years 26 black people have been murdered, with only one or two arrests for these crimes. In the London area there were 2,426 violent attacks on Asians alone in 1980. Very few of these crimes were solved.

In Brixton and other areas of London there was also a strong reaction against the intervention of the Special Patrol Group. Few of the black youth or Labour activists could forget the SPG’s responsibility for the killing of Blair Peach after the anti-NF demonstration in Southall (23 April 1979). Before the Brixton upheaval, the inquest on the Deptford fire had emphasised the inability and apparent reluctance of the police seriously to investigate this horrendous crime as a racialist attack. Protest from Labour MPs and civil rights groups had also drawn attention to the scandal of deaths of suspects in police custody. Between January 1970 and June 1979, 245 people died in police custody, with the rate rising from seven a year to forty-eight a year. It was the refusal of the Liverpool police chief, Kenneth Oxford, to reveal the contents of an internal inquiry into the death of Jimmy Kelly which brought about a head-on collision between the Labour councillors on the area police authority and the Chief Constable. Oxford arrogantly expressed the attitude of hard-line police chiefs towards elected police committees. He attacked some councillors for their “vituperative, misinformed comments”, and reportedly told members of the police authority to “keep out of my force’s business.” Liverpool councillors decided to set up a working party to look into the “role and responsibility” of the police authority. After this reported in February 1980, Councillor Margaret Simey, a long-standing member of the authority, commented: “I realise now that there is no hope of running a big modern police force on rules that are no more than a gentleman’s agreement” (Weekend World, ITV, 23 March 1980). “Mr Oxford does not seem to think the police committee is worth proper consideration, and the Tory majority do not seem to think that there is anything wrong with that” (Observer, 21 October 1979).

The clashes between Labour councillors and police chiefs in Lambeth (Brixton) and Liverpool (Toxteth) were early warnings of the explosions to come. The conflict over the role of the police authorities in these two key areas, as well as in West Yorkshire (where there was also a council enquiry in 1978) and Lewisham (where in 1980 the council threatened to withhold its contribution to the Metropolitan police), underlined the complete lack of democratic accountability as far as the police were concerned.

Yet the police were not always unaccountable to local authorities. When, after the formation of the Metropolitan police in 1829, police forces were gradually created in the boroughs, they were under the control of “watch committees” made up of council members, who appointed the constables, and their officers, and fixed their pay and controlled their work. When the county councils were reformed in the 1880s, “standing joint committees” were created, comprising of half county councillors and half local magistrates, with similar powers to the borough watch committees. “The control of the watch committees was absolute,” writes one historian of the police (T A Crichley, History of the Police in England and Wales). “In its hands lay the sole power to appoint, promote and punish men of all ranks, and it had powers of suspension and dismissal. The watch committee prescribed the regulations for the force, and subject to the approval of the town council determined the rates of pay.” In some boroughs the chief police officer was required to report weekly to the watch committee. There was, however, continuous pressure from the government to establish stronger central control of the police; but this was resisted by local interests. Throughout the 19th century the Home Secretary’s main role was that of ensuring all areas recruited and maintained adequate police forces, which was carried out through the inspectors of constabulary.

This relationship was not just the product of administrative convenience. It reflected the balance of class forces, and the political relations flowing from them. The borough councils were dominated by the industrial and commercial capitalist class. They paid for the police through the rates, and therefore they insisted they controlled the police. The industrial middle class were suspicious of central government, which they associated with extravagant and unnecessary expenditure, and which they feared would interfere in their affairs on behalf of the aristocratic oligarchy which dominated central government. The propertied middle class which championed parliamentary government took it for granted that a body like the police, which potentially had enormous power, should be democratically controlled.

This, however, was in the era before the working class had become an independent political force. Even at the end of the 19th century only a small minority of workers had the vote. When the great majority of working class men gained the vote in 1918 (all women in 1928) the property owning classes changed their tune. They were no longer concerned about the aristocratic oligarchy, which had been eclipsed by industrial capitalists, but they certainly feared the growing strength of the labour movement. The end of the First World War in 1918 brought a massive radicalisation of the workers, with enormous struggles and strike battles. Labour councillors began to be elected in many towns and cities, with the emergence of a number of Labour-controlled councils. The .attempt of the state to take control of the police out of the hands of local government and concentrate it centrally was also made more urgent by the police strikes of 1918 and 1919.

After the strikes, the Desborough Committee was set up to overhaul the whole police structure, and many of its recommendations were adopted. One recommendation was that the power of appointment, promotion and discipline should be transferred from the watch committees to Chief Constables. This, however, was still resisted in Parliament, and the powers remained formally in the hands of watch committees until 1964. However, in one way and another the powers of Chief Constables were considerably strengthened. So too was the “informal” central influence exerted by the Home Office (and the Scottish Office), especially as central government now provided half the cost of maintaining local forces. The element of democratic control through the watch committees was slowly but surely strangled. The last vestiges of accountability, moreover, were allowed to disappear largely without opposition from the labour movement, controlled in that period by the right-wing leadership.

The 1960 Royal Commission on the Police concluded that the main problem of police accountability was controlling Chief Constables. They “should be subject to more effective supervision,” said the report—but this was to be done by making Chief Constables more accountable to central government, not to local watch committees. The Royal Commission’s recommendations were put into effect by the 1964 Police Act (and the Police (Scotland) Act, 1967). Borough watch committees and county standing joint committees were replaced by police authorities, made up of two thirds councillors and one third magistrates. Local authorities still paid for half of the cost of the forces, but their Chief Constables, backed up by the Home Office, quickly established the principle that “operational questions” were outside police committees’ scope. In practice, the 1964 Act institutionalised and legalised the situation established after 1945. The new police committees are not even committees of the local councils, but independent statutory bodies. This effectively divorces them from council control. In some authorities, like Liverpool, the councillors are not even allowed to ask questions on the police authority.

In theory, the police authorities appoint the Chief Constable and can dismiss the Chief Constable “in the interests of police efficiency.” But these powers are strictly subject to the Home Secretary’s agreement. In theory, the police committees can question the Chief Constable on his annual reports, or ask him for special reports. In practice this is very difficult. Most Chief Constables’ annual reports give very little information on policing methods, and they particularly avoid the most contentious areas of policing.

Most of the police chiefs strongly resist all proposals for increased democratic accountability on the grounds that it would subject the police to “political control”. They try to perpetuate the myth, important for gaining public acceptance of their role in the past, that the police are an arm of a “neutral” state. They are, according to this view, “above” politics and sectional interests, and ultimately answerable to the equally “neutral” and “independent” judiciary. The recent changes in police policy themselves refute this liberal myth.

The Police Act and other legislation of the early 1960s for the most part merely institutionalised changes which had already taken place. But it was the stormy events which opened the 1970s, a new decade of crisis, which brought the really significant changes in police planning and training. The Tory government under Edward Heath came to office in 1970 with unemployment over 1 million for the first time in postwar Britain. The Tories set out to take on the working class, aiming to break the power of the trade unions through the 1971 Industrial Relations Act. But Heath’s moves against the trade unions provoked massive opposition from the organised workers, which eventually defeated his attempt to use the law and special courts to shackle the unions. The most significant of the industrial battles which shook the Heath government was the 1972 miners’ strike. The decisive battle took place at Saltley Gates where 30,000 miners’ pickets and other industrial workers blockaded the Midlands coal depot. The police were defeated and forced to retreat. This was not only a crushing blow to the Tory government, but demonstrated to the capitalists the weakness of their state when faced with organised, mobilised workers.

In response, the government instigated an immediate review of its security policy, covering everything from policing the streets to dealing with an insurrection. The strategists of capital were preparing for the possibility of revolution. Raymond Carr, the Tory Home Secretary, set up a National Security Committee to review all aspects of main- taming public order and to produce new “contingency plans”. The committee reported in 1975, after the return of the Labour government. Labour changed the name of the body to the vaguer “Civil Contingencies Committee”, but adopted all its main recommendations. This major review led to a programme of equipping police forces with modern technology for surveillance and holding records and with new riot gear. New training meant the police were being prepared for riots and for confrontations with demonstrations, strike pickets, etc. More special units were set up to act as para-military squads as and when required. In 1977 riot shields appeared on the streets for the first time in Britain (apart from Northern Ireland) when the police moved against anti-fascist demonstrators protesting against a National Front march through Lewisham. At the same time, however, plans were made for the use of the army to back up the police in emergencies. Joint operations, as at London’s Heathrow airport in 1974, were staged, supposedly to counter alleged terrorist threats, but clearly aimed at getting the public used to seeing the army operating with the police on the streets. Then, in 1977/78, the Labour government actually called out 20,000 troops to take over fire-fighting duties and break the strike of the firemen taking action against Labour’s pay-restraint policy.

These developments make it clear that the “iron fist” thinking of the Andertons and McNees does not merely express the hardline outlook of a number of reactionary police chiefs, but reflects the new perspective of the strategists of the ruling class themselves. They have recognised that the relative social peace of the post-war period ended with the ebbing of the economic boom. They see that the coming period, with the continued catastrophic decline of British capitalism and the inevitable erosion of living standards, will be one of head-on conflict with the working class. They have therefore discarded the old ‘liberal’, ‘democratic’ face of the British ruling class and instead are presenting a brutal, repressive visage. These developments, particularly with the perspective of the Andertons, make it vitally important for the labour movement to campaign for the democratisation of the police.

If the working class is to preserve the economic gains and the democratic rights that it has wrested from the capitalists in the past, it must carry through the socialist transformation of society. Past gains cannot be preserved indefinitely within the rotten framework of a crisis-ridden capitalism. In transforming society, it is Utopian to think that the existing apparatus of the capitalist state can be taken over and adapted by the working class. In a fundamental change of society, all the existing institutions of the state will be shattered and replaced by new organs of power under the democratic control of the working class. While basing itself on the perspective of the socialist transformation of society, however, the labour movement must advance a programme which includes policies which come to grips with the immediate problems posed by the role of the police.

The movement must campaign along the following lines:

  • The police must be returned to the authority of local government police committees, with powers like those of the original watch committees. The local police committees should have the power to appoint and dismiss Chief Constables and senior officers. They should be responsible not only for the police’s physical resources but for “operational questions”, i.e. day-to-day policing policies. The Metropolitan Police, which at present is only formally accountable to the Home Secretary, should also be made accountable to a democratic Greater London police committee
  • The police committees should ensure a genuinely independent complaints procedure under the complaints board composed of democratically elected representatives. They should ensure that the appropriate disciplinary procedures are implemented.
  • The police committees should ensure that any racist elements or fascist sympathisers within the police are weeded out of the force.

Through such police committees, the labour movement, in areas where Labour controlled the local councils, would be able to establish democratic checks and controls on the role of the police. In the past, before the working class had emerged as an independent political force, the spokesmen of big business and the middle class insisted that the police were democratically accountable. Now, the labour movement, which represents the overwhelming majority in society, must demand that democratic accountability is extended to cover this force which, it is claimed, exists to protect the interests of the public.

Labour must also demand:

  • The abolition of the Special Patrol Group and other similar units.
  • The abolition of the Special Branch and the destruction of political files and computer records not connected with criminal investigations.
  • The right of the police to an independent, democratic trade union organisation to defend their interests as workers.

3. Fighting Crime?

“Law and order” has long been a favourite electioneering slogan of the Tories. They try to represent any criticism of the police as an attempt to undermine “the fight against crime”. Calls for democratic accountability are portrayed as “politically motivated” moves to undermine the police’s “neutral” and “impartial” role. At the 1977 Tory Party conference, for instance, Whitelaw claimed that it was “part of a left-wing mythology” that “there was something despicable, almost immoral, in discussing the prevention of crime at all.” Contrary to Tory mythology, however, Marxists are not opposed to the police taking action to catch criminals and to protect people’s safety and personal property. Working-class people are naturally concerned about crime, and especially alarmed about increasing violence. But the Tones, by elevating the “moral” issues and the abstractions of “law” and “legality”, want to turn attention away from the social roots of crime.

What better answer to the Tories than the comments of the Boston Police Commissioner, Robert Di Grazia? “We are not letting the public in on our era’s dirty little secret,” he wrote: “that those who commit the crime that worries citizens the most—violent street crime—are, for the most part, the products of poverty, unemployment, broken homes, rotten education, drug addiction and alcoholism, and other social ills about which the police can do little, if anything.” Di Grazia does not draw any radical conclusion about the problem of upholding “justice” in society divided by extremes of wealth and poverty—within a system based on the legalised expropriation of workers’ surplus value by the capitalist class. Nevertheless, Di Grazia eloquently denounces the “politicians (who) get away with law and order rhetoric that reinforces the mistaken notion that the police—in ever greater numbers and with ever more gadgetry—can alone control crime.”

His criticisms certainly apply to Thatcher’s government. Unemployment, Mrs Thatcher said after Brixton erupted in April 1981, was not the cause. The real cause, she implied, was the breakdown of “respect for the law” and the erosion of “moral values”. The Tories cannot accept that their economic policies which have had a shattering effect on the youth, have helped create the conditions for conflict on the streets. If there has been a breakdown of previously accepted social norms of behaviour and of traditional morality, they cannot see that the terrible alienation of young people created by the profit system is a powerful contributing factor. Like the politicians Di Grazia criticises, Thatcher and Whitelaw simply back the arming of the police with more powerful equipment: riot gear, water cannon, CS gas, plastic bullets, and, increasingly, firearms. They also support heavier sentences in the courts, and a tougher regime in prisons and juvenile detention centres.

The Tories’ approach reflects the thinking of the professional police chiefs. Some, it is true, have spoken out against the crude, hard-line stance of the Andertons and Oxfords. John Alderson, Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall (who retired in April 1982) is a notable example. Alderson said after the riots: “One thing is certain, it is no answer to resort to brute force to control people.” Alderson, whose liberal approach is in sharp contrast to that of most other police chiefs, advocates “community policing”. In his view, the primary concern of the police should not be “law enforcement” but the welfare of the community and the amelioration of social conditions which foster crime. He recognises that unless the emphasis is on prevention and unless the police have the confidence and support of the people they are supposed to be protecting, there is no hope of effectively “fighting crime”.

But the new breed of hard-line police chiefs, like Anderton (Manchester), McNee (Metropolitan), and Oxford (Merseyside), regard Alderson’s views as quaintly old-fashioned. They consider that they are coming to grips, no bones about it, with the realities of a society which cannot afford to put the emphasis on social welfare. Unlike Alder- .son, they are not primarily concerned with fighting crime of the traditional sort. They are now preoccupied with the task of defending the status quo in an industrialised, capitalist society increasingly torn by economic crisis and class conflict. To base policing on support and co-operation from the public would, under these conditions, be unrealistic. Any form of democratic accountability is seen by these hard-liners as a potentially dangerous restraint on their ability to use brute force as and when they consider it necessary. They work on the assumption that the police is a force to be used to uphold a framework of authority, which they define as “law and order”. From this perspective, “community policing” is seen as little more than a public relations exercise.

The statements of Anderton and the others make it clear what they really mean by upholding “law and order”: not the protection of ordinary people from violent assaults, burglaries etc, but the defence of big business, property and the capitalist state from the growing threat of an increasingly radicalised and militant working class. Speaking on Question Time (BBC-1, 16 October 1979), Anderton said: “I think that from the police point of view that my task in the future—that basic crime as such—theft, burglary, even violent crime—will not be the predominant police feature. What will be the matter of greatest concern to me will be the covert and ultimately overt attempt to overthrow democracy, to subvert the authority of the state, and, in fact, to involve themselves in acts of sedition designed to destroy our parliamentary system and the democratic government in this country.”

Fighting crime, for chief constables like Anderton, is not the same thing as catching criminals at all. Listening to this and other of Anderton’s statements, what doubt can there be that by “democracy” he really means the capitalist system? In practice, “sedition” and “subversion” mean any attempt by workers to use their democratic and trade union rights to defend their interests. For example, the Association of Chief Police Officers complained to the parliamentary Home Affairs Committee (February 1980): “Today the right to demonstrate is widely exploited, and marching is the most chosen form of demonstration adopted by protestors. Irrespective of the peaceful nature of the procession the numbers involved bring town centres to a halt, business is disrupted and the public bus service thrown out of schedule. In short, a general annoyance is created to the normal process of daily life.”

How readily have police chiefs resorted to blanket bans on marches under the 1936 Public Order Act, in reality to prevent anti-fascist demonstrations and counter-demonstrations. On a number of occasions, however, Anderton and McNee were prepared to muster an enormous number of police to escort a handful of fascists through the streets, supposedly to defend their democratic right to demonstrate! Police chiefs are also seeking through parliamentary Bills to extend their control of marches, requiring advance notice and seeking to impose their own “code of practice” for demonstrators which would virtually have the force of law.

The police chiefs have been cautious in supporting legislation which would inevitably mean head-on collision with mass trade union forces. They learned some lessons from Saltley Gates and Edward Heath’s ill-fated Industrial Relations Act. However, the police have steadily stepped up their harassment of labour movement activists. In a “field manual” produced by a senior London officer in 1977, new recruits were advised to watch out for people who “although not dishonest in the ordinary sense, may, owing to extreme political views intend to harm the community you have sworn to protect.” It goes on: “while there are subtle differences between these types of extremists and thieves, it is difficult to put one’s finger on material distinctions.”

This is the attitude which increasingly underlies routine policing. Clearly, the simple catching of criminals is much less important to the police chiefs, despite the Tones’ law and order demagogy, than protecting the system against anyone who has the temerity to defend their interests or propagate their views. The labour movement does not condone crimes of violence (but it equally condemns the appalling cult of violence fostered by business interests through films, television and other media). Nor can the movement, while understanding the social causes of crime, support robbery as an “individual way out” of the problems facing workers. We have no sympathy with vicious criminal elements who are as much a menace to the workers as to big property owners, and whose activity provides the state with the excuse for strengthening repressive powers.

But the need to counter criminal activity does not give the “guardians of the law” the right to act as though they are a law unto themselves. Fighting crime does not justify the harassment and ill-treatment of suspects; or excuse denying suspects adequate legal defence or the twisting or fabrication of evidence. Fighting crime does not justify savage sentences or brutal, inhuman conditions in prisons; and it does not justify racial bias or arbitrary and oppressive policing. Overcoming crime for socialists, means fundamentally the eradication of the social conditions which produce crime. But within the present society, democratic accountability of the police, far from undermining the “fight against crime” would remove the obstacles created by an undemocratic, unaccountable and increasingly repressive police force.