With corporate profits piling up as living standards for the majority fall, there is an inevitable erosion of the idea that the powers that be have society’s best interests at heart. There is dwindling confidence in all the institutions that uphold the capitalist system, including political parties, the media, the judiciary, and the police. Recent events have accelerated this process in the Metropolitan Police, including discussion about its abolition. Sarah Sachs-Eldridge debates what programme socialists should put forward.
A February 2023 YouGov survey found that by 51% to 42% Londoners don’t trust the Metropolitan Police. Only 6% say they trust them “a lot”. In 2022, City Hall research found that 57% of Londoners believed the Met could be relied on when you need it and 62% agreed the Met treats everyone fairly. Both measures represent record lows for public perceptions of the Met, down from 77% and 74% respectively in 2014, when the figures were first published.
The charge sheet is long. A far from exhaustive list of only this century’s crimes runs from: the sexism and misogyny revealed by David Carrick’s attacks and the failure to stop them, to the Charing Cross police station WhatsApp group rape ‘jokes’; to the racism revealed by the stop and searches carried out on the equivalent of one in eight black men aged 15-24 in London in April 2020 during the Covid lockdowns, as Johnson partied and beefed up police powers; to the lies around police killings from Jean Charles de Menezes to Chris Kaba; to the homophobia revealed in the botched investigation into Stephen Port’s murders in Barking; to the sleaze and corruption of the handling of Partygate and phone hacking.
In addition, there have been the revelations of ‘spycops’ undercover police joining political and campaigning organisations – including Militant, the Socialist Party’s predecessor – and environmental and anti-racist organisations, with the aim of disrupting and discrediting them and, outrageously, even forming false relationships with women activists. The names of trade union activists were passed on by the police to construction company bosses who barred thousands of workers from employment, causing enormous hardship for them – but ultimately attempting to weaken the trade union movement.
The appearance of the police as a public service for everyone to avail of when needed is being shattered by experience. The claim that all that is wrong with the Met is a few ‘bad apples’ is disproved by experience of it since its formation in 1829. That’s because the role of the police is, ultimately, part of the capitalist class’s ways and means of maintaining its position and its exploitative system.
Role of the state
For the working class, capitalism means economic exploitation, and workers therefore have a collective interest in ending it. The working class also has the power to do so, and to replace it with a socialist alternative, flowing from the collective role it plays in the production process under capitalism. But capitalism will not be easily removed. It has developed many institutions of the state through which its rule is maintained, and developed means by which it is reinforced ideologically. Included in these are the police.
As Friedrich Engels explained, the state, in the final analysis, can be reduced to bodies of ‘armed men’ in defence of maintaining capitalism. The state is not neutral but represents class interests, and is an instrument for repressing struggle by the oppressed class to change society. Capitalism has built on and developed the institutions of the state – the courts and the law, armies, and prisons – and introduced the police. The police are both part of the state apparatus and play a special role at the interface between the state and working-class people. From this arises the need for the dual role of the police – the need to appear as a democratic public service, and the ultimate role of policing opposition to capitalism. While undermining the appearance of the former threatens the ability of the police to fulfil the latter, it is not possible for the capitalist class to fully control the outcome of its general aims.
The capitalist class also attempts to use division to weaken the ability of the working class to realise its collective strength. Sexism, LGBTQ+phobia, and racism have been used in this way, and are reflected in social attitudes and capitalist institutions, and reinforced by them. Living in a capitalist system strengthens these poisonous ideas. Women’s unequal pay, for example, reflects and backs up the sexist idea of women’s lower status in society, and benefits the bosses. Racist policing reinforces racist ideas that ultimately serve capitalist class interests.
Given the role the police play in capitalism it is hardly surprising that many of the most backward elements are attracted to the service. In its article, Predators in the Police, the pro-capitalist Economist magazine identified a feature of the Met: “Met police tend to live outside the area they serve – many come from Kent or Essex, and Mr Carrick came from Hertfordshire – which may mean they consider themselves separate from the people they serve”. The perpetuation of racist, sexist, LGBTQ+phobic and anti-trade union ideas within the police ranks will also help officers distance themselves from those they police. And, the Economist continues: “The social pressure among police to be a team player can be unhealthy. Officers should feel able to express misgivings about a particular colleague without fearing they will be punished for it”. Racist and sexist ideas are incubated through the way the police are organised – discipline, loyalty, military elements, even the uniform – to pit them against the outside world.
But this is not straightforward for the capitalist class. While disproportionate racist policing reinforces the racist ideas that weaken the working class, and unchallenged sexism, as revealed in the Charing Cross WhatsApp rape jokes chat, can play a certain bonding role among police officers, there is a danger that unchallenged racism and sexism can damage the legitimacy the police require to fulfil their roles.
In this era of intensifying class conflict, democratic rights to strike and protest are under attack by the Tories as they seek to make the working class pay for the crisis and workers seek to organise to resist that outcome. The illusions that the capitalist class has nurtured in the democratic nature of society and the idea of the neutral and fair nature of the forces of the state, such as the police, are shattered by experience, especially in the class struggle. But the role of Marxists is to accelerate the drawing out of these conclusions. That is why the debate about the future of the Met police is so important.
Inevitably, there is discussion about what can be done both among London workers and young people, and also among the defenders of capitalism. The sacking of the former Commissioner, Cressida Dick, was an expression of the latter’s concern that just launching yet another inquiry into the latest scandals would not stem the growing distrust. The right-wing Spectator magazine calls for separation of national and local policing, with the establishment of a national police force to take on the Met’s responsibilities for counter-terrorism and ‘national security’ matters. That is an expression of the capitalists’ fear that the ability to perform these roles, ultimately part of the policing powers that can be used against the working class, will be weakened by the discrediting of the Met.
For the majority of Londoners, it is the safety of their families, both in terms of the Met’s unreliability and its prejudices, that is the main concern. The idea that the Met cannot be reformed is gaining ground. But what is the alternative, is the question that is then posed. An editorial in Socialist Worker, the newspaper of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), simply says: “We must abolish the police”, with no concern about offering a solution to working-class Londoners’ fears about safety, in a world where the rottenness of capitalism is expressed in violence, drugs, and theft, with working-class people making up the large majority of the victims. How can both the rottenness of the police be addressed as well as the need for safety?
Also far from sufficient is the offering from Guardian columnist Owen Jones. Under the headline “abolish the police”, Owen asks: “What would a new police force look like? That should be left to a royal commission – headed by an independent figure, not an establishment patsy – which calls evidence from all sections of the community. Structures, training, forms of accountability: all need to be designed from scratch. It needs to be a body stripped of prejudice and bigotry, that defends hard-won democratic freedoms, as well as protecting people’s security. It is all over for the Met, and time to debate the police force that London deserves”. But a royal commission would be subject to the same class interests as the police serve. Look at how the current strike wave shows that it is the working class that’s capable of resolving the crisis in the NHS and schools and, as clearly revealed during the Covid crisis, about how to run transport safely. The working class must have its own programme for replacing the Met.
The capitalists will not permit their state to be taken from them piece by piece, any more than they will allow the economy to be nationalised industry by industry. Therefore, what is needed is a socialist transformation of society. At the same time, it is necessary to demand the democratisation of the existing state apparatus, the civil service, the courts, and the “armed bodies of men” themselves, which also raises the idea that the working-class is capable of democratically planning and running society. Socialists support the abolition of the Met Police, and the establishment of police forces in local areas. But linked to that must be a programme for democratic working-class control, which means advocating for local police forces to be under the control of elected committees, with the majority on these to be composed of representatives elected by the trade union movement.
In their quarterly journal, the SWP offers a circular argument: “The British model of policing is highly centralised, despite the numbers of different forces, because funding is allocated by central government and can only be used for policing”. But the British model is based on what best serves the interests of the capitalist class. Funding is allocated by central government to a centralised policing model because that makes it more remote from local working-class control. It wasn’t always so centralised – but with the election of Labour councillors and councils, local control of the police went from being an advantage for the ascending capitalist class to risking potential encroachment into its state by the working class, and therefore the police’s ability to play a role in maintaining class rule. This the capitalist class will not tolerate – as the experience of the Greater London Council (GLC) in the 1980s illustrates.
In January 2023, the website of the Undercover Policing Inquiry published a pdf of a 1983 report by Special Branch entitled, ‘Political extremism and the campaign for police accountability within the Metropolitan Police District’. It reveals the concern of the capitalist class at the attempts by the Labour left-led GLC to develop a Police Committee, and Police Committees in each of the 32 London boroughs, which, as Special Branch puts it, “appears to be nothing less than a carefully orchestrated attempt to secure political control of the Met Police”.
The Special Branch report summarises the aims and ambitions of the GLC’s Police Committee – what it considers measures towards “ultimate control of the police”. These include transferring to the Police Committee the power to direct all police officers in relation to operational matters as well as general policy and responsibility for all appointments, promotions, disciplinary measures and dismissals. Also proposed was changing the legal status of police officers to that of local government employees, who would be free to join political parties, take part in politics and join trade unions. Random visits to police stations by lay members and a new complaints procedure are also mentioned. These were measures that would not only have begun to put control and oversight into the hands of the working class, but brought police officers into the orbit of the working class. This would have meant greater potential for influencing them – especially at times of class struggle – and, therefore, reducing their ability to be used against strikes and movements.
The Police Act 1964 strengthened policing powers and centralisation of the police. By the time of the report in 1983, the GLC had established eleven borough police committees and seven Police Monitoring Groups at borough level. The Special Branch report goes into detail of the “known political extremists” involved, ranging from Communist sympathisers, to Trotskyists including from the Militant Tendency (the predecessor organisation of the Socialist Party), to “self-confessed lesbians”. The GLC’s programme correctly posed how working-class control could be organised, and should be part of today’s discussion. But the left in the GLC failed to combine it with a strategy for working-class mobilisation to fight for and defend it, ultimately including the preparedness to confront capitalism and fight for the working class to take power.
The left took control of the GLC in May 1981 and immediately moved to carry out its manifesto promise to cut fares by 32%. It was this bold programme on public transport and defence of jobs and services that saw Ken Livingstone become leader of the GLC. Militant supporters at the time warned that the GLC and left councils couldn’t rely on resolutions and manoeuvres in the council chambers or even bold programmes alone, but they had to be used as a platform to build a mass working-class movement – linking the councillors with the council workers and the wider working class – to force the Tory government to grant the necessary cash, and to get the Tories out. Unfortunately, this model, as shown in practice in Liverpool when Militant led the council, was not adopted. Instead, faced with Tory aggression, Livingstone and Co were not prepared to lead a determined mass struggle in defence of jobs and services. The GLC was abolished in March 1986. In the classic way of reformism, it had provoked the capitalist class but didn’t understand the need to organise to remove it from power and its state.
The lesson of all of this is that the question of policing London is not separate from the current strike wave. It must be discussed within the trade union structures with the aim of a programme of community and working-class control of the police, and for socialism. The need for a new mass workers’ party that can provide the strike wave with a voice at the ballot box is combined with the need for such a party in which the working class can debate these important questions and formulate its programme.
The Special Branch report also confirms the need for a Marxist approach to and understanding of the state, which the Socialist Party would fight to bring to that debate. Ultimately, not recognising that taking on questions of control – be it of the police or of transport or budgets – represents a threat to the ruling class’s ability to maintain the existing order of exploitative capitalism, will invite aggression. The answer lies not in retreat, but in fighting to prepare working-class struggle and organisation, with the understanding of the need to take power from the capitalist class, and to start to build a new socialist order where the requirement of a state machinery ceases to exist.