The recent election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader provoked a rash of headlines and images on the web relating to his political stance, his PMQs clash with Margaret Thatcher and the warning that we’d be heading back to the 1980s. For some of us, those interested in political history and the ways in which social and economic policies unfold over time, we were already back in the 1980s, and finding the period an absolutely fascinating one. The parallels with today are striking. Debates about the right to buy are again on the agenda, the spectre of statistics being ‘reclassified’ (the focus now on child poverty, rather than unemployment) has been raised, and, as ever, there is a push to reduce our social security spend.

As part of an Economic and Social Research Council project at the University of Sheffield, a small team of us explored the impact of ‘Thatcherite’ social and economic policies on crime. Why crime? Crime rates are the result of something going wrong, somewhere, so if we change our underlying economic philosophy from Keynesian support for the welfare state towards free market policies, as we did in the 80s, crime will emerge as an issue which needs to be dealt with. Maybe not immediately, but at some point down the line.

We have identified four policy areas which were altered to varying degrees during the 80s. None were related to the criminal justice system, but each did something slightly different to crime. Early on, Margaret Thatcher embraced a new economic philosophy in which support for nationalised industries was cut. This resulted in huge increases in unemployment. The official count of unemployment reached 3.5 million, but this is still disputed because the ways in which unemployment was counted changed numerous times, all of which lowered the count. Our analyses have suggested that not only is property crime strongly related to unemployment, but that during this period the relationship got stronger. The economic policies which drove up unemployment also helped to drive up crime rates.

Another thing which the Conservatives did was to try to cut social security spending. In reality, the spend went up, and this was related to the increase in unemployment. What our research suggests is that by spending more on welfare benefits, one can reduce crime. But by cutting back on the amount each individual could claim, the policies actually helped to increase crime.

Thatcher allowed council tenants to buy their own council homes, dubbed the right to buy. The housing stock which people wanted to buy (mostly low-rise houses) was sold off, leaving councils with the more expensive and less desirable high-rise flats, in which they were required to house people who were homeless. Over time, these high-rise flats became places where councils housed those people with the greatest social and economic needs and where there were few jobs. Those who could leave got out, leaving communities in which few people knew each other, few had a stake in society, and where crime was an obvious, or only, option for many. What this did, slowly, was to make some former council estates become places were property crime was much more common. On top of this, the introduction of school league tables meant that head teachers were incentivised to exclude unruly children, because they would drag down the average grade. But excluded children do not disappear. They hang around near their homes, getting into trouble and, we think, helped to fuel the idea of ‘anti-social behaviour’.

All of these processes took many years to unfold. Thatcher came to power in 1979, promising more law and order, but left in 1990 with soaring crime rates and some huge social problems, such as a large pool of injecting drug users, concentrated in particular communities (almost always the poorest ones), which have proved hard to tackle ever since. Like that period, the current use of officially recorded statistics will prove central to debates over cuts to welfare payments, measures of economic and social need, and to how these are related to one another and to crime. Whilst crime looks to have fallen since the mid 90s, we need to explore why it went up in the first place. It may not stay down forever.

@Thatcher_Legacy

Stephen Farrall