Ben Roback: The ‘defund the police’ movement is a gift to Republican strategists – as Americans increasingly fear crime

15 Dec

Ben Roback is Vice President of Public Affairs at Sard Verbinnen & Co.

American politics has been shaped by a minor handful of major events in recent years. Few predicted the transformative effect Donald Trump could have on the Republican Party, which now sits almost entirely in the palm of his hand.

No one could have knowingly predicted the outbreak of an obscure virus in Wuhan province that would lead to over five million deaths worldwide, leaving economies ravaged in its wake. But just like death and taxes are life’s two great known outcomes, crime remains a constant political problem that won’t go away. Is Joe Biden losing his grip on such a fundamental issue?

Keeping the nation safe is the first function of government. Fail on crime, fail to get re-elected. On that basis, public attitudes to crime in the United States are alarming. Consider the numbers revealed in the polling undertaken by Morning Consult in July of this year:

  • A staggering 78 per cent of voters said they believe violent crime is a “major problem” in the US;
  • 73 per cent said crime is increasing;
  • 52 per cent identified “too many guns on our streets” as a “major reason” that violent crime is increasing in the US; and
  • 49 per cent blamed police defunding for the crime surge.

Logic dictates that tackling and reducing crime should be a political priority from the White House to Congress, all the way down to state legislatures and town councils. The president is understandably spinning infinite plans – Covid, climate change, managing his own party to name three of the most time-consuming – and few could blame him for struggling to find time to fight crime. At the local level, that excuse does not wash. With such a stark backdrop, how can it be that Democrats still flirt with the idea of taking money away from police departments?

Is “defund the police” a vote winner or loser?

Progressive Democrats have for years been leading campaigns to “defund the police” in towns and cities across the US. This is not informed by any clear partisan divide over attitudes to crime. Republican voters (79 per cent) and Democrats (68 per cent) both overwhelmingly agree that crime is increasing.

“Defund the police” became turbocharged by the “Black Lives Matter” movement that followed the murder of George Floyd by an on-duty police officer. Since then, it has become an integral part of the American political vocabulary. Before that, it was largely the preserve of small, devoutly Democratic local jurisdictions overwhelmingly stacked with progressives in positions of power.

The left of the Democratic Party has been working hard to turn a slogan into meaningful policy. In the pursuit of defunding the police, more than 20 cities have reduced their police budgets in some form, diverting cash to fund the ‘solution’ and not the ‘problem’. Local government in Austin, Texas, passed a major cut to the city’s law enforcement budget and is now reallocating that funding to housing programmes. The city used to spend 40 per cent of its $1.1 billion general fund on law enforcement, whereas that figure is now just 26 per cent.

Calls to defund the police present two major headaches for any incumbent Democratic president.

First, it creates a fight with the unions that no Democrat wants to have. Not least Biden, a self-described “union guy”. Protecting their members jobs and to a greater extent their own existence, police unions have consistently opposed any reforms that might reduce the number of officers keeping the peace.

Some have pursued a middle ground in which they recognise the need for reform, but instead pursue more police with new training programmes and standards for community engagement – especially in the communities of colour which have historically so often felt the brunt of police misconduct in the US. Whether reform is a pill that police departments are willing to slow, even if it helps stave off huge reductions in their budgets and number, the very debate around defunding the police is reported as a major hammer blow to morale in the communities in which their existence is under threat.

Second, on the campaign trail it becomes manner from heaven for Republicans in any district or state that is anything but deep blue. Police reform is a worthy political priority in cities and states the length and breadth of the US where raging homicide statistics sadly speak for themselves. But for communities less affected and perhaps with a more traditional view of policing – visible, firm, respected – the “defund” campaign sounds like the beginning of the end for law enforcement. It gifts Republican strategists and candidates the chance to warn of police abolitionists and link surging concerns about crime, identified above, with a Democratic Party intent on making crime easier.

Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, lurching the Minnesotan city to the epicentre of the “defund” movement. Seventeen months later, in November of this year, voters resoundingly rejected a proposal to remove the Minneapolis Police Department from the city charter and replaced it with a “public-health oriented” Department of Public Safety. Even some cities that successfully defunded their police departments have begun to distance themselves from the slogan.

Nowhere has this been more prevalent than in Oakland, San Francisco, where city council members once supportive of aggressive reform have shifted to terms like “reimagining” and “reinvesting” when speaking of their approach to policing and public safety. “Defund” has turned off voters that were tempted by police reform but turned off by the prospect of chaos in un-patrolled streets.

President Biden is experienced enough to know a political problem speeding towards him. As the national murder rates rises, just over one in three Americans (36 per cent) approve of his handling of crime, down from 43 per cent in an ABC News/Ipsos poll in late October. His approval ratings on crime are tumbling just at the time when Americans are growing ever more concerned about it.

Iain Dale: Very little shocks me. But Cummings’ text message reveal was truly disgusting and morally bankrupt.

18 Jun

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Negotiating a deal with the DUP and Sinn Féin can’t be anyone’s idea of a dream job, but Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary has enabled it to happen in record time. I’ve no idea how he did it, given the personalities involved, but however it happened, it surely has to be welcomed by everyone across the political spectrum, both in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Let’s hope it lasts.

However, with the resignation of Edwin Poots as leader of the DUP after only three weeks last night, it’s entirely possible that the new First Minister, Paul Givan – an ally of Poots – might feel duty bound to fall on his sword too. My instinct is that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is likely to be the next DUP leader and he’s on record saying that he thinks the same person should hold both posts.

The elections to Stormont next year are certainly going to be interesting. Between now and then the whole sorry situation with the Northern Ireland Protocol has to be sorted. Surely a piece of cake for a man who negotiated a power sharing agreement! Sorry, Brandon.

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Anyone who has worked in politics will have some fairly fruity exchanges in historic texts on their mobile phone. I certainly have built up a whole library over the years, although it has to be said mine tend to be in emails rather than texts. My former colleagues at Biteback would regularly suggest we published a volume of my “special emails”. I well remember one to Michael Winner, where I basically told him never to speak to any of my staff again, after he called our young female PR assistant a “c***” on the phone.

One suspects he would have got on well with Dominic Cummings. Very little shocks me, but to reveal text exchanges with the Prime Minister like he has is truly disgusting. Morally it’s bankrupt, ethically it stinks. You can argue a public interest point all you like, but it is still wrong. If ministers can’t communicate confidentially with their advisers, how can they possibly do their jobs properly?

In the end, if Cummings thought the Prime Minister was so useless, why did he stay in his job? I’m sure there are many valid things Cummings has to say, but actions like this undermines any remaining credibility he enjoys. Mind you, he undermined himself earlier this week when he informed us we would have to pay to his Substack account (or should that be Shelfstack?) if we wanted the full unvarnished details of his thoughts on this, that and everything. Again, morally bankrupt.

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From a PR and organisational viewpoint the G7 was an unalloyed success. The pictures that emerged from it were simply outstanding. Whoever had the idea to hold the summit in Cornwall, and whoever did the “advance” work deserves a medal at the very least. The backdrops to virtually every event were breathtaking, and will have done the Cornish tourism industry a huge amount of good in the medium term.

Substantively, I’m not sure the summit achieved a huge amount behind the things which had been agreed in advance. The media were desperate to ramp up a row over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and Macron did his best to help them, but it never really materialised. Joe Biden showed he was the adult in the room by not playing ball, and avoided playing up to his voters of Irish descent in the US.

The Irish lobby in Congress is something to behold and you have to filter anything the American government says on Ireland through that prism. The Irish embassy in Washington DC is one of the most powerful influences on US administrations of both colours. Rhetoric on Ireland on Capitol Hill doesn’t always match the reality of the US government’s position.

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The issue of vaccines in care homes is one that has gradually risen in prominence up the news agenda, and rightly so. I cannot for the life of me understand how a care professional would not take a vaccine which by definition reduces the risk for the people they care for of getting Covid or dying from it.

Vaccines can never be 100 per cent effective, so no one can ever be completely protected. In a phone-in on Wednesday I spoke to a care home owner in Bournemouth who said that 60 per cent of her staff hadn’t had the vaccine and she wasn’t remotely bothered. Astonishing. She said proper PPE was far more important and it wasn’t up to her to persuade her staff to take a vaccine, it was up to the Government.

I’m afraid she got the rough edge of my tongue. For me it comes down to something very simple. If I had a close relative in a care home, I would not want them being cared for by someone who hadn’t been vaccinated. I don’t think that’s unreasonable. And for that reason I support mandatory vaccinations for care home workers.

Daniel Hannan: If a restaurant can refuse to serve you, Amazon can refuse to host Parler

20 Jan

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Trump’s Twitter ban is being treated as a free speech issue, but it isn’t. Properly understood, it’s a free association issue. The First Amendment to the US Constitution does not give Americans the right to say whatever they want in whatever forum they please. What it says is that “Congress shall make no law” abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.

In other words, provided you stop short of direct incitement to criminality, you can legally say whatever you like. But, though the government can’t shut you up, there is no obligation on anyone else to provide you with a microphone. You have the right to free speech, but everyone else has the right to free association. A restaurant can refuse to serve you because you’re not wearing a tie. A hotel can turn you away because it doesn’t cater for children. An online platform can reject your custom because it doesn’t like your opinions.

Whether a platform is wise to exercise that right is a different question. When I was an MEP, Facebook, Google and the rest used to fall over each other to assure us that they had no editorial control, and therefore could not be held liable for anything that appeared under their banners. That argument is now redundant, and I suspect the big tech companies will come to regret the shift. But, as a matter of broad principle, our starting assumption should be that a private company can set its own terms and conditions and pick its own customers.

Freedom of assembly and association is, or ought to be, as fundamental a right as freedom of speech and expression. We talked a great deal about the loss of our liberties in 2020, but it wasn’t our right to worship, speak out or cast a ballot that was suspended. The heaviest constraint, the one we all felt, was being unable to congregate as we pleased.

You might think that the lockdowns would have made us appreciate a liberty that, in normal times, we take for granted. That, though, is not how politics works. In practice, every age sacralises certain values, lifting them above the run of normal debate. In mediaeval Europe, the works of the ancient philosophers were judged, not by their accuracy or logic, but by their compatibility with Christian orthodoxy. In our own day, it is the tenets of identity politics that have been sacralised.

Thus, instead, of having an abstract conversation about the value of free expression in a manner that John Milton or J S Mill would have recognised, we start by asking whether it is ok for people to say racist things – an odd way to settle a general principle.

Likewise, when it comes to free association, lots of people see the debate solely through the prism of whether an imaginary private club would be allowed to exclude someone on grounds of ethnicity – a scenario that could come about, I suppose, though it would surely be very rare in this day and age. Hard cases make bad law, goes the saying; and hard putative scenarios make bad general precepts. The correct way to determine our position on human rights is to start from first principles and then see how those principles apply to specific cases rather than the reverse.

What should our first principles be here? Most obviously, a presumption in favour of liberty and property. If people are to be prevented from getting together in whatever combinations they please, there needs to be a good reason. An epidemic might be such a reason. The expectation of equal treatment as a citizen might be another.

In balancing the competing claims of private property and non-discrimination, many countries draw a distinction between ordinary businesses and companies defined as utilities, diluting the rights of the owners in the second category. We might, for example, say that the owner of a small café has the right not to serve her ex-husband, but that she would not have an equivalent right to refuse his custom if she owned an electricity company. We might say (indeed, the law broadly does say) that a religious baker should not be compelled to decorate a cake with a message celebrating gay marriage, but that a railway could not withhold its custom from gay people.

Obviously, people can reasonably disagree about where to draw the line. But wherever we draw it, it should then apply to everyone equally. Equality before the law means precisely that. Either the café owner has the right to refuse someone service or she has not. “Laws” as Hayek said, “must be general, equal and certain”.

Where does that leave us with Twitter banning Trump, Amazon banning Parler and the rest? Well, either they are defined as utilities or they are not. If they are, then regulators can tell them whom to serve. If they are not, then they can ban anyone they like: Republicans, Protestants, left-handed people, cartwrights. It’s one or the other.

There may be an immediate test of the principle as the lockdowns end. The Government has, quite rightly, said that it will not make vaccination compulsory or issue immunity certificates. But what if a cruise ship wants proof of vaccination before you board? What if a gym requires a certificate as a condition of membership? I reckon that free association gives them the right to set their own terms. But, either way, the law must be general, equal and certain.

Peter Aldous: If the Government is to deliver on climate change, it needs better Parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals

19 Jan

Peter Aldous is the Conservative MP for Waveney.

With its departure from the European Union, the UK has the opportunity to develop its own trade policy for the first time in nearly 50 years, enabled through the Trade Bill returning to the Commons for ping-pong this week. Now that we have left the EU, we must put in place new arrangements for scrutinising trade deals to ensure our future ones carry public support and fully represent British interests.

Trade deals have changed radically since the Government last had competency in this area nearly 50 years ago, and modern deals are likely to have implications on almost all spheres of public policy. Indeed, over the last two years, debates on this Bill in Parliament have raised an expansive breadth of concerns – from protecting British food and animal welfare standards, to using trade and investment policy to achieve sustainable development goals, to securing workers’ rights across supply chains and safeguarding creative and cultural assets.

Of particular importance is the impact trade policy will have on the UK’s ambitious climate and environmental agenda. Climate change can only be tackled on a global level, and free trade agreements present opportunities for the UK to promote ambitious environmental standards abroad and strengthen its economic competitiveness through exports of low carbon goods and services.

This is significant as the UK’s low carbon economy is estimated to grow by 11 per cent every year to 2030, by which date the global market for low carbon goods will be worth more than £1 trillion a year. Trade measures can also play a role in preventing “offshoring” of emissions, by providing a level playing field to protect domestic industries innovating in the green economy and in doing so creating jobs across the country.

Alongside the opportunities, under current precedent trade deals also pose often unintended but acute risks to the ambitions of our climate and environmental agenda. These include UK environmental and climate standards being diluted by provisions to reduce regulatory barriers, the competitiveness of innovating British industries being undermined by lower standard imports, and a rise in the unsustainable use of natural resources/emissions in exporting countries.

To respond to this challenge, UK trade policy must set an ambitious precedent, which promotes a race to the top for environmental standards. Looking ahead, UK trade policy needs to be aligned and integrated with the most urgent climate- and environmental-related priorities: reaching its net zero emissions target by 2050, reversing the decline of its natural environment within a generation and supporting the competitiveness of UK businesses during this transition.

The need to obtain parliamentary approval would give negotiators an additional argument to support their objectives. Indeed, both US and EU negotiators utilise the requirement of Congress and EU Parliament respectively to vote on trade deals to underline their red lines. This strategy will not be accessible to UK negotiators if Parliament cannot reject the deal outright, as is currently the case. Additionally, lack of public trust in trade negotiations outcomes have contributed to the failure of major trade negotiations, including the US-EU trade deal (TTIP) – in part due to environmental concerns.

It is crucial that MPs have the opportunity to fully consider the wide ranging implications of the UK’s trade policy. The Trade Bill currently misses the opportunity to give Parliament the ability to fully consider the opportunities, risks and transition impacts that trade agreements can have on big businesses, SMEs, civil society and consumers. I therefore will be supporting the Purvis amendment on Parliamentary approval of trade agreements, and believe it is essential for ensuring future UK trade policy has sufficient democratic oversight.