The idea of political economy describes how social and public policy is shaped by the influence of political forces over intellectual and social change. The relationship between criminology as an academic discipline and politics and policy makers is ever changing. Reiner argues that there is a relationship between both sides, which was argued by left realists who say there is no relationship. Criminology has been highly researched by academics over the past thirty years. This has been conducted from multiple perspectives; from feminism, to left and right realism, to Marxism and so on. Research can also be linked to various government and crime control research. This essay will look at this relationship in regard to the left and right of both criminology and politics, and if political economy has ever been rooted in criminology, and whether this is still the case today.
Garland (2000) describes criminology as an ‘organised way of thinking about crime, criminals and crime control’. Through Garland’s definition, we can already assume that there is a relationship between criminology and politics. He argues that criminology is present in three of the major social settings; academia, government, through politicians’ consultations to crime experts, and culture, such as in the mass media. Through this involvement in social and institutional situations, the development of criminology has been able to progress and evolve. However, Sir Leon Radzinowicz (1999), one of the founding fathers of British criminology, argues that there is a disappointing gap between criminology and government policy. This can both be supported and contested by Garland (2000), who suggests that Radzinowicz may have overexaggerated this gap, as Garland believes that in some areas, the relationship between criminologists and government has never been stronger, with crime prevention and reduction research receiving generous funding, and through the use of crime audits, and community policing. However, Garland argues that there is a clear divide in other areas, such as national penal policy and criminological research. The gap between criminological advice and political policy making has been shown through the use of political rhetoric and the use of lengthy prison sentences, which most criminologists believe will not solve the problems of criminal behaviour.
Previous political parties, such as Tony Blair’s New-Labour in 1997, advice was sought from academics to help aid politicians understanding of societal trends in order to make suitable policies that the public would vote for. New Labour had a strong desire to provide ‘evidence-led policy’, with the aim of finding out ‘what works’ (Scraton, 2001). Politicians are concerned with what criminologists have to say, as they believe that crime is the main issue that the public are concerned with. However, universities began to experience long periods of austerity meaning they had to rely on an over-stretched state and externals sources of funding. It also became apparent that voters no longer wanted to fund ‘ivory tower research’ (Lipsey, 2000). It can be argued whether their criminological research is objective, or whether their findings are only used if they fit with the agenda of a particular political party. This idea is supported by Crace (2001), who says, “say the wrong thing and you can be out of a job”. Van Swaaningen (1999) argues that they ‘heyday’ of critical criminology is over, and criminology no longer focuses on the importance of knowledge and social and political questions, suggesting that it is only interested in the political issues of the day, and the funding that will be received.
Prior to the 1997 general election, Labour positioned themselves as the party who would be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” (Brownlee, 1998), they promised to achieve this through the use of tough and effective measures on those who committed a crime. Blair followed through on his promise of ‘evidence-led policy’ starting with the 1998/99 and 2000/1 Home Office Development and Statistics (RDS), which saw the research budget increased by 500% to £17,013,000 supporting the idea that political economy is rooted in criminology. Within their first year in government, Labour had demonstrated that they intended on delivering what they had promised in their manifesto through the introduction on tougher laws and policies, such as provisions for adult offenders, which involves the closer supervision of violent and sexual offenders, and July 1998 saw the introduction of the Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Brownlee (1998) describes Labour as “stealing back the issue of law and order from their political opponents”. Through the introduction of such laws, we can begin to see that there was a clear shift in the political stance of the Labour party, which was once non-punitive, towards a notion of deterrence though punishment (Brownlee, 1998).
Post war saw a Labour government under Clement Atlee (1945-1951), who established the welfare state, which provided ‘cradle to grave’ care (Gov.uk website), along with more protection for workers, through the likes of sick pay. Eventually, the post war optimism ended and took with it the strength of the economy. The weakening of the economy led to high rates of unemployment and a consistently rising crime rate. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives began the war on crime, with their ‘law and order’ campaign. The foundations of the political right have been built on the idea that crime is the problem of the underclass, caused by the underclass (Garland, 2001), or that crime rates are so high due to the liberal left who did not punish criminals severely enough to deter them. The Conservative party want to take the British public back to the ‘golden era’, when it was believed that the government and police had tougher approaches to crime and people felt they were safer. This idea has been shown through the manifestos and speeches made by politicians such as David Cameron and John Major who believe we should take things ‘back to basics’ through traditional family values. However, the right can be accused of only providing quick fix solutions to criminal offences, instead of investigating and tackling the socioeconomic causes of crime, for example deprivation (Young, 1991). Instead of providing help for anyone experiencing deprivation, it can be argued that the Conservatives are responsible for introducing policies which further alienate lower classes and other minority groups, making them more feared by the middle and upper classes. Another way in which the lower classes are alienated by right-wing government is their under-representation within parliament. There are now less working-class members of parliament than ever, which argues the point that people who have no real understanding of working-class struggles can influence policy decisions on the likes of welfare, the NHS and other state funded outlets in which the working and lower classes depend on for survival (O’Grady, 2018).
Speaking to the Centre for Crime and Justice in 2009, Rt Hon. Chris Grayling MP (previous Shadow Home Secretary and Secretary of State for Justice) describes the Conservatives approach to law and order, and the usefulness of criminologists (Ministry of Defence, 2009). Grayling says that the Conservatives want to work closely with academics, as criminology has a lot to teach policy makers. However, he suggests that although criminologists are important to policy makers, they are not the most important part, or there would be no need for politicians. This both supports and contradicts Reiner’s (2012) original point, that criminology is still relevant within politics, but it in the opinion of the right, it is not the most important role.