I have a well-thumbed book on my shelf — The Blunders of Our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe — which details the expensive errors perpetrated by British Governments. The Poll Tax. The Child Support Agency. The Exchange Rate Mechanism. All the greatest hits by the Bunglers of Whitehall are there. If the authors ever issue a new edition, the decision by the Tory-led Coalition in 2010 to cut police numbers must surely deserve an entire chapter.

About 21,000 police were removed from our communities after George Osborne’s ‘tougher than Thatcher’ spending review, alongside cuts to youth services, the arts, councils, and so much else. You didn’t need a degree in criminology to know what would happen next: violent crime soared, conviction rates fell, public confidence was shattered, and the police service itself was stretched to breaking point.

Serious violence has risen over the past decade: crimes which shatter lives and wreck communities such domestic abuse, knife crime, and homicide. In December 2023, HM Inspector of Constabulary reported that 22 out of 43 police forces in England and Wales are failing to investigate crime properly. Today, nine in ten crimes go unsolved. Thanks, George.

The Conservatives have attempted to correct their colossal idiocy by recruiting new officers and PCSOs in recent years. They even try to take credit for recruiting ‘more officers’. It’s like stealing a tenner from your wallet and asking for gratitude when you give £8.50 back. People are not stupid. They know that if they report a crime the police may not even turn up, that victims and witnesses are treated terribly, and that criminals mock our criminal justice system.

2024 is an election year. The Police and Crime Commissioner elections are on 2 May, and the General Election must come before January next year. How we respond as a society to crime and disorder as will be a salient election issue. I believe that the co-operative approach to policing should inform our public debate, and guide the hand of policy-makers.

There is much to commend the British model of policing from the co-op perspective. Robert Peel was a Conservative not a co-operator, but his principles for policing create common ground. Peel saw the police as a preventative force, whose first duty was to stop crime happening in the first place; that policing must be by consent, not force or coercion; that police officers are citizens-in-uniform not a tool of the state; that the police should serve every citizen fairly and equally under the law. Our police are mostly unarmed, because they are not a paramilitary force. Our police services have developed as devolved, regional, and local institutions, not an agency of the Home Office.

Co-operators should build on these Peelite principles, and see the police as citizen-led, devolved and local, accountable, transparent and fair, and most of all focused on preventing crime and anti-social behaviour. On this last, of course we understand that crime has deep-seated sociological and economic causes. When Robert Owen addressed the people of New Lanark in 1816 he tackled the issue of crime directly:

‘when men are in poverty, when they commit crimes or actions injurious to themselves and others, and when they are in a state of wretchedness, there must be substantial causes for these lamentable effects; and that instead of punishing or being angry with our fellow-men…we ought to pity and commiserate them and patiently to trace the causes whence the evils proceed and endeavour to discover whether they may not be removed.’

This is not to excuse or exonerate criminal behaviour, but to understand its hidden causes as well as its obvious consequences to better prevent it. Take shoplifting. The Co-op Party and the seven Co-op police and crime commissioners, alongside Usdaw and others, have done a stand-out job this year in highlighting the epidemic of looting from shops.

When I have visited retail outlets to discuss looting, two things are obvious. One is that the police seldom attend incidents of shoplifting, even if the thief is still in the shop. This tips the balance in favour of the criminal — they know they will get away with it, time after time after time. And two, the epidemic is organised by canny crime gangs, but the thieves themselves are mostly addicts.

The answer is more police turning up more of the time, and action to tackle addiction to drink and drugs. This requires an approach that goes way beyond policing, or even criminal justice, and extends to teachers, social workers, the NHS, charities, and society as a whole. The same whole-system approach should apply to knife crime, or violence against women and girls, hate crimes, and modern slavery.

A co-operative approach to policing is essential to rebuild trust in the police. If the community believes the police is indifferent, or even hostile, to its concerns, then the system breaks down. Recent individual scandals in policing have catalysed the collapse in trust, but trust is eroded by inches.

Co-op solutions include creating more voice and agency for victims of crime, and support for witnesses. We need more youth services and schemes such as boxing clubs, and a closer partnership between schools and police. Every school child should get to meet a police officer during their school career (for the right reasons!). We must roll out more restorative justice programmes, which bring some degree of redress for victims.

I favour participatory budgeting so that local people can have a real stake in how their money is spent. We know it works, from the Porto Alegre model in Brazil, to the work done in Liverpool by Emily Spurrell as the police and crime commissioner. It means people can direct spending towards things that count. We should make it a feature of every local policing budget, especially allocating the seized proceeds of crime.

There are further reforms that merit debate. In July last year the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change issued their report Rebuilding Trust and Delivering Safer Communities: A Plan for Reforming UK Policing. The report is well worth a read, with valid points about our use of technology such as face recognition, flexible recruitment to senior levels of policing, renewed national focus on cyber-crime and terrorism, and above all a shift to prevention not just punishment.

In an election year, there may be the temptation to enjoin an arm wrestle with the Tories about who is toughest on crime. This would be a mistake for two reasons. One is that the Tories, through their wrong-headed policies and despicable personal behaviour, have ceded the ground as the party of law-and-order. We should not give them the chance to talk tough when their actions are so weak. And second, we should use this Tory weakness on crime as the reason to loudly shift the conversation onto our positive, workable alternatives.

Imbued with co-operative values, driven by the mantra that what matters is what works, and anchored in the experiences of the communities we serve, the co-operative approach to policing provides the way forward.