Once again, New Labour is stepping up its “campaign against crime” and they are proposing the usual mix of vague placebos and attacks on civil liberties. However one proposal stands out as being particularly dangerous, and particularly worth our opposition.
David Blunkett wants to abolish, in certain cases, the rule that any previous criminal convictions of a defendant may not be revealed before a verdict is reached.
The rule is designed to ensure that no defendant will be prejudged by a jury. In addition the rule is meant to ensure that defendents are tried strictly on the basis of evidence and the facts of the case alone.
Who will fall foul of this rule change? People whose earlier convictions may be unjust or of a completely different kind. An ex-criminal trying to “go straight” will find him or herself subject to the same prejudice as a devil-may-care recidivist. The psychological impact of this may make ex-offenders wonder whether it’s worth “going straight”.
David Blunkett says the purpose of the measure is to “place victims at the centre” of the criminal justice system. A worthy ambition, but, from Blunkett, not very credible. Blunkett could do more for victims by focussing on the campaign against domestic violence or easing the terrifying ordeal rape victims still face, despite improvements, in police stations and courts. Or decriminalising drug use. Or improving the basic condition, lighting, transport and other infrastructure of the inner cities.
Blunkett says the new rule will apply to a very restricted range of offences. These are predictably enough, child abuse. And the other? Grevious bodily harm? Armed robbery? No... theft.
The question that then arises is this: is the proposed change as the bourgeois-liberal press have assumed, just a populist measure? It is that of course, but there is something more fundamental, more ideological going on here.
This new measure’s concentration on the misappropriation of property, prioritising it above murder, arson and the rape of an adult is not new. Three-quarters of immediate custodial sentences are handed down for non-violent, mostly property, offences. What justifies this? There is no rampant epidemic of this type of crime — indeed, the reported incidence of all categories of crime except violent crime is falling.
The great Marxist jurist Pashukanis, later to become a victim of Stalin, insisted that private law — preeminently property law — is the fundamental basis of the legal order under capitalism, pervading public (criminal and constitutional) law with its influence.
This is so much the case that it is taken for granted and seldom noticed.
Of course David Blunkett has not set out to deliberately reinforce the legal privileges of capitalists. But the tenor and detail of this Government’s policies are all about protecting property.
That is why the urgent campaign we need today, to save our civil liberties today is also a campaign to oppose a system based on property rights.