During 2007, more people polled by Ipsos MORI identified crime as one of the most important issues facing Britain than anyother issue. Yet according to datapublished yesterday, it is now languishing in fifth place, well behind the top four. So why do people no longer care about crime?
Ipsos MORI’s data shows that when the public are asked to identify the important issues facing Britain today, 15% currently say crime and related issues. While this level of concern is not insignificant, it is a very large drop from a peak of 55% in August 2007 (see Figure 1 above). This may have been an unusually high figure, following the high-profile murders of Rhys Jones and Garry Newlove, but the average for 2007 was still 39% compared to 16% for 2012.
So why the big drop? It could be that falling levels of concern about crime reflect lower levels of crime itself. Crime, as measured by the Crime Survey for England and Wales, has been falling since 1995. However this does not explain why concern about crime continued to rise until 2007, before decreasing in recent years. It therefore seems likely that there is another explanation.
One possibility is that political change – Gordon Brown’s accession as Prime Minister and David Cameron’s ambition to detoxify’ the Conservative Party – saw law and order drop down the political agenda. It has certainly yet to re-emerge as a key battleground issue in this parliament. But perhaps more likely and this is where I would put my money – it’s all to do with the emergence in 2007 of an unprecedented economic crisis, which left more prosaic concerns like crime trailing in its wake (see figure 2).
It’s hardly surprising that the economy is top of most people’s worry list and that crime has been overtaken by unemployment, immigration and the NHS, all of which are directly or indirectly related to the crisis and/or the government’s response to it. When people didn’t have much to worry about they worried about crime.
Now that the country faces a really significant problem, to worry about crime seems almost churlish. This is not to say, of course, that crime does not matter, especially if you are a victim, but it also presents an opportunity. When political debate about crime is muted, drowned out by bigger issues, a window of opportunity opens up for a more rational discourse. This could, potentially, lead to more constructive policy in a field that hitherto has been dominated by political rhetoric of the worst kind. But with an election not far away, I’m not holding my breath.