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Screenshot 2023-03-27 at 15.44.55
Kids, 1995 (Film Still)Courtesy Shining Excalibur Films

UK government comes one step closer to making fun illegal

Both Labour and the Tories are whipping up a storm about ‘anti-social behaviour’ and the terrible scourge of youths ‘loitering in parks’. But is this just a pretext for oppressive and discriminatory policing?

Sometimes it feels as though the world is careening wildly out of control. As if the COVID pandemic, climate change, the cost-of-living crisis and Britain’s declining economy weren’t enough to contend with, there is a new menace that we must confront: young people are loitering. We are facing a nationwide epidemic of loafing, skulking, and all-round tomfoolery. According to some troubling reports, young people have been reading crime comics, smoking reefer, wearing leather jackets, dancing the jitterbug, listening to rock’n’roll, doing ‘chicky runs’ along seaside cliffs, and engaging in premarital heavy petting with their childhood sweetheart, Sally Jane.

The shocking allegations about loitering came from Tory MP Chris Philp yesterday (March 26), as he outlined a new set of policies aimed at curbing ‘anti-social behaviour’. These include harsher fines for graffiti (such as making people do community service in hi-viz jumpsuits), banning laughing gas, increasing police presence in ‘anti-social behaviour hotspots’ (essentially, any public place), and the launch of a new tool that makes it easier for people to grass on their neighbours. The proposals will make it easier for landlords to evict ‘anti-social tenants’, as well as make it harder for those who are evicted to secure council housing. If this sounds like a surefire way to worsen Britain’s already severe homelessness crisis, don’t worry: the proposals will also crack down on ‘nuisance beggars’ and rough sleepers, punishing people for the poverty which the government’s own policies have plunged them into.

Within the last few months, seemingly out of nowhere, anti-social behaviour has become a cross-party obsession, with both Labour and Conservatives competing to present themselves as more tough. Just last week, for example, Starmer suggested that the smell of weed wafting through people’s windows was “ruining lives”. Embarrassingly, some of his supporters have complained about Sunak “stealing” Labour’s policy of allowing the victims of anti-social behaviour to choose what punishment the perpetrator receives. They see this as a vindication of Starmer’s vision, when really all it shows is that there is little meaningful difference between the two parties. If you don’t want the Tories to copy your ideas, maybe it’s a sign you should come up with better ones. 

Within the last few months, Starmer’s party has gone into full BDSM mode; ramping up its rhetoric around law and order, attacking the Tories as ‘soft on crime’ and publicly fantasising about the punishments it intends to dish out once it takes power. Their proposals include a new form of ASBO, called ‘Respect Orders’, and longer prison sentences (which do nothing to deter crime). Discussing New Labour’s approach to crime last week, Yvette Cooper argued that “we were right then, and we’re right now.” Both claims are dubious: by the time ASBOs were scrapped in 2012, there was evidence to suggest that they were disproportionately used to target people with mental health problems, substance abuse issues and learning disabilities. 

The problem with the term “anti-social behaviour” is that it’s so subjective. It’s a way of criminalising behaviour that, by definition, is not actually criminal, which allows it to be policed with extreme selectiveness. A group of middle-aged, middle-class rugby fans are unlikely to be slapped with a ‘respect order’ for being drunk in public, regardless of how loud and annoying they are; the home-owner who ruins their neighbours’ Saturday mornings with head-splitting construction work is unlikely to be fitted with an ankle tag. Your behaviour is more likely to be categorised as ‘antisocial’ if you have been deemed the wrong sort of person: we know, for example, that the kind of policing which both parties are proposing disproportionately target racialised minorities, particularly young Black men.

There is a long history of moral panics about juvenile delinquency, and these have always involved stereotypes about race and economic class. This hasn’t changed since the 1950s: if the police don’t like the look of you, then sitting in the park with your friends becomes ‘loitering’; if you appear respectably bourgeois then you will be left to enjoy your picnic hamper from Cheese and Fromage without being branded a ‘yob’. Anti-social behaviour is in the eye of the beholder. Considering the recent wave of revelations about institutional racism, misogyny and homophobia within the Met, we can’t expect these judgements to be made impartially.

There is, however, such a thing as truly anti-social behaviour, and recognising this doesn’t necessarily make you a square. Some forms of behaviour really can just be annoying – and it’s also clearly true that some people’s lives are negatively impacted, in a sustained and significant way, by the actions of others. But the evidence shows that criminalisation is an ineffective way of preventing anti-social behaviour. Even if you accept the premise that we are facing a crisis in youth delinquency (which I don’t), the answer would be to invest more in youth services, which have been cut by 71 per cent since the Tories came into power, not to mention addressing the underlying social and economic hardships which often lead people to acting out in the first place. We can’t make society safer and more harmonious without making it fairer, and this will require redistributive politics, not just new and elaborate forms of punishment.

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