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Portrait of Angela Rayner
Official portrait of Angela Rayner MP

Why are Labour so obsessed with being ‘tough on crime’?

In a recent podcast, Angela Rayner suggested that the police should shoot terrorists first and ‘ask questions later’

“Shoot your terrorists and ask questions second.”

No, these aren’t the words of a UKIP backbencher gone rogue or Priti “I-want-criminals-to-feel-terror” Patel. This fascistic suggestion comes from deputy leader of the Labour party Angela Rayner.

Speaking on Matt Forde’s The Political Party podcast, Rayner stated that she was “quite hardline” on law and order: “I’m like, shoot your terrorists and ask questions second.” When the live audience audibly gasped at this, she said “sorry – is that the most controversial thing I’ve ever said?”

It’s definitely a contender. At present, the police are only allowed to shoot when there’s an urgent threat to life, such as during an ongoing terrorist attack where there’s no ambiguity surrounding the culpability of the target – a pretty uncontroversial regulation. But it seems as though Rayner was implying that the police should be able to shoot in situations where things are less certain – something far more contentious. And for good reason: you can’t “ask questions later” when death is final.

Thankfully, there’s been considerable pushback to Rayner’s comments from across the political spectrum. Multiple Labour MPs have denounced Rayner’s proposition: Diane Abbott tweetedIs Angela suggesting a mandatory death sentence for suspected (but not convicted) ‘terrorists’?” while several others have expressed their anger anonymously. Even Tory MP David Davis tweeted: “We need our security services to make the ‘right’ decision, not a ‘shoot first, ask questions later decision.’ This kind of heavy-handed approach cost Jean Charles de Menezes his life.”

Davis is right to highlight how this sort of hardline approach can result in the murder of innocent people like de Menezes, especially when people of colour are disproportionately affected by police brutality. Figures show that Black people are five times more likely to have force used on them by police. The Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Met police recently admitted some officers “have racist views and are racist”. If police officers were as trigger-happy as Rayner wants them to be, it’s beyond doubt that even more guiltless Black and brown people would be murdered by the state.

Rayner not only suggested that police should gun down suspected terrorists, but also that they should “antagonise” criminals. “I think if you are being terrorised by the local thug, I want a copper to come and sort them out,” she said. “You should be hardline on things like that. It’s not just, ‘Oh you’ve been burgled here is a crime number’.”

It’s disturbing to hear such hardline sentiments from a Labour MP, but not surprising. Just days ago Keir Starmer accused the Tories of being “soft on crime and soft on the causes of crime,” harking back to the New Labour “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” policy. The shadow justice secretary also recently announced that he would look at introducing a scheme “naming and shaming” those who are convicted of buying illegal drugs – a policy not dissimilar to Patel’s pledge to “make an example” out of middle-class drug users.

Considering that Labour is meant to be the party which protects, champions, and advocates for the most vulnerable in society, this suggestion that we treat suspected criminals with aggression is disappointing. Obviously, crime is Not Good, but being ‘hard on crime’ in the manner Labour MPs like Rayner are suggesting is not the solution. ASBOs, increased police power, and prisons and have failed to significantly reduce crime. Drugs charity Release told The Independent that “the idea that naming and shaming people will act as a deterrent effect is nonsense.” 

If we really want to speak seriously about making society less violent and less dangerous, we need to tackle the problem at the root. We need to focus on eradicating poverty; improving access to mental health services; abandoning the ‘war on drugs’ and pivoting to decriminalisation and harm reduction policies. Ultimately, ‘shooting first and asking questions later’ won’t reduce the risk of terrorism – it’ll only add names to the long list of innocent people killed by the state.