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Are they “workers in uniform” or merely the violent arm of the ruling class? So runs the old, interminable intra-left controversy about the exact position of the police within the social structure. By contrast Andrew Mitchell MP appears to have no such doubts about the class character of the constabulory. His recent outburst demonstrated, with crystal clarity, his view of the police as a collection of lowly proles who should aspire to “learn their fucking place”.
This is by no means the first moment of class tension between the coalition and the cops. As with other public sector employees, the government is getting ready to decimate the pay and conditions of rank and file officers. In an effort to prepare public opinion for such a move, it commissioned Tom Winsor – the failed regulator of the railways, and former corporate lawyer – to write a damning report on the police. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the report read like a shopping list of the stereotypes that posh folk attribute to those whom they see as working class oiks. The Police apparently, are overweight, overpaid, stupid and lazy. What’s more, they are compromised by their “blue collar” working culture. In this instance too, it would appear that the current governing class are significantly less ambivelent about the class character of the police rank and file than us on the left.
Now I’m sure some of my readers will see the idea of class tension between the Tory government and the police as a kind of logical impossibility. After all aren’t they one of the special bodies of armed men? Isn’t it the police function to defend privelege and private property? While this may be a fundamental truth, the specific relationship between the police and class society can also vary with the historical context. What made Andrew Mitchell’s outburst particularly illuminating is that it came so soon after the Hillsborough report revealed the extreme lengths to which a previous Tory government went to protect the police from criticism or reputational damage. That they did so should not to surprise us. The 1970s and 1980s, after all, were decades of intense class struggle. Amidst ongoing strikes, and militant picket lines, the Thatcher government had depended on a strong, aggressive, and intensely loyal police force to push through its agenda. The power of the ruling class, in other words, depended very directly, upon the coercive capacity of the police.
The context in which Mr Mitchell made his recent remarks are, of course, very different. Unions strike a day at a time, the poll tax riots have given way to intensely stupid riots, and picket lines are typically rather placid affairs. Amidst the mix of functions carried out by the police, their role in directly and coercively propping up the social order is now relatively less pronounced. Meanwhile, rank and file officers have been brought into conflict with the government by the kind of class war that the coalition are waging. Most significantly, this has revolved around a concerted effort, by both government and business leaders, to roll back entitlements and expectations, and to narrow the breadth of people who benefit from decent living standards and economic security – a rather poisonous mixture of proletarianisation and casualisation that is affecting great swathes of employees. As a part of the public sector workforce that have, until now, been treated relatively well by the establishment, it is no surprise that the cops now find themselves point in the government’s cross-hairs.
Even with all of this said, I’m sure that many will congeal at the idea of class solidarity with the rank and file police. After all, aren’t these the folk who crack down on dissent and protect the government from protest. If you live in a safe area, and go on lots of demos, then this may be all you see the police do. In reality, the day to day work of most officers has less to do with policing dissent, and more to do with dealing with thuggery, robbery and domestic violence – crimes typically committed against the least well off. Yes the police do a lot which is useless and socially desctructive – busting people for drugs and breaking into squats. Yet like other public sector workers who facing redundancies, lower pay and less security, also do a great deal of work which is socially necessary and which will always be socially necessary (notwithstanding the view that all forms of criminally undesirable behaviour spring from some amorphous thing known as “alienation”, and will therefore dissapear once the social structure is changed – if you actually believe this, then I laugh at you for being a fucktard.)
The police are facing the same kind of attacks – materially and ideologically – that millions of us are facing. It is no surprise that their union, the federation, are beginning to get oppositional. A fissure is opening up, and the case for class solidarity has never been clearer.
To contact Reuben email firstname.lastname@example.org