Britain: law and disorder – crisis causes criminal justice to crumble

Strikes are on the rise. Even barristers are taking action. Police are warning of potential riots over food and fuel prices. Meanwhile, fractures are emerging across the apparatus of the state. Revolutionary explosions are being prepared. We republish this article from 22 June, originally published at

The volley of economic blows raining down on workers is preparing a social explosion – potentially very soon. The ruling class can see this coming, and is trying to prepare.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act is part of these preparations. This new law has tightened restrictions on the right to protest, and has hugely widened police powers. 

The passing of this law has been accompanied by a permanent loosening of the restrictions on the use of stop-and-search powers by police, making it easier to conduct searches, even if there is no suspicion of wrong-doing.

Last month, meanwhile, The Times reported that: “Police forces have begun planning for disorder over the summer amid fears that the cost-of-living crisis and other pressures could trigger civil unrest.”

Most recently, the Tories have openly discussed legally restricting the right to strike of RMT members, in order to thwart national strike action that is taking place this week, with further waves of action likely to follow.

Unfortunately for the ruling class, stricter laws and police planning can’t hold back the explosion that’s brewing. The Tories are behaving like King Canute trying to hold back the tide.

Rising crime

Cracks in bourgeois law and order are already appearing, due to the intolerable economic situation many people find themselves in.

Gas Pump Image Petrol stations have recently seen a 40% increase in people driving off without paying for fuel / Image: Fair Use

To take just one example, it was recently reported that petrol stations have seen a 40% increase in people driving off without paying for fuel since January. The first week of June saw a 22% jump compared to May. 

A spokesman for the AA said: “The thief is someone who relies on their car, motorbike or scooter to get to or go about their work but their finances have been broken by the cost of living crisis. Stealing fuel then becomes an act of desperation.”

Even the police understand the limitations of the law in the face of the crisis. The chief inspector of the constabulary said in May that police officers should not necessarily prosecute people who are stealing food in order to survive.

Even if they wanted to enforce the law, the power of the police has never been weaker. There are around 10,000 fewer police officers today than there were in 2010, before the Tory government’s austerity programme. In that same period, the population of England & Wales has increased by four million, leaving fewer police for more people.

Public confidence in the police is at a record low, following a cascade of scandals. Fewer than half of Londoners think the police do a good job. The situation is worse in Manchester, where the police receive twice as many corruption and sexual misconduct complaints as the notorious Metropolitan Police in London. 

In a country that relies on ‘policing by consent’, this leaves the police in a very weak position.

Crumbling pillars

In August 2011, the shooting of a black man by police sparked massive rioting, fuelled by government cuts and economic hardship.

Cops protest Image Socialist AppealRacist policing has intensified / Image: Socialist Appeal

In 1981, riots in Brixton, Toxteth, and other places were the product of racist policing and economic hardship caused by Thatcherite policies. Today, those conditions have intensified tenfold.

In both 1981 and 2011, the ruling class relied on the state machine of police, courts, and prisons to clamp down hard on social unrest. Faced with similar conditions today, that state machine is looking more unreliable than ever as a weapon of ruling class repression.

At last month’s conference of the Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file police officers, the chair of the federation complained that police pay has been cut by 20%, and that a growing number of officers are forced to rely on food banks to survive. 

The federation also passed a motion of no confidence in Priti Patel, the Tory home secretary. Relations between the police and the government are at an all time low.

Similarly, the recent conference of the Prison Officers Association overwhelmingly passed a motion demanding an end to the ban on prison and probation staff taking strike action. 

The delegate moving the motion said: “Our workload has increased…We’ve been on a pay freeze since 2015. Our members, with the cost of living, are going to go into financial hardship…Staffing levels are getting dangerous.”

Lawyers are also taking industrial action. Since April, criminal barristers have been taking limited action in a dispute over legal aid funding.

At the weekend, the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) announced the result of a ballot on escalating the action, with 82% of CBA members voting in favour of strikes. The plan is for individual days of strike action to begin next week, building up to a full week-long walkout, which will bring the justice system grinding to a halt.

This is a dramatic escalation – closer to wildcat action than a formal strike, since barristers are technically self-employed. Significantly, this action isn’t just about pay, but the chronic underfunding of the criminal justice system as a whole. The legal aid budget has fallen by 43% in real terms since 2005.

This strike of criminal barristers is being matched with action by solicitors refusing to do low-paid work. At the same time, court staff organised by the PCS union have an outstanding ballot for strike action over new IT systems.

Revolutionary explosions

It is clear that a mood of intense anger and rage against the entire establishment is fomenting in the depths of society. This is preparing a combustible cocktail – one that could explode at any moment.

System Broken Image Socialist AppealRising class struggle and a crumbling state machine are preparing a combustible cocktail / Image: Socialist Appeal

Strikes and walkouts are already on the rise. The ruling class is warning of ‘summer of discontent’. Mass riots over the surging cost of food and fuel are a distinct possibility. All it would take is the slightest spark to set these off.

But unlike in the past, the ruling class today lacks a strong state apparatus with which to repress the working class, and to defend its power, profits, and privileges. Instead, we see fractures emerging throughout the capitalist state.

Lenin explained that one of the conditions indicating a revolutionary situation is that the ruling class is unable to rule in the way it once did.

Rising class struggle and a crumbling state machine suggest this situation is approaching sooner rather than later.

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