Steve Reed: ‘We have a broken criminal justice system that no longer has the trust of the public’
Two decades after being robbed at knifepoint, Steve Reed still won’t wear headphones while walking home at night. The shadow justice secretary knows more than most the importance of being alert after dark.
Making his way back from a friend’s barbecue to his house in Clapham, south London, one Sunday evening he was set upon by two men who leapt out from behind a low brick wall. In a whirlwind of violence they grabbed him, put a blade to his throat, snatched his bag and wallet, punched him in the stomach and ran off. At the time badly shaken, it was only later that he realised how lucky he was to escape relatively unharmed.
“When I got back to the house I went into the bathroom and saw a nick on my throat where the knife had been. Then your mind turns and you start to think of what might have happened, how much worse it could’ve been,” he recalls.
In a daze he called the police, who arrived almost immediately from the local station less than half a mile away. The officer who turned up was Martin, the neighbourhood bobby who he knew by name from his regular street rounds. The pair drove around in a squad car, searching side roads and alleyways for the culprits and his possessions. By then the perpetrators had vanished, but the emotions he felt at the time remain to this day.
“I felt fear, I felt anger, but I felt this strong desire that they should be caught and they should be punished. I completely understand the need for retribution, the need to punish people and not just to try and understand or excuse why they did what they did.
“In terms of the job I’ve got now, I understand what it’s like to be a victim of crime. How powerless you feel, how weak, how afraid. That experience is important and it informs my sense of what our criminal justice system should be like.”
That he can still recount the ordeal in blow-by-blow detail more than 20 years later makes clear how much those few seconds have shaped his attitude towards crime. With that in mind, a year ago the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer handed him the challenge of rebuilding Labour as a “party of law and order” which is on the side of victims rather than criminals, restoring a reputation which was shredded under Jeremy Corbyn.
It is a daunting task which he has responded to with a series of eye-catching policy announcements, but also a significant sea-change in language designed to put clear water between the past and present in voters’ minds. Long gone is the soft-touch approach of Corbyn, who wanted to abolish jail sentences of less than six months and argued that not all terrorists should serve their full term behind bars.
In its place is a steely rhetoric about the need for victims to see that perpetrators are being punished, underpinned by a fresh twist on Tony Blair’s famous slogan “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. Reed has inscribed the party’s new motto – “prevent crime, punish criminals, protect the public” – on a whiteboard in his parliamentary office to serve as a daily reminder of his central mission.
The 59-year-old says the words have become a personal mantra for him, adding: “Where I get to that from is [the fact that] I wanted those thugs who robbed me caught and punished, and that’s a natural human reaction to somebody who commits an offence against you.”
Part of Labour’s plan is to rebuild neighbourhood policing, which he says has been “decimated” under the Conservatives. It is especially personal to Reed that Clapham station, which responded to his mugging call, was closed in 2013 to save costs. “There was that personal connection, you saw a visible police presence on the street, it was reassuring,” he says. Asked whether he believes the same level of service is available to victims now, he replies: “I know there isn’t.”
In addition Labour has unveiled plans to recruit 13,000 new community police officers and PCSOs, taking numbers back up to pre-2010 levels. But catching criminals is only half the equation. Reed’s focus is on repairing a justice system which he warns has passed its breaking point and lost the confidence of the general public, with serious consequences.
The official statistics make for grim reading, with only 5.5 per cent of recorded crimes resulting in a charge and one in four victims now refusing to even support prosecution.
“It’s got to such a state that people think it’s not worth reporting crimes to the police because nothing is going to happen,” he says. “That is a broken criminal justice system that no longer has the trust of the public. This cannot be allowed to stand.
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say the Government has effectively legalised very, very serious offences like robbery, burglary, sexual assault, even rape, because the prosecution levels are so abysmally low. That’s why people don’t feel safe.”
At the top of his agenda is cracking down on the scourge of anti-social behaviour, which he warns has left communities feeling like “the wrong people are in control of the streets”. Low level criminals believe they can get away with running riot because they are not being properly punished, he argues, pledging to make it his mission to “re-balance the system in favour of the law-abiding majority”.
“You’ve got gangs who are smashing windows, daubing graffiti around, wrecking buildings, and communities sometimes feel there’s no sanction and no consequences,” he says. “It makes the whole neighbourhood feel like nobody cares about them anymore and you can’t allow that feeling to just grow unchallenged. We cannot have communities allowed to become derelict, where criminals have the run-around.”
His response would be to ramp up the use of community sentences. The number handed down has plummeted by 80 per cent in the past seven years as magistrates and judges have lost faith that they will be enforced.
“Just imagine what message it sends to a young offender if you’re arrested, you’re taken to court, you’re given a community sentence but then no one ever carries it out. It basically says to you, 'No one cares, carry on with what you’re doing'.
“It’s essential that we nip that kind of offending in the bud. Tackling anti-social behaviour is essential as a means of preventing more serious forms of offending later on.”
To boost public confidence and show the justice system at work, he wants to give locals a say in how such sentences are carried out by getting them to sit on “community payback boards”. Criminals convicted of more serious crimes, meanwhile, would be forced to appear in court so that victims and their families could see them get sent down.
Reed said it was “outrageously offensive” that perpetrators like Jordan McSweeney, who sexually assaulted and murdered 35-year-old law graduate Zara Aleena, are able to escape the dock. McSweeney refused to attend his sentencing hearing in December because he did not want to watch the CCTV footage of what he had done.
But those pledges will mean little without action to tackle the spiralling backlog at the courts, which now means a record number of victims are waiting over two years for justice. Reed is determined to bear down on delays whilst sticking to Labour’s promise that it will be careful with the public purse and not reach for the “big government cheque book”.
He is already eyeing up possible efficiency savings at the Ministry of Justice, accusing the Government of having “bloated the centre an awful lot” whilst simultaneously cutting the number of police. “I wonder why you would inflate the bureaucracy while shrinking the uniform presence on the streets... So we’re looking into that and that’s where I’d hope to find more savings,” he says.
He plans to boost the number of crown prosecutors by two-thirds by ripping up outdated laws and allowing junior legal specialists to handle routine hearings. Similarly, his money-conscious streak extends to a proposal to increase capacity in the system by reopening closed courtrooms and extending sitting hours.
But he still admits the scale of the work needed will mean that he has to initially focus his efforts on those parts of the system most in need of fixing.
One of his top priorities is violence against women. One in a hundred recorded rapes now ends up before a judge, and those victims who do get their day in court have to wait an average of three years for justice. Reed says Labour would fast-track prosecutions by opening specialist rape courts at every crown court in the country, as well as almost doubling the minimum jail term to seven years. On top of that he has unveiled plans to set up a domestic violence register, similar to the existing one for sexual offenders, which would alert women if their partner has a history of abuse.
When it comes to trans prisoners, the shadow justice secretary is adamant that he will always put the safety of women first. He vows cases like that of Isla Bryson, who was put in a female prison in Scotland despite having two rape convictions, would never happen on his watch.
“No one who represents a threat to women will be placed in a women’s prison, simple as that,” he replies. “They should never have been put there. The overriding priority here is the safety of women and any rights of a prisoner come way below that.”
His no-nonsense approach in part reflects the fact that Labour has identified crime as a key battleground in the run-up to the next election. Sir Keir Starmer believes that the Conservatives are vulnerable on the issue and has empowered Reed to attack their record and outflank them on law and order. The approach mirrors Tony Blair’s election-winning strategy of seizing the high ground on traditional Tory issues and turning them into Labour strengths, and the evidence suggests it is working.
Polling shows Labour now comfortably leads the Tories amongst voters regarding who is the most trusted to tackle crime, with a recent survey putting the gap between the parties at 58 per cent to 42 per cent. Meanwhile internal research carried out for the Shadow Cabinet revealed lawlessness has shot up the list of the public’s biggest concerns and ranks third behind the cost of living crisis and NHS waiting lists.
At the same time as Labour is upping the ante on crime, Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, is mired in bullying allegations which are forcing him to keep a lower profile. Downing Street insists that he is getting on with the day job, but Reed wonders aloud whether his opposite number is “so absolutely distracted in fighting to save his job that he’s given up on the fight against crime”.
What would he do with Raab’s flagship Bill of Rights? He snorts derisively and brands the much-delayed legislation a “dog’s dinner” that is hated almost as much by Tory MPs as Labour ones. He warns that the law, designed to replace the Human Rights Act, risks endangering the peace in Northern Ireland and creating a loophole for terrorists, vowing to “fight it tooth and nail” in the Commons.
Senior Tories are well aware of the threat posed by Reed, the former London council leader, who was handed an OBE by the late Queen after driving down gang violence and drug offences in Lambeth. Michael Gove, the Levelling Up Secretary, praised Reed at a panel event in 2021 as a formidable political opponent who “brings something to the Labour front bench that perhaps some of his colleagues don’t”.
Born and raised in St Albans, Steve Reed intended to follow in the footsteps of his father and most of his grandparents, as well as uncles and aunts, by getting a job at the nearby Odhams printing factory in Watford. When the plant was closed down by Robert Maxwell in 1983 he decided to study English at Sheffield, becoming the first member of his family to go to university.
He went on to work for a series of educational publishers and, having joined the Labour party aged 16, became a union shop steward. He was elected to Lambeth Council in 1998 and rose to become leader in 2006, serving in the post for six years. After narrowly missing out on the nomination for the safe seat of Streatham to Chuka Umunna in 2008, he was elected to Parliament in 2012 as the MP for Croydon North. A year later Reed, who is gay, was able to vote for David Cameron’s same-sex marriage bill which he described as a “big step” in the fight for LGBT equality.
Quickly promoted by Ed Miliband, he then served in several shadow ministerial posts under Jeremy Corbyn, despite joining the failed 2016 attempt to remove the latter as Labour leader. But during that time he became increasingly alarmed by the hard Left’s takeover of the party and became involved in secret planning to seize it back for the centre ground.
“It was horrifying to us, to see our party with its proud 120-year history of doing so much good for our country, suddenly facing terminal decline with anti-Jewish racists tolerated for the first time ever,” he says. “We had to do something about this, we had to win our party back because the public weren’t going to vote for a party of the nature that Labour was turning into under Corbyn.”
In response he co-founded Labour Together with Morgan McSweeney, who was then a member of his staff and is now responsible for planning Sir Keir’s path to victory at the next election.The group carried out polling of the new membership and found that, whilst a quarter were dedicated Corbynistas, almost half were young people who knew little of what the former leader stood for.
“We realised that if you could build a majority between these idealistic members and the moderates you could isolate and, in the end, kick out the anti-Semites and the hard Left,” Reed says.
He is adamant that Corbyn, who now sits as an independent MP, should never be allowed to stand for Labour again and is “100 per cent confident” the party will not return to such dark days.
“It’s not job done yet but we’re on the road back to recovery, and I think it’s very important in a functioning democracy, that you have another party that could conceivably form a government,” he says. “The Labour Party has gone back to being what the Labour Party used to be, which is a mainstream political party that seeks to make life better for the British people.”