Stop and search: Will the real Theresa May please stand up?

Home secretary must decide if she's a moderniser or a crowd-pleaser
Home secretary must decide if she's a moderniser or a crowd-pleaser
Adam Bienkov By

There is an unfortunate irony to Theresa May's call today for the police to increase the diversity of their officers.

May's basic point is obviously right. The latest Home Office statistics show that ethnic minority officers make up just 5.5% of the police force in England and Wales. The situation is even worse in London, where ethnic minorities make up just 11% of police officers, compared to 40% of all Londoners. BME women are especially under-represented in the capital, making up just three per cent of all officers.

It is also a long-term problem. The last home secretary to make an issue of the lack of ethnic minority officers was Jack Straw back in 1999. The then Labour government set a target to increase the proportion of ethnic officers to seven per cent. However, despite the ethnic minority population significantly increasing in the intervening sixteen years, the police are still well off hitting that target.

But the home secretary's point is seriously undermined by the lack of diversity in her own party and government.


Ethnic minorities make up just 4.5% of the current Cabinet and just five per cent of the wider Conservative parliamentary party. If the police force doesn't look enough like modern Britain, then the Tories certainly don't either.

The policy also seems strangely at odds with May's incredibly hardline anti-immigration speech at this month's Conservative conference. On the one hand she appears to be saying Britain is too diverse, while on the other hand suggesting the police aren't anywhere near diverse enough. How can she square the two positions?

Searching for the real May

The other big issue the home secretary will raise today is stop and search. Again, May will take a surpassingly liberal stance on this issue, insisting that the police must reduce their use of the tactic which has proven so divisive in black communities in Britain.

May's liberal policy has already gone down badly with the police force. Metropolitan Police chief Bernard Hogan-Howe is particularly opposed to it, telling the London Assembly last month that the reduction in stop and search had led to an increase in knife crime.

Her policy has also been opposed by the Conservative's London mayoral candidate Zac Goldmsith, who suggested that May's reduction was linked to a spike in knife crime deaths.

May will today deny this, insisting that the statistics merely indicate that the reporting of crime has improved. She will tell the police to resist a "knee jerk" return to the bad old days of widespread, untargeted stop and search.

But is May right about the statistics? After all, better reporting may explain the overall rise in knife crime figures, but it doesn't explain the significant rise in knife crime deaths. The occasional stabbing may go unreported, but murders don't tend to go unnoticed.

Either way, May is likely to be applauded by police reformers for her stance on stop and search. On this issue, as with her opposition to water cannon, May has proven herself to be a thoughtful and liberal defender of the rights of the public against the never-ending calls for the police to be given ever greater weapons and powers.

Yet it is becoming increasingly difficult to square her apparent liberalism on policing with her apparent deep illiberalism on immigration. Just like it is difficult to square her apparent welcoming of diversity among police officers with her apparent dislike of the increasing diversity of the wider population.

The home secretary is in many ways a fascinating politician. Unlike most of her colleagues, she has been brave enough to take bold positions, even when they have been at odds with her own party and the wider political establishment.

But at some point she will have to decide exactly who she is politically. Is she the hardline home secretary who wants to clamp down on immigration and extremists, or the political moderniser who wants to finally end the Tories' "nasty party" image? It is perfectly possible for her to be one or the other. It's becoming increasingly difficult to see how she can be both.

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