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Tuesday, 16 January, 2001, 13:40 GMT
Straw's uphill battle
Home Secretary Jack Straw
Straw is losing his "tough guy" image
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

Jack Straw is putting a brave face on it, but he will be dismayed by the latest crime figures.

The first New Labour home secretary has attempted to portray himself as the living embodiment of the government's law and order catchphrase "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime".

Yet in the year to September 2000 the overall level of crime barely fell at all, while violent crime increased by 8% with robbery up by 21%.

Mr Straw was quick to say that the increase in violent crime had been halved over the previous year and that the trend was going in the right direction.

Police recruits in training
More police recruits
He stressed that the overall crime figure had been falling since Labour came to power and that certain offences, such as car thefts, had been reduced.

He also pointed out that police recruitment had increased by a substantial 74% this month - the suggestion being that he is finally getting to grips with the situation and that more police officers will soon be available to tackle street crime.

But Mr Straw knows that when the official election campaign finally gets under way it is the crime figures which will be thrown in his face by the opposition parties.

And a huge increase in violent crime is a powerful weapon to hand to the Tories, who are desperate to win back their old tag as the natural party of law and order.

Damage limitation

Mr Straw knew these figures were coming and did his best to limit the damage earlier in the month by announcing a package of measures, dominated by his plans to tackle mobile phone thefts.

He also attempted to meet voters' demands for more bobbies on the beat by insisting that more were now joining the police force than leaving it.

Critics, led by shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe, immediately dismissed the claims, saying that more police officers were leaving than joining.

Shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe
Widdecombe: Police figures misleading
And some suggested that the decision to announce the police recruitment figures on the same day as the crime statistics was a deliberate attempt to overshadow bad news.

It has also been noted that the government's new "anti-yob" bill - which also promises measures to tackle violence and street crime - is to be published at the end of the week.

But finally, like many political issues, this is all about perception.

Latest opinion polls suggest that, whatever the statistics may say, most voters believe Labour has failed to tackle crime or put more bobbies on the beat.

And this is Mr Straw's greatest problem. He is fighting an uphill battle in persuading people that he really has been "tough on crime".

Many Labour MPs also fear there is still a tendency among voters to trust the Tories more on law and order issues.

What is certain is that William Hague will press home his perceived advantage on crime and that, along with the economy and Europe, it will become one of the big issues in the general election..

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See also:

16 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Violent crime soars
15 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Tories launch crime broadside
06 Dec 00 | UK Politics
Crime blitz signals spring election
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