What if Jim Callaghan had won the 1979 election?

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Mike Guilfoyle 

In a fascinating debate recorded in 1983 in Hansard Lord Wells -Pestell drawing on his former role as a Probation Officer opined in response to what many in the Probation Service and beyond considered at the time an overly prescriptive approach from the Home Office on the future direction of the Probation Service that : ‘we feel that the Home Office has failed to provide a positive programme for the future development of the probation service. There is in the statement a narrow preoccupation with cost cutting which is unrealistic having regard to the importance of the service to the community’ From the middle of the 1970’s the probation service had been faced with a growing range of external pressures relating to resources, professionalism , greater accountability and a debilitating sense that its traditional faith in the case-work informed rehabilitative ideal, predicated on the almost mystical status of the Officer/Client relationship as the core task of the probation service, whose efficacy was being called into question and was facing ever newer challenges to its performance that needed to be measured and quantified. Such moves became enmeshed in the introduction of what became known by the label of  the New Public Management ( NPM) into the public sector, whose profound influence , albeit in a more attenuated form melded with the modernising strategies that later characterised New Labour’s approach to public sector reform.

With a deteriorating economic situation resulting in the government of Jim Callaghan’s seeking help from the International Monetary Fund in 1976 with the proviso of major cuts in public expenditure and a subsequent electoral pact with the Liberals in order for Labour to continue in government. The gathering unrest among workers across the public and private sector seeking pay rises above the government’s 5% level resulted in widespread industrial action and a lingering feeling that the discord arising from such collective action was inflicting undue misery on the populace caught by the redtop headline as the ‘ winter of discontent’. Yet the issue of crime during this period of turmoil, in spite of the number of indictable offences increasing dramatically appeared to remain in the background as a source of moral alarm, although the Home Office noted with moderated deliberation in its periodic publications the vexed issue of recidivism and the strain of a rising prison population. That the economic travails afflicting the labour government resulted in only modest outlays for the probation service meant that what probation was doing , needed to be undertaken with a greater emphasis on efficiency gains. Certainly the abiding concern at the overuse of custody had been partially alleviated by the earlier introduction of community service in 1972 albeit with some degree of ambivalence from probation staff and the move to introduce Bail Information Schemes aimed at reducing the unnecessary remands into custody of defendants.

The Conservative government that came into office in 1979 afforded a much greater prominence to the issue of crime and criminal justice, with an incipient political impregnation of ‘ law and order’ as an issue that they would bring to the fore , but with few specific manifesto crime policy commitments. The toughened -up rhetoric aided by shifts in voter attitudes towards crime and a promise to boost the powers and resources of the police which would prefigure the urban and industrial disorder to come in the 1980’s.  The etiolated mantra of the language of the 3Es efficiency, economy and effectiveness together with an increased emphasis on more coordinated approaches to the management and governance of criminal justice policy making, evidenced in a desire to better align sentencing practice with prison capacity also assumed greater valence. There had been in the latter part of the 1970’s a flourishing of probation scholarship aimed at reconceptualising the role of the service and its traditional attachment to more person -centred aims. This reflexive phase existed alongside what many informed commentators viewed as the unwelcome persistence of more punitive impulses unavoidably interlinked with the widening net of social control threatening to weaken the more humane and social work influenced values that continued to attract the recruitment of probation officers.  A significant publication in the development of probation practice published in the British Association of Social Work by Bottoms and McWilliams ( 1979) dubbed the ‘ non -treatment paradigm’  encapsulated in its quartet of basic aims something of what probation in a newer climate of social and penal thinking should now sets its sights on namely that under the statutory supervision of offenders , the provision of appropriate help rather than treatment should underpin its main efforts and diverting appropriate offenders from custody through the vehicle of social enquiry reports would result  in the elusive goal of reducing crime now seen as having a wider social and structural configuration.

A pressure group with the probation union Napo, the Action group advocated a more radical reworking of probation through the lens of a carefully constructed Marxist critique of the state and the role of the probation service in a capitalist society ( Walker and Beaumont 1981) but even a cursory familiarity with the probation literature for the period of the Callaghan government one finds littered with references to change, crisis and uncertainty punctuated by a discourse on the concept of control in the community and whether this was appropriate to a helping agency like probation. If as L P Hartley noted, ‘ the past is a foreign country’ probations’ current parlous situation has arisen from over a century of tensions, choices and changes since its inception in 1907. Certainly up to 1979 bi-partisan penal policy had been driven to a great extent by penal lobbies such as the Advisory Council on the Penal System, whose members had a wide knowledge of the criminal justice system. With the arrival of the conservative government in 1979 advocating a more punitive approach to law and order, an ideological predilection towards privatisation of the public sector , the position of the probation service began to worsen.

The growth of more media led penal populism based on the belief that short -term electoral gains should trump broader democratic debate on the role of punishment and without considering the often ambivalent attitudes the public displays to crime and its causation. This in responses to fears about crime and insecurity and the corroding effects of macho -correctionalism  and  dirigiste type political interventions has led to what many now see as the hollowing out of probation by stripping it of its assets, professional identity, value base and widely respected position as a public sector organisation with over a century’s experience of working with people in trouble , such developments continued under the labour government from 1997 onwards and the recent announcements emanating from the Ministry of Justice in 2013 may see if current market driven reforms are implemented and the probation service is outsourced and privatised its demise?  It is indeed arguable if Jim Callaghan had won the 1979 election that the broader direction of travel for criminal justice and in particular the probation service would have witnessed less by way of castigation for perceived under-performance and failing to deliver their core services. It was only after the Thatcherite post 1987 election that the broader reconstruction of the country’s public services via market driven approaches assumed a higher prominence. With this in mind maybe Jim Callaghan’s oft -quoted apothegm  ‘ When you are in trouble, it is better to be loved than feared’!! brings a wistful reminder that resistance and reform to the modernising agenda in criminal justice and until now the probation service comes in many guises!

Mike Guilfoyle worked as a Probation Officer in London from 1990-2010 and is an Associate Member of Napo.


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