Deputy leader of the Labour party Angela Rayner came under fire yesterday for saying that police should “shoot terrorists [first], and ask questions second.” The comments were made to Matt Forde during “a candid, raucous and hilarious” live recording of his podcast, The Political Party, in January.
Rayner sought to reassure the comedian that she’s “quite hardline” on things like law and order, despite being left on the economy, and affirmed her support for a “shoot first” policy. After eliciting a gasp from the audience, the shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster laughed and added: “Sorry – is that the most controversial thing I’ve ever said?” Perhaps. Or maybe most people don’t consider an endorsement of summary execution as the stuff of light entertainment.
The Ashton-under-Lyne MP’s “shoot first, ask questions second” stance was met with criticism from all sides of the political spectrum. Tory MP David Davis tweeted: “We need our security services to make the ‘right’ decision, not a ‘shoot first, ask questions later decision.’ This kind of heavy-handed approach cost Jean Charles de Menezes his life.” Alistair Carmichael of the Liberal Democrats called her comments “a good reminder why there is a clear difference between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.” And Labour MPs – both publicly and in private – have expressed their alarm.
One Labour MP, speaking to Novara Media on condition of anonymity, slammed Rayner’s remarks as having “a lynch mob mentality”. They added: “I think this will be embarrassing for Keir Starmer.” Another of Rayner’s Labour colleagues observed that her comments presented a particular problem for Starmer, who has spent the last fortnight insisting that politicians have a duty to moderate their language after being subject to Savile-related smears by Boris Johnson. They said: “Does Keir Starmer agree with words having consequences? Words should be chosen very carefully; we’re talking about summary execution. Police officers will have to take that decision to use lethal force, but this blanket use of such volatile terms is worrying. We all have in mind the case of Jean Charles de Menezes. He was shot dead, and he was totally innocent. He couldn’t answer questions.”
The director of Liberty, Martha Spurrier, condemned Rayner’s comments. She told Novara Media:
“The safety we all want will never come from the reckless use of lethal force with no accountability. It’s shocking to hear these comments, particularly in the wake of recent scandals about police abuses of power which rightly put them under the spotlight of public scrutiny.
“This Government has done nothing to address rampant discrimination in policing and the widespread abuse of police powers that are putting so many people at risk. Instead they are expanding powers through the policing bill in a way that will put many people, particularly Black men, in greater danger.
“Rather than pave the way for more reactionary and dangerous policies that put us all at greater risk, the opposition should be calling for a roll-back of police powers and evidence-based alternative solutions to keeping our communities safe.”
The feeling amongst Rayner’s supporters is that her comments were taken out of context, and blown out of proportion – better to hunker down and let the story blow over than fan the flames by issuing clarifications and apologies. The Labour party assured Novara Media that their deputy leader’s endorsement of “shoot first, ask questions later” doesn’t reflect a change in their policy position on the use of lethal force. It’s certainly true that a throwaway line buried in a self-identifying comedian’s podcast shouldn’t be taken as seriously as a manifesto commitment – but insisting it was all just a joke doesn’t quite ring true either.
Current police regulations dictate that a firearm can only be discharged to prevent imminent threat to life. That’s fairly straightforward in the event of a live terror situation, where it’s pretty obvious who, and what, poses a risk to the public, and nobody in mainstream politics – not even Jeremy Corbyn or Diane Abbott – has opposed the police operating a shoot to kill policy in those circumstances. It’s not something that’s a divisive issue in politics.
If all Rayner was doing was jokingly restating what is already police firearms policy, it’s difficult to understand why she felt the need to follow up and suggest it might be the most controversial thing she’s ever said. It makes more sense if she’s talking less about instances where there’s some question mark hanging over whether or not the police should shoot at all. Making absolutely certain of having correctly identified a terror suspect, determining the level of threat to life, and calculating the proportionate use of force: those are questions to be saved for after having shot someone.
Rayner’s team have made clear to Novara Media that she did not have de Menezes in mind when she advocated for shooting first and asking questions later, but there’s good reason to reflect on why many of her parliamentary colleagues did.
In context, Rayner had been talking about her own observations of criminal and antisocial behaviour in the area where she grew up. She said that people in her constituency felt abandoned by the police, and that she instructed her local force to take a much more interventionist approach. “I want you to beat down the door of the criminals and sort them out and antagonise them,” said the deputy Labour leader. “That’s what I say to my local police […] three o’clock in the morning and antagonise them.”
There does seem to be something sincere in Rayner’s wish for more aggressive, muscular and trigger-happy policing. Indeed, other Labour MPs seem to agree with her. In a now-deleted tweet, Karl Turner wrote supportively of Rayner’s ‘shoot first’ comments: “It’s a working class thing, we aren’t terribly keen on terrorists or (for that matter) thugs much”. How working class people feel about roving police death squads, however, Turner did not say.
Whether Rayner meant to or not, her comments have opened space in the Labour party to advocate for more aggressive, and indeed more violent, treatment of those deemed criminal. And perhaps many people across the country would agree; there’s no especial love, as Turner observed, for terrorists and thugs. But who gets suspected of being a terrorist or thug isn’t a neutral or necessarily fair determination.
Ask any brown and bearded man, or any black person, how they feel about the police correctly judging whether or not they pose a threat. de Menezes was wrongly identified as a terrorist; despite doing nothing wrong, he was shot seven times in the head. Perhaps he’d still be alive if someone asked questions first.
Ash Sarkar is a contributing editor at Novara Media.
This article was updated on 18 February to include comment from Liberty director Martha Spurrier, received after publication.