Dead Men Left

Monday, July 05, 2004


Sitting in front of me are two leaflets, distributed by the Labour Party in the Birmingham Hodge Hill constituency. Hodge Hill is facing a by-election, the result of its MP vacating his seat to take a job in Brussels. It is regarded as a very safe Labour area; but, as happened in Brent East last year, such is the disillusion with this government amongst core Labour voters that even the safest seats can fall to opposition parties. Like Brent East, the most immediate threat to the Labour Party comes from the Liberal Democrats, who as a result receive relentless vituperation across the six A4 pages of the two Labour election flyers. Neither contains a single positive mention of anything this government may have achieved, instead focusing solely on crime and the Liberal Democrats alleged "softness" on this issue; the closest to a "positive" note is struck in earlier editions of similar leaflets which featured, in place of the Labour logo, a small cross of St George and (from memory) the words "All the way with England", in reference to the Euro 2004 contest. Later editions have dropped the George's Cross, and even Labour's red rose logo, featuring instead the slogan "On your side".

The front page of the four-side flyer poses Liam Byrne, the Labour candidate, with a large sign reading "SMASH TEEN GANGS". Byrne bears a passing resemblance to a cross between Neil Kinnock and Ian Duncan Smith, and attempts a stern grimace; inside, he is in a more playful mood, smiling lopsidedly across the page from another photo of a hooded youth clambering through a window, captioned "People have a right to feel safe and secure in their own homes". Two slogans are emblazoned at the top and bottom of the same page, reading "Reclaim the streets" and "Labour - on your side in the fight against yobs". The next page alleges that the Liberal Democrat candidate will push for more phone masts to be placed in Birmingham, given that she works for an (unspecified) mobile phone "organisation" and will back her "mobile mast bosses" ahead of Hodge Hill residents. This may be a fair point, though it comes a little strangely from the New Labour party of Lord Sainsbury, Geoffrey Robertson, Keith Vaz, Peter Mandelson, and so on. Liam Byrne himself, for all his puffed-up talk of smashing teen gangs, reclaiming the streets and fighting for "hard working families" in Hodge Hill, was (according to the Birmingham Mail) drafted into the constituency for the election, moving there only three weeks ago; so we may then assume that he, at least, is fully aware of local residents' concerns.

I spend some time on this as those outside of Hodge Hill will not have seen how serious a lurch rightwards the Labour Party has taken. The campaign manager for Hodge Hill is Tom Watson, MP for West Bromwich East, whose blog has featured a series of attacks on the Lib Dems for, amongst other things, not wanting "crack-heads and junkies to go to jail". I thought this Tebbitesque vehemence was just a peculiar aberration on Watson's part, but was corrected by a report in yesterday's Observer that claimed:

Blair and other senior Labour politicians are convinced they can make a crackdown on anti-social behaviour work for them electorally. Feed back from the doorstep during recent local elections has convinced them that anti-social behaviour is now the number one concern of the British public.

The results of making "anti-social behaviour... work for them electorally" are now plopping through letterboxes across East Birmingham. Far more forthright than the leaflet described above is the double-sided A4 sheet focusing exclusively on the Liberal Democrats, who are directly addressed by Byrne:

People of Hodge Hill deserve to know the truth about dangerous Liberal Democrat policies.

I know how concerned people of Hodge Hill, Alum Rock, Bordesley Green, Kitts Green, Stechford, Shard End and Washood Heath are about the anti-social behaviour of teen gangs and drug dealers. I want these gangs busted. I want these drug dealers put behind bars, I want the drug money of these so-called drug barons confiscated and used to make our area better.

I challenge the Liberal Democrat candidate Nicola Davies to defend policies that would make life worse for local people.

And then the shocker. Comment on what has been described so far has seemed superfluous. It is clear enough that, in the absence of anything convincing to say about what New Labour has done in seven years of government, they are running the most negative campaign possible on the basis of simple reactionary politics. But then they list the Lib Dem policies, as allegedly supported by Nicola Davies, that will "make life worst for local people": at the top, this breathtaking question:

Why does she think it right to give benefits to failed asylum seekers?

Numerous answers, from numerous angles, suggest themselves. Because leaving people to starve is deeply inhumane. Because terminating their benefits breaks human rights law. Because asylum seekers cannot now work legally, and forcing them into begging or petty crime is undesirable. It is, without doubt, a singularly stupid question, made all the more tragically absurd by the restrictions on employment and housing the government has now imposed on some of the most desperate people in our society. But what really turns the stomach is this: how - exactly how - is providing benefits to failed asylum seekers making life worse for "local people"? The pittance this costs - not least when set against, to pick a random example, the cost of wars against Iraq and Afghanistan (and where do the largest numbers of refugees come from, I wonder...?) - has no impact on "local people". Quite the reverse: the Home Office's own figures suggest recent migrants are net contributors to the Exchequer, providing £2.5bn in taxes over and above their consumption of public services: being generally younger, fitter and often well-educated relative to the domestic population, this should not be surprising.

The leaflet's logic can only work in one fashion: quite simply, the Labour Party is playing the race card. Alongside the foul, reactionary tone of the remainder of the leaflet - "Why does she think it should be easier for thugs to buy guns?", "Why does she think at least 10,000 more offenders should be allowed out of prison?" - or "prison works", as Michael Howard put it so neatly and so, alas, incorrectly - the Labour Party has settled itself on perhaps the foulest, most reactionary trick in the book. The net result is to place them considerably to the right of even the Tories' relatively moderate election material, whilst making the Liberal Democrats appear as guardians of any minimally progressive politics. Who knows? Perhaps this is sound electoral logic: the BNP are not standing in Hodge Hill, so there is possibly an untapped white racist vote; it sits ill, however, with Blair's great liberal exhortations to bring freedom and democracy to the world that pretty explicit racism is considered suitable for domestic consumption, alongside a saloon-bar authoritarianism and rhetoric more suited to Ukip than a "democratic socialist party". It is, of course, Ukip that has them panicked, but how typical that they react by merely attempting to steal their clothes; and how typical, too, that whilst we have seen authoritarianism and "moral majority" flourishes from Labour when in government before (Callaghan's "family values" homilies setting the tone), they should now arrive, New Labour-style, stripped of all positive nuances, leaving only the pared-down nihilistic soundbites: "yob free zones" and "smash the gangs". No more "tough on the causes of crime", as Blair said, pre-'97. Only shrill demands for longer sentences, more police, greater authoritarianism.

An alternative can be seen. Take "teen gangs". Leave aside the pressing issue of the presumption of innocence; the hectoring mentality of New Labour fits in well with the small-minded suspicions their leaflet plays up to: his eyes were too close together, officer; they had skateboards, so they must have been taking drugs. The "solution" offered in the propaganda is clearly flawed: police dispersals of "gangs" from "selected areas" merely push them elsewhere, whilst trampling all over civil liberties. The New Labour "solution" is entirely concerned with an alleged quick-fix and says nothing about causes. By the end of 2002, over 10,000 mainly 14-16 year olds had simply "disappeared" off the school registers. Permanent exclusions have risen by 14% since 2000, after a period in which they declined. More worryingly, "informal" and unrecorded exclusions appear also to have risen, as the twin pressures of league tables and underfunding push schools towards their own quick-fix. According to Prof Tim Brighouse of the Institute of Education, little support and few facilities and are available for those excluded; back in the days when the government appeared to be concerned about such matters, its own Social Exclusion Unit noted how permanent exclusion was significantly linked to later unemployment, homelessness or even imprisonment. Exclusions are concentrated in areas of relative deprivation, where few other public facilities are available.

This is not to offer a complete account of "teen gangs" or "anti-social behaviour", much of which (quite simply) is about perceptions rather than realities, but it is to suggest that social issues must be placed in their context if anything useful is to be done. Reducing the pressures on schools, through significant investment in front-line services and a turn away from the continuous-assessment league-table regime would be one means to tackle the problem with a hope of solving it. The Labour Party's toytown authoritarianism as offered in Hodge Hill neither addresses the causes, nor offers a realistic solution to the alleged problems of "teen gangs". Instead, those already pushed to the bottom of the heap are to be still further victimised; growing up in Blair's Britain is a grim prospect for many thousands of young people. Rather than the Labour Party's "Smash the gangs" hotlines (Birmingham 525 0918), the Respect campaign in Hodge Hill has attempted to shift the agenda back on to the real sources of social misery: the threatened closure of the Alstom factory, the woeful state of council housing (now threatened, predictably, with privatisation). The Labour Party in Birmingham has forfeited whatever claim it may have had to a social conscience; I quite sincerely hope, on the basis of the risible and offensive claptrap they have issued in lieu of a progressive campaign, that they lose this once-safe seat.