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On a war footing
The war on the most vulnerable is ramping up and many voices in the press and wider media are complicit.
Baroness Casey's report on the Met and Boris Johnson's appearance before the Privileges Committee lead to a brief and illuminating bout of noticing.
Why does street homelessness still exist? We know that the pandemic provided the required incantation to end it. The state turned on the money tap and the unhoused were instantly provided with roofs over their heads: The ‘Everyone In’ scheme. But then, when the ‘danger’ was judged to be over, the help “retracted”. Everyone out and everybody for themselves.
According to the government’s own snapshot figures — based on the number of people in England sleeping rough on a given night in autumn 2022 — there were an estimated 3,069 people sleeping rough; a 26% annual increase and 74% up on the number in 2010 when the data started being collected.
One of the many provable and laughable lies in the 2019 Tory manifesto was a pledge to “end rough sleeping by 2024”. It’s one of those ‘promises’ where the way terms are defined and stats are collected can be fudged to make it seem like something has been achieved but £500m pledged for the Rough Sleeping Initiative (always got to have a bloodless name) is less impressive when you realise that funding has not and will not rise with inflation.
Homeless Link, the coalition of frontline homelessness organisations, says there were 39 per cent fewer accommodation providers and 26 per cent fewer beds for people experiencing homelessness in 2021 than in 2010. Why? Because the Tory and Tory/Lib Dem plastic bag tax governments increased the speed and depth of the hollowing out of the state.
The presence of most media coverage of homelessness is that it’s a failure of the system and something that capitalism wants to eradicate. But that’s not the case: Homelessness is a feature of capitalism and serves a purpose for it; the threat of being without a place to live is a useful tool of control; it serves as a visible and frightening rock bottom.
People who are homeless are human beings who are being failed but they also serve as signifiers for what you could experience if you step out of bounds; the state’s brutal treatment of homeless people — crackdowns especially — is both about making the housed feel superior and showing them what the system could do to them if they were ‘unfortunate’.
Professor Don Mitchell, author of Mean streets: Homelessness, public space, and the limits to capital, told Liberation School:
… homelessness is not the crisis; capitalism is the crisis. As I have said, [it] is necessary to capitalism; capitalism needs it. At the same time… homelessness is deeply contradictory in capitalism: it threatens all that wealth wrapped up in the built environment (the presence of homeless people does bring down property values, for example)… … homelessness is a problem for capitalism. It is primarily a problem of management. Homeless people are, first and foremost, people. They will do what they must do in order to live. Sometimes what they will do is organise and seek to radically transform the system… other times they will merely cope. … Those of us in housed society find [that] noxious or threatening or disgusting. We demand that [homeless people] be made invisible, that we live undisturbed, that our comfort and poverty values be protected. The state responds.
Those state ‘responses’ make good copy for hacks that relish a crackdown and whose audiences gobble up stories of homeless people being “dealt with” in the same edition as stories on luxury houses and spendy holidays. The Times today carries a story headlined ‘Hotspot’ policing to halt rise in antisocial behaviour at the same time as its website’s splattered with content from the Best Places to Live 2023 supplement.
Bylined to the Home Affairs Editor, Matt Dathan — who often serves as de facto Home Office press officer, albeit paid by News UK — and Policy Editor, Oliver Wright (no relation), the report is practically covered in drool:
Public drug use, fly-tipping and low-level crimes such as graffiti are to be targeted with a strategy of “hotspot” policing and “short and sharp” punishments under plans for a crackdown on antisocial behaviour to be announced next week. To address growing public concern about a proliferation in nuisance crime, ministers will unveil “tougher” enforcement powers that could mean those caught vandalising property are forced to repair it. Police could be given powers to carry out on-the-spot drug tests on the street for the first time under plans that will be consulted on over the next few months. There will also be new laws to crack down on nuisance begging, including a ban on asking for money at cash dispensers.
The product of government briefings, and designed as a ‘flyer’ to gauge public response (you can tell this by the strategic use of the word “could”), the story includes promises of ‘support’ for vulnerable people which are as lacking in detail on how they’ll be delivered and paid for as the talk of “‘short and sharp’ punishments”. This is less about the passing references to the carrot and much more about Rishi Sunak’s government, to borrow the words of House of Cards’ Francis Urquhart, “[keeping] the troops in line and [putting] a bit of stick about”.
The “short and sharp” rhetoric — part of a competition with Starmer’s Labour to sound as punitive as possible — is a deliberate echo of Thatcher’s “short, sharp, shock” policy. At Tory party conference in October 1979, Home Secretary William ‘Willie’ Whitelaw told the salivating wolves in the audience that prisons for young people — the brutal borstals — would “no longer be holiday camps”.
In an article for the Manchester Evening News on the eve of her first General Election win, Thatcher wrote:
We shall act to bring back law and order. For a start, we shall show respect and give support for the law, the police, the judges, as Labour has failed to do so. Example counts as much as words… … We shall toughen up the treatment in some detention centres, what Willie Whitelaw calls the “short, sharp shock to violent young thugs.” We shall expand the use of attendance centres, a cheap way of making vandals and hooligans learn the hard way.
Forty-four years later, the rhetoric and the proposed solutions — from blue and ‘red’ alike — are identical. On Thursday, in yet another “law and order” speech, Sir Keir Rodney Starmer said:
The rule of law is the foundation for everything. Margaret Thatcher called it the “first duty of government” – and she was right. An expression of individual liberty — our rights and responsibilities, but also of justice, of fairness, of equality — one rule for all.
Starmer was quoting Thatcher as a sign to sections of the press he desperately and pathetically continues to court — they will never back him — and to parts of the electorate that focus groups and polling tell him he must genuflect towards. What makes this particularly grim though is that the Thatcher line he lifted came from her 1975 Tory Party conference speech in a section that attacked Labour, trade unionism, and protest:
The first people to uphold the law should be governments. It is tragic that the Socialist Government, to its lasting shame, should have lost its nerve and shed its principles over the People's Republic of Clay Cross. And that a group of the Labour Party should have tried to turn the Shrewsbury pickets into martyrs. On both occasions the law was broken. On one, violence was done. No decent society can live like that. No responsible party should condone it. The first duty of Government is to uphold the law. If it tries to bob and weave and duck around that duty when its inconvenient, if government does that, then so will the governed, and then nothing is safe—not home, not liberty, not life itself.
Some of those who were unjustly criminalised for their involvement in those Shrewsbury Pickets that Thacher so disdained only had their convictions quashed in 2021. They included Ricky Tomlinson who later became famous for his roles in films and TV shows including The Royale Family. In The Guardian news story, I just linked, a guy called Keir Starmer called it “a huge victory” that “[took] unimaginable determination to ensure justice, finally, prevailed.
Who knew Keir Starmer was such a common name?
In the week that Baroness Casey released her report into the rotten and fatally abusive culture of the Metropolitan Police, Starmer used his speech to say:
… something else that Louise Casey made crystal clear is crucial to restoring confidence. Visible neighbourhood policing. We need reform to get more police on the beat – fighting the virus that is anti-social behaviour.
The police — shown over and over again to pose dangers to communities across the country, not just in London — remain ‘the good guys’ in Starmer’s worldview; he bends himself almost u-shaped to talk about “good prosecutors and decent police officers”. Meanwhile, like Sunak’s Tories, Starmer’s Labour is turning to a retro 90s/00s tactic of demonising young people.
Compare Starmer’s rhetoric with the government lines in The Times today:
A government source said: “It’s beyond bobbies on the beat; it’s about being able to know what and where the beat is and where police should focus their resources.”
Aside from anonymous government sources, the only other person the paper quotes is Adam Hawksbee, deputy director of the Tory thinktank Onward, whose director, Sebastian Payne — who recently left the Financial Times — has a column in the paper on Fridays to push the organisation’s proposals and prep his future bid to be a Tory MP. Hawskbee tells The Times today:
There’s lots of evidence that hotspots policing works to reduce antisocial behaviour… Rolling this approach out across the country means building better data capabilities in police forces and forming stronger partnerships with councils, housing associations, and schools.
His language is bloodless but the news copy is more direct:
The crackdown will come alongside an announcement for tens of millions of pounds for grassroots sports and community clubs. This “carrot and stick” approach is aimed at offering youngsters activities to occupy their free time and divert them away from antisocial behaviour… …The antisocial behaviour strategy will also include plans to target problematic tenants by making it easier for landlords to evict people subject to persistent noise complaints, for example. However, the changes will come along wider changes in a Renters Reform Bill to boost protections for tenants against no-fault evictions. Ministers have also considered stripping benefits from parents whose children skip school, although a final decision has not been made. An immediate measure will be a substantial expansion of criminals being tested for drugs after their arrest, The Times understands. Those found in possession of illicit substances or a positive test would first be directed to addiction treatment and other support. Those who refuse help would have to attend a drugs awareness course and those who repeatedly test positive would be hit with an escalating range of sanctions such as being forced to wear tags and losing their passports.
Notice the implication that “antisocial behaviour” is something that is exclusively done by young people and that things that young people do are more likely to be framed as “antisocial behaviour”. Further enabling landlords and targeting renters is about the Tories pandering to their core voters but Labour also wants to pander to those people. The rest of us can get fucked.
Payne teed up the government’s lines for it in his Times column yesterday, a piece designed to trumpet Sunak’s ideas and elbow Starmer even further to the right by needling him about his lack of “a big idea”:
[Starmer] is soon to be outgunned on crime too. On Monday, the government’s long-awaited antisocial behaviour strategy will set out a series of practical steps to tackle one of our biggest blights. We can expect to hear about increased fines and enhanced drug testing on arrest, tougher punishments all round combined with new funding for community patrols. Police may be given more powers to clamp down on illegal drug use, along with much tougher sanctions for those who graffiti or fly-tip. Landlords may be granted powers to make it easier to heave out troublesome tenants.
It's the ratchet effect being performed in broad daylight; the Overton Window remodelling continues apace with its current form (a cat flap) being reduced to a mouse trap. It’s not just about policing who gets to speak and minimising who is in that group but ensuring there is swift and brutal punishment built in.
At the same time as an ‘exciting’ retro menu of punishments for the most vulnerable is being developed by Labour and Tories alike — as I was writing this edition, a Sky News breaking alert read: “Government expected to announce plans to move all migrants out of hotels into military bases and potentially disused ferries.”) — Boris Johnson is being raised up as a martyr and a victim by the right-press that enabled his ascendency in the first place.
As the government announces new plans to build camps; to further criminalise the homeless and desperate; to target the young once again, the ‘Boris’ cartoon continues to suck up attention and provoke endless comment.
In The Daily Telegraph, Sam Eagle’s septic sibling Lord Moore — Charles Moore to his enemies — who was raised to the peerage by Johnson, writes:
… in terms of the common good, I think it will be a bad thing if the most successfully controversial leader of our time is seen to have been defeated by process rather than by voters. It all goes back to Brexit, which was, among other things, the electorate’s gigantic rejection of the way our establishments had mishandled things for so long. If those establishments are seen to be winning once more, there will be no peace either in the Conservative Party or, more importantly, in the country.
It’s now a classic Telegraph tendency for a paper owned by a reclusive and anti-democratic billionaire, the not-dead Barclay Brother, to rant, rave, and rage at “the establishment”. The version where a literal lord does it is most piquant.
Were one of the Telegraph’s enemies to peck out rhetoric about “no peace in the Conservative Party or, more importantly, in the country,” it would accuse them of inciting violence. I can’t really picture Moore as a Che Guevara in shooting tweeds, nor Telegraph editor Chris ‘the worst Chris Evans’ Evans leading a guerilla band through a harsh mountainous setting. But there is a war on and those men are combatants in it.
It’s a war on the poor, on refugees, on the mentally ill, on the disabled, on the young, and on the left. The contest between the Labour and Tory parties is a civil war fought over the question of which party can be more efficient in its cruelty, more able to ‘clean up’ to the satisfaction of the smug middle class and the endlessly comfortable rich.
The press and wider media’s role in this war is at best as a snippy ref and at worst as a drunken cheerleader. When I wrote an edition earlier this week which contained direct criticism of Caitlin Moran for her copaganda tendencies and implicit criticism of Marina Hyde for her court jester role, I got some pushback from readers. One question was whether I was hitting out at the wrong targets or going for people who are “on my side”.
There are a lot of good writers out there — Nesrine Malik springs to mind immediately as do Gary Younge, Nadine White, Patrick Strudwick, Ben Hunte, Bryony Gordon, Elizabeth Day, Dr Eleanor Janega, Hussein Kesvani, Robert Smith, and Sirin Kale (this is by no means a complete list) — but I don’t write this newsletter with my mind on who is or isn’t on my side. In fact, I’m sometimes circumspect about mentioning the people I admire because I don’t want them to get any heat for all the writing I do about people that I don’t.
Something of which I’m certain is that I want to be on the opposite side of the battle from The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Sun and The Times. They might never admit that hostilities have broken out but they are waging this war daily and you shouldn’t wait until the consequences reach you to recognise that.
Thanks to NG, DKD, PF and JPJH for looking at the draft.
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