Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The sound of the police

There have been a few stories on our boys in blue these last few weeks. The march by off-duty officers was received with a sort of curiosity by much of the union movement, as was their treatment of the Home Secretary. It’s like seeing the beagles start growling at the huntsmen.

The particular shock of the Police Federation is perhaps at the tactical incompetence of the government move as much as anything else. Having been ‘Thatcher’s praetorian guard’ during the 1980s, many must have assumed a government that has alienated doctors, teachers and the armed forces would have need of their particular services. Did the riots not drive home the point?

The sense that the police are somehow special seems to permeate the profession. The recent tendency to refer to the rest of us as ‘civilians’ is particularly grating, trickling in from American crime dramas. Unlike their American cousins, or the rest of Europe, the police are not a gendarmerie. In theory, a police officer has no power that you and I don’t have. They are not the state’s troops watching us, they are individual citizens who do full time the job we are all meant to be doing part time: upholding the law.

Of course I would like to blame all this on the Tories. However Dixon of Dock Green died when he was taken off the streets and put into a car by Roy Jenkins. The shift from neighbourhood policing to what we might call ‘fire brigade policing’ is the central issue, mirroring similar developments in the NHS. The police by and large are not patrolling and so helping to prevent crime, they are in cars speeding to where a crime has already occurred in order to deal with the after-effects.

One can understand why. ‘Beat’ policing is, by and large, a deeply boring job. It will mostly involve giving people directions, chatting to old ladies and walking the same streets for months on end. It’s social work rather than Starsky and Hutch. However it is precisely how one both re-assures a community, and gathers the intelligence which is necessary to intervene before a crime occurs.

The subsequent paramilitarisation; tasers, flak jackets, riot shields has furthered the distance between the police and the public. The open warfare between the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the IRA in the 1970s was reflected in turn at Orgreave, Toxteth and Brixton in the 1980s and in the Poll Tax riots in 1990. Working class communities saw them as traitors, ethnic minorities as an occupying army.

Disastrously, but perhaps understandably, the police response was to become ever more insular. Brother officers were to be defended to the last.  This seems to even apply to its canine cops. In 2009 two police dogs  died when accidentally left in a car on a hot day. Their handler was prosecuted, and convicted, of animal cruelty. There have to date been no prosecutions relating to the 17 people who died in police custody that same year.

The police service’s problem has been further exacerbated by political events. In the wake of September 11th, they were given broad new powers under counter-terrorism legislation. This had two effects. First, it made mistakes more likely, Jean Charles de Menezes being the most famous. However the more telling response came with the protests over the Iraq War, and subsequent student protests over tuition fees. The police came into conflict with middle class people, with camera phones and law degrees. These people had also been watching the American dramas, and believed they had the right to protest where they wanted without fear of being kettled. Hence when the police bungled the raid on Forest Gate, or an officer threw Ian Tomlinson to the ground, there were plenty of people with the skills and the motivation to make sure the IPCC put the boot in.

Perhaps the final straw came in 2008, with the raid on Parliament. There was a scandalous response to MPs that their bastion had been violated, and without a warrant! When it was pointed out that the police didn’t need one, the incredulity only increased. It is perhaps the first time many legislators realised what the laws they’d been passing all these years actually meant. Since then the hacking scandal and the revolving door at the top of the Metropolitan Police has left the service with very few friends.

The current compensation for police officers may, or may not be justified. It is however the direct result of a Faustian pact. The police themselves helped bring about the social conditions in which their jobs can be outsourced to Serco, or deskilled to PCSOs. If you fight as a profession, to protect your own right you lose eventually, as the miners proved. If we fight together, for the benefit of all, we win.  The union movement should forgive, even if it can’t forget, but a decision needs to be made. Which side are you on boys, which side are you on?

Friday, 11 May 2012

Lucky Red

Golden Dawn now sit in the Greek Parliament. The National Front achieved their highest ever vote share in France.

Yet in Britain the BNP vote collapsed last week, with all their councillors up for re-election going down to defeat, and the party coming last in the London mayorals. Baroness Warsi got into considerable trouble for suggesting that UKIP, which averaged 13% of the vote in seats it contested, had come to some kind of arrangement with Nick Griffin’s party.

The view seemed rather odd to me. My occasional forays into the darker areas of internet politics showed much of the BNP think UKIP is an MI6 plot to divert nationalist and anti-European support into an incompetent Dad’s Army. That both Norman Tebbit and Nigel Farage suspected this back in 2001 is all the proof they need.

For my own part I think UKIP and the BNP are quite fundamentally different. It is only the tortured simplicity of the ‘left/right’ spectrum that puts them near each other. UKIP are the Tory Party in exile, the boat children of Maastricht, clinging to the Thatcher Dolchstosslegend of 1990.

They exist as a study in what the Tory Party might have become had John Major been overthrown in the early nineties. Despite their Euro-obsessionism, there’s little in their manifesto you wouldn’t find in the archives of the Adam Smith Institute or Policy Exchange.

The British National Party are the most prominent incarnation of a political jumble including the National Front, New Nationalist Party, EDL and a host of splinter groups leading back to the League of Empire Loyalists and the BUF.  A group of people, angry and not entirely sure why, electorally successful in inverse proportion to the number of jackboots visible.

While they may occasionally be joined, and led, by a member of the upper classes (such as their current Cantabrian chairman), their support mainly comes from the losers of modern Britain. Feeling there’s an injustice, but lacking the political framework to express it, they’re easy prey for those who can provide a scapegoat.

Fascism is the failure of social democracy. It springs up when parties which claim to speak for the people stop doing so. It is a denial shouted in the face of the notion that there is, ‘no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous cash payment’. We are social creatures, we need other people. You can’t change that any more than you can change your need for oxygen. In the absence of a message of a socialism based on freedom and justice, some will turn to a nationalism based on blood and soil.

Britain’s original experience with fascism re-enforces this notion. While Oswald Mosley and the Blackshirts after 1932 are well known, the Labour Party has tended to gloss over his road there. Right up until the Labour Party conference of 1930, when Mosley was on the NEC, he got the vote of 40% of the party against its own leadership. The cause was his memorandum, a document revolutionary at the time, recommending a massive program of public works.

Philip Snowden, still wedded to the notion that the Labour Party had to tolerate unemployment to be considered seriously, drove Mosley out of the party. After the disaster of the New Party, Mosley left the country to tour Europe. By the time he returned from Italy and Germany he saw democracy as a lost cause. The rest, as they say, is history.

In 1945 Labour proved you didn’t need blood on the streets to effect change, that a transformation of British politics and society could be brought about by the democratic process, and by trusting the British public. That even the man known as the greatest Briton in history goes down to the will of the people.

The party, buoyed by its gains last week has a fine line to walk. It cannot ignore the electorate, but echoing economics which has failed and continues to fail because Very Serious People say so is the same road to nowhere. We are lucky that the Tories have Nigel Farage stirring up trouble and knocking a few points off them.

We are lucky the BNP are led by a distasteful holocaust denier, rather than a charismatic and organised young woman. We are lucky there is only one Alex Salmond, only one George Galloway and only one Boris Johnson. We need a plan for what happens when our luck runs out.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The Brick Society

There are 2.65 million unemployed people in Britain. 1.7 million people are on the waiting list for social housing, while 2 million say they struggle to pay their rent or mortgage. I would not be the first person to point out that a mass programme of house-building would go some way to alleviate the unemployment problem. However, what if we made this a real ‘something for something’ project? What if people built their own homes?

Hear me out. The government sets up a public company to build a housing development. They provide the land, there’s plenty of it. If we run short we can always repeal a few of those Enclosure Acts as Peter Lazenby suggests. Then, you hire the usual medley of skilled labour; electricians, plumbers, carpenters etc. Finally, instead of searching round for the low-skilled labour which is part of any large scale construction project, you invite local people on JSA to apply. To be clear, these will be jobs paying at least the national minimum wage. The added draw is, you won’t just be lugging bricks around to build a home, you’ll be doing it to build your home. Every person who switches from JSA to working for the company, and stays in that job for the length of the build, is guaranteed a place in the completed development.

We can go even further, and nick an idea from Henry Ford. We could allow someone to contribute a portion of their gross income towards a shared ownership scheme for their property. They would not pay tax or national insurance upon this contribution, boosting it further. Since these people would essentially be deferring their wages, the up-front costs of employing them would be even lower.

Think about what this would create. At the end of the build, you would have dozens of people who had worked together now living in the same community. You would already have the social bonds that come from collective enterprise. In addition, no individual is going to tolerate vandalism to what they themselves built. You would have that sense of ownership, that sense of cohesion right from the beginning. When looking for new opportunities, people would have a proven track record of work and achievement, but they would also have those informal networks through which opportunities so often travel.

The old cry goes up, ‘where’s the money going to come from?’ The net salary for someone on the minimum wage working the standard 37.5hr week is £10,424. JSA annually is £3,692, so these are indeed significant increases. However, you could employ every one of those 2.65 million unemployed for two years for the projected cost of HS2. Further, the money spent would be offset by that saved over the longer term as the housing benefit bill fell and rents produced an income stream, to say nothing of previously jobless people going on to further employment. At the last, you have an asset: hundreds of thousands of new homes to house the people of Britain.

If you’re a conservative, love it because it rewards those who work. If you’re a socialist, love it because it is infrastructure investment by the interventionist state. And if you’re a woolly liberal, love it for those bonds of community it creates. Let’s have the Brick Society.