Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006
Homelessness
Photo: Nick Cobbing

Shuffle, Shuffle, Snuffle

Not only were the Queen’s speech and the budget bad news for homeless people, so to is the Labour Party shadow cabinet. Tony Blah has now finished shuffling his subordinates. Shuffled out is shadow housing spokesperson JOHN BATTLE, relegated to the obscurity of ‘open government’. In his place, we get the sharp suits and crocodile smile of NICK RAYNSFORD. Kit Nash, a squatting activist and member of The People’s Housing Information Service, watches the manoeuvres.

Squall 9, Jan/Feb 1995, pg. 12.

Last May, barely 200 people held a small but lively march against homelessness. It was organised by hostel residents, tidied away in the Government’s so-called ‘rough sleepers initiative’. The marchers included John Battle. His speech and John Major’s sick denunciation of beggars two days previously, helped ensure good coverage in the media.

Since it was a bank holiday weekend, John Battle had obviously made this obscure, scrag-arsed march a personal priority. He could have been putting his feet up at home in Leeds or buttering up his constituents there. You don’t usually get northern MPs to weekend events in London, unless there’s lots of kudos attached and much fluttering of the ‘great and good’, neither of which was on offer.

That was typical of John Battle, who proved to be a jewel in the political mud. His housing role was only a junior shadow ministry, and it was obvious he was kept on tight leash by his boss, the odious ex-student politico Jack Straw. Never the less, he made a better impression than any other shadow housing Minister since Thatcher crawled from the slime. He didn’t go down too well with bankers, building societies, Housing Corporation bosses and council bigwigs, and he had no time at all for the Sir George Young fan club, eager to preserve its grants and jobs, which Sheila McKechnie was running at Shelter. The people John Battle impressed - the people he listened to and respected - were homeless people, tenants, squatters, housing co-ops and others who, being at the brunt end of housing, know what’s going on. He advocated, and was inspired by, self-help solutions and self-organisation. Unusually for a politician, he knows the energy and creative power of people coming together to meet their needs themselves and believes in the wisdom of those at the sharp end. Oh... and he was an appreciative reader of SQUALL, which I hope he remains.

Some people thought John Battle was just a ranter. He’s certainly good at that, but he also had an excellent grip on the complex issues in housing and never sunk to empty slogans. With Straw and Blair breathing down his neck, it’s hard to know what else he could do. At least he ranted a lot of the right stuff.

JOHN BATTLED BUT WILL SLICK NICK?

In a way, it’s surprising Nick Raynsford hasn’t had the job sooner. He’s been the Labour Party’s Mr Housing for more than a decade. Former boss of SHAC and latterly a ‘housing consultant’, he won the Fulham bye-election in 1986, lost that seat, then bounced back as MP for Greenwich in 1992. Endowed with plenty upstairs, he’s the ultimate technocrat in the many legal and financial intricacies of housing, baffling to most politicians. In fact at one stage, he was sort of informal consultant to the government as well as the Labour Party. When housing benefit was introduced around 1982, the system was so complicated that Nick Raynsford was reputedly the only person who really understood it. Civil servants used to ring him up for advice when they got lost in their own maze!

With his public school smarm, Raynsford is obviously a much more ‘suitable’ Labour suit to impress the bankers and building societies than John Battle ever was. He’s likely to hit it off with the career campaigners as well. Now that Sheila McKechnie has been succeeded at Shelter by Chris Holmes (ex-housing boss of Camden Council and previously the man whose caution kept CHAR constipated for years), and with the Tories heading down the pan, Shelter and Labour can be expected to start croaking the same off-key ditty once again.

Housing won’t be Slick Nick’s only concern. He’s also keeping the job he had before as shadow Minister for London. That says something about Labour’s priorities. In the ’40s and ’50s, when the parties both boasted they could build more houses that the other lot, housing was one of the top jobs, with a seat in cabinet. Now Labour makes it half a job for a bod at least a notch below cabinet rank.

NO RESPECT

A techno-whizzo he may be, but Raynsford is a cold fish who’s shown little real respect for homeless people. They’re the last voice he’s likely to listen to. You wouldn’t find him in Trafalgar Square supporting a couple of hundred hostel residents, street-dwellers and squatters! He’s anti-squatting and chronically patronising towards those who don’t rate as his equals. He doesn’t find wisdom or ideas coming from the streets, because he doesn’t look for them. Homeless people are there to be done good to by ever-so- concerned, highly intelligent liberals like him. That’s why, like most politicians, he misses out on so much that John Battle was almost uniquely plugged into.

YOUR MOVE, NICK

For all his expertise, Nick Raynsford knows nowt about the great unacknowledged resource of homelessness; the ideas, ingenuity and energy of homeless people. On past form, he doesn’t want to know either. Maybe the best thing we can say to him and his party is what some earlier squatters, the Diggers, said when the revolutionary government they had fought for turned out well Blairish - promoting the interest of the minor squirearchy and the emerging middle class, but negligent of the people’s needs. Announcing their pioneering squat at St George’s Hill, (near Weybridge, in Surrey) in April 1649, the Diggers said:

“We are made to hold forth this declaration to you that are the Great Councel, and to you the great army of the land of England, that you may know what we would have, and what you are bound to give us by your covenants and promises; and that you may joyn us in this work, and so find peace. Or else, if you do oppose us, we have peace in our work and declaring this report: And you shall be left without excuse.”

So what about it Nick? It’s never too late to “joyn with us in this work”. Or will you be left without excuse?