Actors of Parliament
There’s A Parrot In The Dustbin
Seamus Wino on the not so pretty boy in the Shadow Home Office
Squall 11, Autumn 1995, pg. 19.
Jack Straw is often to be seen thumbing for attention by the side of the bandwagon highway. Not that many bandwagons are stupid enough to stop and wait for him to catch up, but apparently he’s not fussy. Any old model-T-rhetoric unfortunate enough to stall at the lights will feel its weary suspension springs groan as Jack jumps in the back. In search of the driving force for this restless interloping we can only look to what certain colleagues in the Labour Party privately refer to as his unquenchable and always just-a-bit-late-for-dinner, hunger for self-publicity. And Jack, they say, is the promiscuous type. Any old dog of a soundbite will do for a quick romp.
In 1993, as the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act was working its way though the parliamentary digestive system, Shelter organised one of its annual debates on housing policy. Traditionally the politicians invited to speak at the debate are the respective housing spokespersons for the three major political parties. And so it was that Simon Hughes came along on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, whilst Sir George Young - the then Minister of Housing - came on behalf of the Government. But where was John Battle, the then Shadow Housing Minister and street level defender of homeless people? Relegated to the audience is the answer. For although he was lined up to appear at the conference, he was ousted at the last minute none other than Jack Straw, who at the time was masquerading as Shadow Environment Secretary.
There was visible dissatisfaction amongst the housing and homelessness professionals gathered at the debate, who despite having little time for the Government’s homelessness policy (or lack thereof), appeared to have even less time for Jack Straw’s social abstractions, devoid as it was of either interest or policy statement. Towards the end of the debate, the panel was asked what they thought of squatting and homelessness. Of all the replies, including Sir George Young’s, none was more hysterically stereotypical than that given by Straw:
“I am afraid that squatters get very little sympathy from me. I applaud local authorities which are dealing effectively with squatting because it’s a way in which people queue jump.”
There are 868,000 empty homes in Britain and only around 15,000 squats. Homeless people making use of run-down unlettable properties? Jumping the queue? The Government alone has far more empty departmental housing stock than all the squatted properties in the UK. The Association of Metropolitan Authorities that represents the local authorities Jack Straw was referring to, said at the time: “The most effective and permanent solution to tackling squatting is to tackle its cause - the lack of affordable housing.”
The word “causes” should have triggered some Labour Party law and order sound-bite button but alas Jack wasn’t there with that one.
Carol Grant, Director of Communications with Shelter, was also quoted at the time as saying: “This law [CJA] will scapegoat people who are basically homeless. This isn’t tackling law and order - this is another headline-grabbing ploy.”
So, did Jack demonstrate a grasp of the issues giving an early indication that here was a home secretary to be?
Er.... no. Apparently Jack Straw was out to lunch and the soup de jour was regurgitated misinformation from Government press releases.
“Squatters deny others resources which ought to be allocated in a fair way,” dribbled Jack.
So there were groans all round when Tony Blair promoted Jack Straw from Shadow Environment to Shadow Home Secretary, a position Blair had vacated to assume party leadership. In his new job, Straw was asked to comment about the Labour Party’s abstention on the Criminal Justice Act. He was quoted: “The trouble was that Labour was concerned about law and order and the safety of the community, but the position adopted by the party was a parody of that concern.” (the Independent 29/8/95)
Apparently Jack Straw was out to lunch and the soup de jour was regurgitated misinformation from Government press releases.
Parody of course means ‘mimicry with satire or humour’.
Since assuming the job as Shadow Home Secretary, Straw has emitted a series of repetitive bleats that, like his comments on squatting, appear to have come directly from the hard-right textbook used by both Michael Howard and his side-kick David McLean (Home Office Minister). However, there is little humour in his mimicry.
One of his early regurgitations as Shadow Home Secretary, were statements and promises on ‘noisy neighbours’ lifted directly from a Government consultation paper on ‘noise control’ issued three months previously. (See here in this issue).
However, the latest and most galling parody came at the beginning of September, when Jack Straw scraped one of the oldest pieces of rhetoric still rotting at the bottom of the sound-bite dustbin.
“The winos and addicts whose aggressive begging affronts and sometimes threatens decent compassionate citizens,” he snorted.
Does anyone remember the protest march that took place in central London in May 1994? The demonstration, organised by a group of homeless hostel residents, received widespread national media coverage for two reasons. Firstly, it took place on a ‘slow news’ bank holiday weekend and secondly it took place only a few days after Major’s tirade against the “eyesores” of beggars and homeless people. The main object of the protest was the closure of several London hostels (including MacNaghten House, in this issue), as well as the fact that an average of 12 homeless people die on the streets every week. If Jack Straw had known the event was to receive so much media coverage, he would have undoubtedly been there taking John Battle’s place. Instead it was the street principled Battle who travelled all the way down from his Leeds constituency on a bank holiday weekend to lend 200 homeless demonstrators his support and encouragement. All the more galling is it then to hear Jack Straw pretending that he speaks on behalf of “compassionate citizens” with his latest vitriol.
In his recent speech, Mr Bandwagon referred to “reclaiming the streets” (where d’you get that one from Jack?) from winos, beggars and “squeegee merchants who wait at large road junctions to force on reticent motorists their windscreen cleaning service.”
He goes on: “Yet physically the street scene in many areas has been brutalised. Window shopping is no longer a possibility as many steel shutters have replaced windows. Graffiti, a much neglected crime in my book, adorns much street furniture. Even where graffiti is not comprehensible or racialist in message, it is often violent and uncontrolled in its violent image, and correctly gives the impression of a lack of order on the streets.”
On the day Jack squawked, SQUALL received a letter from Inner City Artists of Manchester. With the letter were photographs of colourful graffiti designs. The ICA posse use the drab walls of Manchester’s Hulme Estate to create works of art in places where previously there were only grey walls.
More evidence that Jack Straw’s speeches are reconstructed from used up right-wing sound-bites came when his comments on winos, beggars and squeegee cleaners are compared to a street strategy document written by Rudolph Guilano, the right-wing Republican Mayor of New York.
In his strategy document, Guilano states: “Beggars stand on street comers, aggressively demanding money from passers-by. Squeegee cleaners stake out the entrances to tunnels and highways, intimidating drivers into accepting their services m exchange for coerced payments. When the walls of residential schools, stores and apartment buildings are covered with graffiti, it conveys the sense that the streets themselves may be out of control.”
No small surprise was it to learn that Jack Straw visited New York in August.
In a letter sent to The Guardian (6/9/95),
Straw denies ever meeting Guilano or reading any of his work. However, there is little doubt that were the two speeches classed as literary works rather than political ones, Jack Straw would have a hard time defending himself against accusations of breach of copyright. In the letter, Straw also suggests that to compare the two texts: “falls for the Tory trap that safety and security in the streets is an intrinsically right-wing issue.” The possibility that the “Tory trap” is in fact to parrot the right-wing misdiagnosis for the problems of the street, seems to have passed Jack Straw by.
As Joe Oldman from the Housing Campaign for Single People put it: “We would like to express our disgust at the ignorant, offensive and dangerous comments made by Jack Straw. They seem to lack understanding or compassion for the many thousands of homeless people who are forced to beg or scrape together a living on the streets. It is cowardly to attempt to boost the electoral fortunes of his party at the expense of the weak, most vulnerable members of the community.”
In his letter to The Guardian, Jack Straw even had the audacity to say: “In an increasingly privatised and private world, street life remains a crucial, shared, and free experience, critical to the maintenance of functioning communities and society.”
Well Jack, the message from the street is that if street life is so “crucial” get out there and find out the reality presently masked by your regurgitations. You would undoubtedly find out more about street life and communities if you spent less time rummaging through the dustbins of right-wing speech-makers, looking for rubbish to hold up as original political thinking. There’s more to street life than jumping on the bandwagons that go trundling by.
Actors Of Parliament - Our regular look at hamming in the House of Commons. Squall 11, Autumn 1995
Straw's Jaw Jaw - Actors Of Parliament Special. Jack Straw is a well-known seeker of self-publicity - we give it to him. Squall 11, Autumn 1995