Police barricade, Parliament Square. Photo: Nigel Mykura/cropped from original/licensed under CC 2.0, linked at bottom of article

The problems of deprived communities cannot be reduced to issues of law and order. John Westmoreland reports from Hexthorpe in South Yorkshire

The award for the most stomach-churning speech at the recent labour Party conference must surely go to Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds.

In a bid to out-nasty Priti Patel, Thomas-Symonds announced that Labour was the ‘real party of law and order’. Labour should be seen as the tough guys. He called out Patel for under-funding the police and betraying the trust of serving officers.

In a clear swipe at Black Lives Matter’s demand to divert police funding into more productive community-based investment Thomas-Symonds said:

“Some call for defunding the police. No Labour home secretary will ever defund the police. That’s not our party, that’s the Tory party and they have spent 10 years defunding our police.”

He was delighted to announce that the chair of the Police Federation, John Apter, was in the hall – something clearly unthinkable when Diane Abbott held his post.

Which one’s Labour?

Starmer’s strategy to win back former Labour voters echoes Neil Kinnock’s lame (and disastrous) response to Thatcher’s electoral success – that Labour would “out-Tory the Tories”.

Starmer wants to distance Labour from anything remotely Corbyn. He thinks that a lack of any alternative vision can be overcome by simply exposing Tory inefficiency and hypocrisy. He talks about abandoning ideology in favour of preferred outcomes. This ‘constructive opposition’ is giving Johnson an easy ride and leaves working class communities vulnerable to the next Tory attack. Inevitably, as in the case of Labour’s approach to policing, this will reinforce Tory values, and lead to the escalation of right-wing policies.

Nick Thomas-Symonds’ speech was just such an exercise in trying to out-Tory the Tories. Every soundbite stressed the alleged value of putting more police on the beat, playing on the fear and uncertainty that the decay of our communities has caused:

“Our job is to show people that Labour will do better. We are the party of working people and our first responsibility is to keep you safe … we know the damage [anti-social behaviour] does to our communities.”

“If there is trouble on your street, Labour will make sure that you will see officers on the beat.”

 “Eyes, ears and boots on the ground, officers rooted in the neighbourhood … connected into a next-generation neighbourhood watch and backed by a tough approach to closing down drug dens.”

At the very moment that the reputation of the police, and especially the Met, has hit rock bottom Labour has announced the launch of Labour Friends of Policing. Its patron is Lady Hilton of Eggardon, a Labour peer and a former Met police commander. [try not to vomit]

jess-morden-labour-friends-police-lg.jpgPhoto: Jessica Morden MP. From Twitter

The emphasis on the relaunch of community policing is an attempt to take the initiative away from Johnson’s ‘levelling up agenda’, but it clearly shares the same framework of solutions. The Tories are reluctant to blame the decay of working-class communities on their austerity policies that have forced budget cuts on Labour councils. Instead they blame the staple Tory bogeys of immigration and criminality.

Labour should be ripping the Tories apart but, alas, no. Andy Burnham, something of an icon to the Labour left, told Trevor Phillips that he thought Michael Gove’s appointment as levellerer-upper-in-chief was a good choice. Gove, according to Burnham, would bring “energy and intellect” to the brief and get things done!

Labour’s electoral strategy is unlikely to appeal to disenchanted Labour voters. Tory voters will not prefer an imitation to the real thing, and the sight of Labour aping the Tories’ nastiness is hardly likely to enthuse workers on the sharp end of Tory policies. But there is more than Labour’s electoral fortunes at stake.

Working class communities in Labour held authorities have seen their services cut to the bone. There is a general feeling that communities are abandoned, and where crime and anti-social behaviour adds to the misery many want to see more police on the streets. But the causes of social decay will not be resolved by putting more bobbies on the beat.

The working-class community of Hexthorpe in Doncaster has regularly featured in the local and national media as a divided and fearful place, and has become a cause celebre for the right.

The far-right have been able to frame the discussion about what needs to be done in Hexthorpe. Nigel Farage held UKIP conferences in Doncaster to deliberately exploit the tensions there. And fascist groups like the EDL have also tried (unsuccessfully) to stir up hatred.  

Hexthorpe is once again in the news, and Nick Thomas-Symonds would do well to take note, because Doncaster council’s police-centred strategy for bringing peace to the community is failing.

Imagined and real communities

We need to say at the outset that the Conservatives have no idea about, and no right whatever to lecture us on, the meaning of ‘community’. And Labour can learn nothing from them.

The Tories would have us believe that they value working class communities as they used to be – before the EU thrust unrestricted immigration on us and the rot set in. This is the narrative we get about Hexthorpe. It was white, British and contented and immigration has torn it apart. This is a myth.

Hexthorpe is largely terraced streets that were built to provide homes for the thousands of workers employed on the railways making locomotives and wagons in the early twentieth century. But funnily enough the Tories never did well in Hexthorpe. In the 1926 general strike and the 1984-5 miners’ strike Hexthorpe stood against anti-working class Tory governments as a community.

Hexthorpe was always a Labour voting community and still is. However, recent tensions in the village have been seized by the right wing to stoke hatred. Headlines in the Express and the Mail have regularly pitted an embattled white working class against the Roma community that fled racism and poverty in Hungary to find safety here.

The Express has warned of blood-on-the-streets, and have done their best to make it happen with headlines like:

“Roma migrants cause terror for South Yorkshire residents”.

Every fight, argument and crime is put at the door of the Roma. But there are fights, arguments, fly tipping and anti-social behaviour in other communities too, and here the culprits are not Roma or any other immigrants.

The decay of our communities is not because of immigration. The decimation of former industrial heartlands is a global problem. Wealth is flowing from communities like Doncaster to the bankers and financiers, from the poor to the rich. It is a feature of global capitalism.

Clamping down

A recent headline in the Doncaster Free Press announced Doncaster council’s “get tough” approach to Hexthorpe’s strained community relations:

“Doncaster suburb plagued by antisocial behaviour: police and council will enforce protection order.”

To be fair to DMBC, and despite the cuts, much effort has been put into community education and support in Hexthorpe. Roma enjoy meeting in public spaces, and with the closure of Hexthorpe’s pubs and other meeting places it is inevitable that outdoor gatherings will happen, and that this can disturb and offend others. Outreach workers from the council have worked to develop mutual understanding and this has brought results.

However, two points need to be made. It is impossible to get young people anywhere to subscribe to the norms of another generation. And, if we criminalise cultural differences as anti-social behaviour this can descend into a culture war. This is what Labour’s turn to community policing threatens us with, and in Hexthorpe this is happening.

Doncaster council’s response to rising numbers of complaints about anti-social behaviour involving Roma is to enforce a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO).

PSPOs involve surveillance and reporting – Thomas-Symonds’ “next generation neighbourhood watch” – to a police anti-social behaviour group. In Hexthorpe some public spaces are out of bounds in the evening.

Complaints from residents that their calls go unanswered and their concerns are not addressed has simply led to further clamp down.

Deputy Mayor Glynn Jones has said that the PSPO for Hexthorpe will be enforced “no ifs, no buts” and that state of the art CCTV dominates the village. The PSPO for Hexthorpe has been extended for another year.

“We are making the extra effort to communicate with residents in a variety of ways to increase awareness and understanding of how the PSPO works and how we need them on board to ensure its success.”

The ‘them’ in this context is clearly meant as – ‘residents that are not Roma’.

And this reveals the absurdity of using the police to address the social tensions that neoliberalism has created. PSPOs amount to little more than watch thy neighbour, shop thy neighbour. Young Roma who have experienced racism coming at them from the authorities, the media and on the streets already feel resentful and defensive. PSPOs simply generate more division and distrust. The spies and the spied upon grow further apart and the danger of violence increases.

Furthermore, there is every reason to believe that the police are bad faith actors in combatting anti-social behaviour and the low-level crime that is an everyday fact in impoverished communities. Police response times to serious crimes are woeful, and they are never going to prioritise some young people having a street party. On top of that the response teams do not just deal with Hexthorpe and institutional fatigue appears to have quickly set in.

Anyone who has been the victim of crime and has been unable to get the police to respond are likely to be informed that the police have suffered cuts and this affects response times. This might just have registered with criminals, as it has Nick Thomas-Symonds, but the answer is to reverse the cuts as a whole, not just those affecting the police. This would really be getting tough on the causes of crime, but that goes way beyond Labour’s rhetoric.

Real community education

Any discussion of our decaying communities throws up education as an important part of the solution. But who are the educators and what is it they want us to learn?

For the Tories and Labour alike community education invariably means teaching foreigners how to behave, how to be like us! But education can only be effective if it addresses what is actually going wrong.

Lectures on the workings of a PSPO by the police and Doncaster council are not going to make any difference to Hexthorpe. We need an education that builds our communities through human solidarity and mutual support. This has to be an education that empowers us to make changes. Our aim is an educated community, based on real solidarity. By definition, our community should stand together against the forces of hatred and division, and it goes without saying that this community terrifies the culture warriors of the right and Labour.

Our education about the damage Tory austerity has done, and why immigration has been an overwhelmingly good thing for communities like Doncaster, can only come from below. Our education needs to look at how the system of financialised local government works, its priorities and blind spots. This is an exercise in democracy too.

Working class communities can turn their despair into hope if they come together to fight for a better future. This is happening around the world by the way. Activism forces communal despair and frustration out and confronts the politicians and the system they serve. Let’s start by diverting the funds Doncaster council has wasted on gentrifying the market to Hexthorpe.

The value of community activism far outweighs that of community policing. Activism shows where change is most needed and acts to shift funding priorities for the many. The agenda for community building is not going to come from the Tory benches or Labour. Rather groups like the Peoples Assembly are going to be vital in helping our communities to generate a manifesto for transformation that will meet working class needs: housing, recreation, peace and a greener future together.

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John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.