Issue 262 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review
|Vigil for Roger Sylvester, who died after being stopped by the police|
New Labour's Home Secretary David Blunkett has launched a new offensive around the issue of stop and search. He claims, 'We must respect and tolerate differences but not tolerate unacceptable behaviour.' Behind Blunkett stand the newspaper tabloids and broadsheets with headlines such as 'Surge In Street Crime' and 'Black Gangs Lead Crime Wave'.
Both Blunkett and the press are building up a moral panic. Their comments stem from the false idea that following the Macpherson inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence 'the police are now afraid to stop and search black people', as one Tory put it.
To find attacks from this corner is to be expected. But this chorus has been joined by Mike Best, the editor of Britain's biggest black newspaper, the Voice. Mike Best said on the BBC recently that anybody being stopped by the police with nothing to hide wouldn't mind the inconvenience. Worse, he called for more stop and searches of black people.
What's missing from most of these discussions is any sense of reality. While it is true that stop and search has fallen by 40 percent overall, the proportion of black people stopped and searched has risen from 5 percent to 7 percent since Macpherson. In fact black people are more likely to be the victims of crime. What has gone down (by 18 percent) is the number of stop and searches of white people.
There is overwhelming evidence to show that stop and search does not lead to a reduction in the level of crime. Despite a huge rise in the number of police the chances of a policeman detecting a crime randomly is about once every 8 years. A home office survey by Marion Fitzgerald described the policy as making 'no sense whatsoever' as it leads to unnecessary confrontation between the police and those policed.
Ever since the Macpherson report was released, the Metropolitan Police have been attempting to roll back the idea that they are institutionally racist. More stop and searches will lead to more black deaths in custody. When Tottenham was swamped by police in an experiment of zero tolerance, a minor incident and a routine call led to the death of Roger Sylvester. He died in the 'custody' of the police Tactical Support Group, who were only in the area because of this policy.
The policy of increasing stop and search comes in the wake of the visit of the right wing US politician and former mayor of New York Rudolph Giuliani (given an honorary knighthood by New Labour). His policy of zero tolerance led to the murder of Amadou Diallo who was shot in the back 44 times by New York police in 1999. What is shameful is that Ken Livingstone, champion of the left, has also called for more bobbies on the beat.
Unfortunately these concessions have influenced others. Hence Gus John, author of the excellent Burnage Report in the 1980s, now talks about black parents becoming better parents as a way of reducing crime. Ken Livingstone's race adviser Lee Jasper recently said Brixton was too dangerous for his family to live in. Also the Hackney Labour MP Diane Abbott commented about a 'lawless gun culture' in the borough, yet this is where Harry Stanley was shot by police in broad daylight. Whilst they still talk about racism, all these people have played down the notion of class division in Britain today. As the Guardian pointed out recently:
'Around 45 percent of London's unemployed are black. Failure rates among black schoolchildren are the silent catastrophe of London. The black prison population in Britain has doubled since 1994. Infant mortality rates are double those of white Londoners. Young black men occupy more than 40 percent of the psychiatric beds in London. Teenage pregnancy rates are the highest in Europe and the number of single parents is going through the roof. Sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV, also have a disproportionate impact on the black community.'
In the 1970s and 1980s the response to police racism was black and white working class young people demonstrating and rioting together. The Voice was launched in the wake of the 1981 Brixton riot. When Blunkett talks of fighting crime he means in effect suppressing and controlling the people who live in those areas without providing any hope of relief from the despair that exists.
BETWEEN THE LINES
No easy touch
On 16 April Defend Council Housing (DCH) is organising a 'Case for council housing' briefing for MPs at parliament. Tenants' federations, trade unions and local activists are organising delegations from each area, and contacting their MPs to persuade them to join them at the briefing. Contributors already include an impressive list of tenant reps, MPs, academics and trade unionists. Ucatt, Unison, and the GMB are all supporting the event.
The battle for the future of council housing is hotting up. The ballot results for the sell-off of council estates in Birmingham, Glasgow and Liverpool will be known early in April. Ministers, senior officers and councillors continue to be shocked that council tenants are not such an easy touch. There are angry campaigns uniting tenants, trade unionists and some councillors which have taken the argument against privatisation onto the estates.
The government is showing signs of wobbling. The commitment by Stephen Byers to allow councils a new 'right to borrow' is now included in the Local Government Finance White Paper. Byers made a further commitment to a select committee on 16 January that regardless of how tenants vote in ballots all council housing will be brought up to the government's new decency target by 2010.
These are important concessions. They show that Labour ministers are feeling the pressure from an increasingly effective campaign. In the run-up to the May local elections DCH is urging tenants and trade unionists to push the 'Manifesto for Council Housing', and asking all candidates to sign up to its demands. With unions like the RMT now affiliating to the national campaign, the issue of council housing is fast becoming a key test of New Labour's commitment to a comprehensive welfare state. Across Britain nearly four million council tenants and their families have a direct interest in making sure that we stop New Labour's addiction to privatisation.
Still living in Limbo
Zimbabwe was gripped by depression immediately after the recent election results were announced. For most people the thought of six more years under Mugabe is a death sentence. For the thousands of people still being beaten and killed by Mugabe's 'youth militias' or facing massive food shortages this is not an exaggeration. People walking the streets of the city are starving. Most are surviving on one meal a day, and the prices of basic commodities are set to rise when the government removes price controls.
Even to ask if the elections were 'free and fair' is a sign of madness, normally greeted with derision. How seriously would you take an election that was preceded by nearly two years of intimidation, violence and murder? And in the immediate run-up to the election the ruling party organised a series of carefully executed measures designed to stuff the election from the start.
However, there is another question that I have heard a hundred times in Zimbabwe in the last few weeks: 'Todii veduwe?' ('What should we do?') For many socialists in Zimbabwe the answers are not hard to find.
The opposition in Zimbabwe should organise mass protests and strikes to remove Mugabe. Students have already raised the possibility of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai declaring himself president at a mass demonstration in Harare.
But the opposition is paralysed. They spent the first week after the elections in 'consultation' while talking about High Court appeals and a constitutional challenge. The failure of the national strike called one week after the election was caused by the inability of the trade union federation, the ZCTU, to organise or plan for it. The state used this failure to arrest trade union leaders and student activists, while pressing Tsvangirai to accept 'national unity'. But this victory was temporary--as one Zimbabwean socialist said, 'Today everything in Zimbabwe is temporary. While Zimbabweans are hungry and restless the government will never have their victory.'
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|Trotskyist presidential candidate Arlette Laguiller|
Whatever the result of the first round of this month's presidential election in France, the poll is certain to confirm the crisis of mainstream politics. Although the current president, Jacques Chirac, and prime minister Lionel Jospin will probably contest the second round stand-off on 5 May, the election has so far been notable for two things. The first is the general indifference which has greeted the contest between the two frontrunners. Polls have shown that a clear majority of voters see no difference in policy between the Gaullist right winger Chirac and the Socialist Jospin, whose party governs as part of the 'plural left' coalition. The second major feature of the campaign has been the support for candidates from beyond the mainstream, from the fascist Le Pen, who continues to pick up support, to the maverick Republican nationalist Jean-Louis Chévènement. The Trotskyist candidate Arlette Laguiller is also set to do well.
On the eve of the 21 April first round, Laguiller, a leading member of Lutte Ouvrière (LO), is on course to win more votes than each of Jospin's coalition partners, the Greens and the French Communist Party (PCF). This will represent a watershed for the revolutionary left. For much of the postwar period the PCF was France's single biggest party. Despite its historic decline over the past two decades the party has nevertheless retained a sizeable membership, significant influence within the main trade union federation, the CGT, and the potential to provide socialist governments with a bridge to strikes and protest movements. Under the leadership of Robert Hue, however, the party has chosen to reinforce its credentials as a respectable partner in a government pursuing an agenda of privatisation and deregulation. The absence of a significant force to the left of the PCF is one reason why Hue has survived this far. The LO vote could therefore both end his career and open up the possibility of a reconfiguration of the left.
Is such a reconfiguration really on the cards? Much will depend on the attitude of LO to the vote. In 1995 Laguiller won 1.6 million votes (over 5 percent). This was one indication of growing resentment at the neoliberal policies of left and right wing governments which eventually led to big public sector strikes in the winter of that year. These set off an ongoing wave of militancy which has produced protests against redundancies, unemployment and racism, and seen trade union contingents marching alongside anti-capitalist groups at major demonstrations in Millau and Nice. Laguiller's emergence as a national figure has helped the organisation to capitalise, at least in electoral terms, on this mood.
LO's successful joint slate with the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) in the 1999 European elections sent the first Trotskyist deputies to the European Parliament. Although LO's decision to reject a joint campaign with the LCR in this year's presidential and forthcoming parliamentary elections is sure to limit the far left's potential, Laguiller's campaign, focusing on calls to ban redundancies and to make public the details of the bank accounts of major firms and their directors, has tapped into anger at the treatment of workers by companies like Moulinex, Danone and Marks & Spencer. Meetings in towns affected by job cuts, such as Nancy, Caen and Reims, have been drawing up to 1,000 people.
A real possibility exists for the far left to become a significant political force in France. Despite its electoral achievements, LO is aware that it possesses only limited resources. This is one reason why it has chosen to prioritise building in the workplace, often at the expense of other activities such as attempting to combat the rise of Le Pen or organising opposition to imperialist interventions in the Balkans or Afghanistan. Routine and discipline have undoubtedly helped put the organisation in the position it finds itself in now. But the LO vote is above all an expression of the widespread backlash against neoliberalism expressed in the winter 1995 strikes, and sustained by the mutually reinforcing protests of organised labour and the anti-capitalist movement.
Hundreds of thousands of people are prepared to identify with LO's presidential candidate without sharing all of the organisation's ideas. Across Europe revolutionaries are beginning to engage with those who are disillusioned with mainstream socialist and communist parties, but who still hold to the belief that change can come about through the reform of established institutions. Many such people protested on the streets of Genoa and Nice and Millau. LO has so far chosen not to attend any of these protests, arguing that they are organised by groups opposed to neoliberal policies rather than capitalism itself. Sometimes, however, situations are thrown up which require organisations to take risks, break with the past, and enter into both debate and activity with a wider audience. These are the circumstances facing the French left today. A decision to seize the opportunity they present could have a major impact on the left internationally.