On the weekend, I attended a community conversation event and spoke to (Labour) Southwark council leader Peter John about his council’s appalling proposal to evict people convicted of taking part in August’s riots. No Labour councillor should ever champion eviction:
I’d start by saying that senior local Labour people like Peter John are so dangerous because they seem so innocuous. They have made inoffensiveness an art. Eviction is a filthy idea, but John – one of local Labour’s smooth, practised communicators – looks to take the heat of out it by discussing it with decorum. This decorum – the niceness, the eminent reasonableness that the centre-left insists on if it is to be talked with – is the centre-left’s transport for its rightward shift. The idea is that you can water any topic down by talking it down. In this environment, just raising your voice is the social equivalent of crapping on an altar. In this environment, authority feels perfectly justified in ending a discussion the second an opponent forgets to behave “reasonably”, whatever that means.
So it is that Peter John and I have a heated discussion about evictions, without the heat. He never raises his voice, or allows his smile to leave it. He clearly expects others to forget the rules, though – he’s got protection today. From time to time during the morning, the “meet the public” kiosk he’s stationed in outside Dulwich Sainsbury’s boasts as many coppers and security guards as it does hoi polloi. This is not unusual for Southwark in recent times, of course. As regular attendees of meetings and protests know, the town hall is often closely attended by dressed-all-in-black security guards and coppers who are just waiting for someone to raise a fist, or even a voice and bullock past “reasonableness.” You could argue that there isn’t a lot for people to be reasonable about in Southwark, though. The council made cuts to the tune of about £50m in February this year. It banned protestors who weren’t allotted special tickets from hearing debate on those cuts (like other London Labour leaders, John took much criticism for not fighting the Tories harder for better local government settlements. He argued that the council petitioned government as well as it could). There is considerable poverty and unemployment in Southwark, and there is unrest. I was caught in the riots in Peckham in August, so saw some of that myself.
In the middle of it is good-looking, evenly-spoken, evenly-mannered Peter John, oiling Labour’s grubbier parts with reasonableness. John says he understands why some “might say the [evictions policy] was headline-grabbing,” but he thinks that is unfair to the council. He wants people to see evictions as merely one part of a reasonable council package of post-riot responses. He tells me that this package includes the development of a youth fund of about a million pounds a year for three years. Other money will be made available for university scholarships for about six youngsters.
Reasonable people would see those as two reasonable – if small (John concedes the money is a “drop in the ocean”) – responses. I wonder, though, why a reasonable Labour council would tack eviction on to a reasonable package. Resource has been found for the concept: John says about 50 tenants have already had face-to-face interviews. So. Eviction is the sort of pure-evil, punitive idea which runs, as you’d expect, through Tory boroughs like shit through a goose. It isn’t funny in Wandsworth and it sure as hell isn’t funny in Southwark, where there are already about 15,000 people on the council’s housing waiting list (John says 20,000 when we talk). Getting thrown out here would leave you nowhere, or, at best, at the end of a very long list. That is not a position from which you and yours would be likely, or able, to rethink your contribution to community.
John steps in smoothly: he says I must remember that the council’s post-riot eviction pledge was really only a re-statement of existing council tenancy clauses. Tenants can already be evicted for antisocial behaviour and breaking the law. “I think Greenwich announced that they would seek to evict people who were involved in the riots and the media contacted us and said would you use your powers [like that] and we said Yes…. it was nothing new.”
Cynics would say that the part which was new – or, at least, a bonus for centre-ground politicians – was that the riots allowed Authority a free hit at those it has abandoned. John has a prettier line: “[Evictions] was one of the ways that we as a local authority said that we weren’t going to tolerate riots.” He tells me that a wonderful old man came up to him in Rye Lane after the riots (wonderful old people often approach politicians after a crisis) and the man told John that because of the riots, he was “afraid to put a foot out the door,” for the first time in his many years in the borough. Thus the evictions response, John smiles. The council had to do something to reassure people, “apart from just putting police on the streets.”
I’d like Labour to stop drooling after that handful of swing voters who believe a crueller world is a safer one. John misses no beat: he tells me that the Southwark exercise “was never just going to be the mindless eviction of people who were caught up in this…we won’t do anything until there has been a conviction, which is different from Wandsworth.” He even says that in the majority of cases, eviction is unlikely to happen (although I personally wouldn’t abandon the protesting yet). Which begs the question: why bring the possibility up at all, unless your aim is to put the fear of god into council tenants and scoop up a few swing-voting tenant haters along the way? John smiles and reminds me nicely that it’s about context. Wandsworth, he says, has not started a youth fund like Southwark has. Wandsworth is not having community conversations like the one we’re at today. That, he says, is how you tell the difference between Tories and Labour.
The other way to tell is to keep following Southwark to see if anyone is convicted, or evicted, and why. It’s impossible to tell where things are headed just by looking at Peter John’s innocuous face. I ask if he minds if I write our conversation up on my blog. “Sure,” he says expansively. That’s the thing in a nutshell right there – a mind that sees political advantage in a vicious platform like evictions, packaged up like a reasonable guy.
See harpymarx’s report from the same event – she spoke to a rather defensive Veronica Ward.