Labour seem intent on portraying the upcoming Croydon North by-election, which is happening on 29 November, as nothing more than a two-horse race between them and the Tories. What they seem to be forgetting, however, is the chance of a rerun of what happened in Bradford West six months ago: the Respect Party pulling off a shock victory, surprising everyone who thought that George Galloway had not only dragged the party's name through the mud, but buried it under a mountain of shit forever, after his bizarre display of cat behaviour on Celebrity Big Brother.
Respect are hoping to repeat that trick – this time with candidate Lee Jasper – so that Galloway can once again massively overstate the significance of the victory, calling it the greatest triumph for the Left since the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace, or something. Galloway won Bradford West by telling Muslim voters that, despite being a Catholic and a philanderer, he was a better Muslim than Labour's candidate, who was actually a Muslim. This time, Galloway and Jasper are pursuing the young black vote by recording a rap, because if there's any way of securing the minority vote, it's a delicate balance of massively patronising them and completely embarrassing yourself.
If that wasn't enough to make you totally give up any hope for the party, I could also point out that the stench of corruption hung around Lee Jasper when he worked for then-Mayor Ken Livingstone and that Respect’s recently appointed Women’s Officer Naz Kahn once said on Facebook that history teachers are: “brainwashing us and our children into thinking that the bad guy was Hitler. What have the Jews done good in this world??”
With all that in mind, and ever since Galloway said that thing about “bad sexual etiquette” (causing party leader Salma Yaqoob to walk away in disgust), it's a conclusive fact to say anyone who still hangs around Respect is pretty much guaranteed to be insane.
That's Steve Reed on the left, endorsed by Respect candidate Lee Jasper's former boss Ken Livingstone.
So let’s turn our attention to the Labour candidate, Steve Reed, instead. His current job is as leader of Lambeth council. I guess it makes sense to look at his record while he was there if we’re to understand what kind of an MP he would make.
The London Borough of Lambeth isn’t just any council. It is, in fact, the flagship council for the “Co-operative Councils Network”, which is a Labour Party attempt to recapture that happy, fluffy, un-authoritarian rhetoric that a combination of Gordon Brown’s Stalinist image and the Tories’ “Big Society” PR offensive stole from them.
Labour councils and opposition groups from Brighton to Edinburgh are on the co-operative band wagon, hoping to ensure that: “In the future, residents, rather than town hall officials, will be in the driving seat.” In an article explaining what that means, Reed couldn’t resist tautologous, Blairite wonk-speak, such as; “By empowering people, we can give them back the power to change their lives”. No shit, Steve. Did you also know that by having a piss I can expel urine from my bladder through my urethra?
But aside from hammering another nail into the English language’s coffin, Reed paints a pretty picture. Co-operative Councils are going to create a “partnership of equals that leads to genuine cooperation between providers and the people they serve.” Awh.
Why, then, did George Galloway – between “insertions” – say of Reed: “He could never stand for Parliament for Lambeth... [because] the arrogant way in which he has run the council is legendary”?
Turns out, on that score, Galloway is not totally full of shit, as Lambeth’s “shortlife” residents – who are being evicted from their homes of 30 years so that the council can cash in – can testify.
First, a quick bit of history: Shortlife properties were basically the result of a clusterfuck of housing policy screw-ups in the 70s that meant Lambeth was lumped with a load of houses that were too dilapidated to be rented out, but which they couldn’t afford to improve to the minimum standards. As a half arsed solution, and since some of the properties were getting squatted anyway, Lambeth allowed people to live in these houses, paying only a nominal rent, but with the council having few of the usual obligations towards the residents. Groups of shortlife houses became co-operatives and what was originally intended to be a short term solution (hence: “shortlife”) became a way of life for many of the residents, who personally renovated the crummy housing into their own beloved homes.
The tenants jumped through bureaucratic hoops as attempts were made to establish the co-operatives as a permanent solution, but fickle council policy ensured that they always faltered. With property prices sky-high and the council implementing cuts from central government, Lambeth is now hoping to cash in on the final 150 or so houses, auctioning them to developers and relocating the residents. In the process, they’re totally destroying the community of people who have lived there so long they can’t quite remember if it was '77, ’78 or ’79 that they moved in. The residents are fighting back by picketing house viewings and auctions, hoping to awk potential investors into submission.
Shortlifers picket a house that's about to be viewed by potential buyers from the safety of their blanket barricade
As part of the eviction process, the council has been hiring people to go to peoples’ homes and smash up their bathrooms and kitchens so that the place can’t be squatted. Unfortunately, in some cases, the children who used to live there have still been around, meaning they get to experience the trauma of watching a bunch of burly men destroy their home. There's nothing like democracy, eh?
One resident who's dreading the possibility of eviction is Trace Newton-Ingham, who has lower back pain, bilateral Achilles tendonitis and equinus deformity – all of which give her difficulty moving. She also suffers from (deep breath) hypertension, acute chemical sensitivity, hyperacusis and visual stress disorder, along with ataxia vertigo, sleep disorder, migraines and memory problems. She has ME/PVS and trimethylaminuria – a rare metabolic disorder – and she experiences strong side-effects when she takes medicines. She's also been attacked several times in the past, including two knife attacks, giving her anxiety issues.
She told me: “I've experienced a number of physical street attacks, including attempted murder by strangulation, being held at knifepoint twice and being punched unconscious on a tube platform. And I've been chased before, too, but I managed to run away. It was never clear to me what the motives for the attacks were; I wasn't sexually assaulted and I didn't have anything stolen. I'd been verbally abused and spat on for being gay a number of times, so maybe that was the reason for the attacks.
“I only ever bothered reporting one attack to the police, because when I wasn't getting attacked, I was regularly getting stopped and searched by the police. The police often said that if I didn't dress the way I did – leather jacket, jeans and Doc Martens, at the time – then I wouldn't get stopped. Basically saying it was my own fault.”
Trace is the kind of person that could probably do with being left in her home in peace and spared the inevitably stressful eviction. So has the “co-operative council” treated her with leniency? Has it fuck. Not only are they pressing ahead with her eviction, they’re also claiming – against her doctor's advice – that she doesn’t have any medical requirements for her new home.
“I can barely walk a lot of the time”, she tells me, “but they say I don’t need a ground floor place. I don’t even know how I would get in my home if it wasn’t on the ground floor.”
As well as a ground floor property so she has the means to, y'know, get into her own home, her extensive doctors’ notes also recommend that she's given a second bedroom for the carer she relies on and a property with no recent building works, due to her chemical sensitivity. She would also need a street property rather than a home on an estate, and a garden to help her feel calm – what with her being the victim of multiple knife attacks and a few more minor details like that.
Even with the council claiming to know better than her doctors, perhaps the biggest health threat for Trace comes from the destruction of her community. “I depend on my friends,” she says. “My friends are the people I know in the houses across the road, next door and next door but one. A couple of times I’ve been very ill, they’ve had keys and have come in and called an ambulance for me. If they hadn’t have been there, I don’t know what I would have done.”
In response to the evictions, residents have drawn up plans for a “super co-op”, uniting the existing co-operatives, making residents council tenants and renovating properties so that they can be returned to the council’s overstretched housing stock – exactly the kind of thing that Steve Reed has been evangelising about, saying, “When tenants are in control, services improve faster.”
Unfortunately, the “co-operative council” hasn’t really considered it at all. With a sigh, Julian Hall, a shortlifer and advocate of the super co-op idea explains: “At the moment, their attitude seems to be; ‘Show us the finished product, show us the money and we’ll think about it.’ But we’re on the end of our shortening rope. They’re demanding our homework, but they’ve already put us in detention.
“It beggars belief," he continues. "I find it quite surreal that they won’t use this opportunity. I feel like it’s a PR coup waiting to happen for them, but they haven’t taken it up.”
So, when I mention Steve Reed’s ramblings about co-operation and empowerment to the shortlifers, I get a mixture of pained expressions and potty-mouth, as if I'd just brought up the memory of that time their drunk, lecherous uncle ruined the family Christmas meal.
Lambeth argues that, with the money raised from selling the properties, loads of other substandard council houses could be brought up to scratch and put into use again. Translated, that means basing your housing renovation scheme on money raised through kicking people out of their homes. Graceful, considerate and kind.
Cllr Lib Peck, the Cabinet Member for Strategic Housing on Lambeth Council, insisted that Lambeth is, “serious about becoming the country’s first co-operative council. We believe the best way to improve services is to give residents the power to change them”.
But as far as the shortlifers are concerned, this is bullshit – especially for the ones who told me they’re probably going to be bankrupted by the expensive legal process the council will subject them to if they refuse to leave. Even Lambeth’s Labour MP, Kate Hoey, has rounded on her comrades, describing the situation as “scandalous”.
I’m not really sure how a council imposing bottom-up empowerment from the top-down is supposed to work anyway, but it seems that being part of a “partnership of equals” with a council only works up to the point you stop agreeing with them, even when they see your home-sweet-home as an asset ready to be realised. I've also talked to trade unionists, who, despite the Co-operative Council Network's fervent denial, say that it's all about soft-selling cuts and privatisation – basically like Thatcher, but with a friendlier, more left-wing pitch to the public.
So, if Steve Reed should realise his dream and join the Westminster Illuminati, at least the people of Lambeth won’t miss him. As for the Co-operative Council, it seems like yet another idea from politicians that is superficially appealing, but, when you scratch the surface ever-so-gently, turns out to be fatuous bullshit. Good luck with your crappy choice, voters of Croydon North!
Follow Simon on Twitter: @SimonChilds13
More times people have been evicted:
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