Authoritarian agenda

Anne Mc Shane comments on Tony Blair's latest anti-social crackdown

Blair's latest authoritarian moves to clamp down still further on 'anti-social' behaviour should not come as any surprise. Since his entry into Downing Street in 1997, he has led a major assault on our freedoms. His government has created almost a thousand new criminal offences and increased police powers dramatically. The dictatorial state casts a shadow over our lives in a way that is unprecedented.

Incredibly Blair slams his own highly expanded and powerful criminal justice system as "utterly useless" in containing disorder. As if the state was not overbearing enough, he claims more legislation is needed. Essentially he is determined to continue the reversal of the burden of proof for those facing criminal charges. Instead of the historical safeguard that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, now the onus in many minor offences is on the defendant to prove their innocence. But although he boasts of the impact of this approach - with 6,497 anti-social behaviour orders (asbos), 800 dispersal orders and 170,000 penalty notices already in force - it is only a beginning. He is determined "to restore respect to the communities of Britain"(www.number-10.gov.uk/output/Page88 98.asp).

More police powers are needed to fulfil his ambition - with summary judgement being doled out on the streets. He argues: "We are fighting 21st century crime with 19th century methods" and "the real choice, the choice on the street, is not between a criminal law process that protects the accused and one that doesn't; it is between a criminal law process that puts protection of the accused in all circumstances above and before that of protecting the public" (ibid).

Already police issue a large number of penalty notices on the street, with no proof or legal advice for the person at the receiving end. They must be contested within three weeks (through a complex and inaccessible procedure) or else the recipient will be faced with a criminal conviction. The Human Rights Act, under which Britain reluctantly signed up to the Geneva Convention, is meaningless when it comes to the criminal justice system. Article 6 states: "Everyone charged with a criminal offence shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law." Obviously not the case in Blair's Britain.

Even The Economist professes concern at the "generous funding and influence over lawmaking in recent years" granted to the police by Blair. Apparently even some police are uncomfortable with the degree of power they now possess (December 14 2005). Notwithstanding any objections, however, Blair now wants to extend these powers to stop spitting in the street and other "disrespectful behaviour". In particular 'problem parents' are to be tackled even more forcefully than before.

Not controlling their offspring can lose them their homes, their benefits and result in care proceedings. Apparently they deserve not our sympathy, but our wrath. Dragged before magistrates, they can face fines or even custody and be ordered to attend compulsory parenting training. That and be placed in a national network of 'sin-bins' - dumping ground estates and hostels for 'problem families'.

Blair is to democracy what Thatcher was to trade unionism. He has been determined from the outset to increase police power and interference in our lives. The most impoverished and alienated stand accused as the malevolent force undermining society. The fractured nature of life in inner cities is blamed on the poor bastards who have to live there.

It is worthwhile taking a brief look at the use of asbos over the last year or so. Besides stopping the right of assembly for young people, they have been used to clear inner-city areas of prostitutes, beggars, drug addicts, alcoholics and the mentally ill. Statewatch reports that Manchester city council has taken soup kitchens to court to prevent them operating on the street. They are causing a nuisance since they attract scruffy, homeless people hoping to get something to eat (www.statewatch.org).

Camden spearheaded the imposition of asbos in 1998 and currently has five times more than any other council - used particularly to keep undesirables away from the Kings Cross area. The redevelopment resulting from the extension of Euro-star means that homeless people are moved on - mainly to Westminster, which has objected and ratcheted up the use of asbos on its own patch in response. The homeless and vulnerable are continuously pushed from pillar to post, as each local authority attempts to remove this 'eyesore' from its streets.

Interestingly, the government provides funding in proportion to the number of asbos imposed - Camden has done very well and others hope to follow. Prison is the usual consequence of any breach, and sentences of more than a year have been imposed for straying into the wrong street.

There is no doubt that the numbers of people sleeping and begging in the streets has increased massively in the last 20 years. And it is equally clear that this problem has been created by government policies. The Tory government cynically legislated for 'care in the community' in 1989 and closed most existing psychiatric hospitals. Tens of thousands of mentally ill people were dumped onto the streets. This was accompanied by a number of cuts in housing provision and the whittling away of the duty of local authorities to provide accommodation. Unsurprisingly this trend has continued under the present administration. Now if you are evicted from your property you are quite likely to be assessed as 'intentionally homeless', therefore attracting no assistance.

Cuts in benefits, closure of local authority homes, the voucher system for asylum-seekers - the list of attacks on the welfare state is apparently endless. The government now plans to reduce the number claiming disability benefits by granting bonuses to GPs for refusing to issue sickness certificates. All of these measures help create an environment of social dislocation. Working class solidarity and ability to resist is extraordinarily low. The state has succeeded in snatching back the gains won by our class when it was relatively strong and united. Now it attempts to police the consequences from above. Blair makes it clear that democracy is not an issue for him - but social control is.

Thatcher's defeat of the miners' Great Strike was a strategic blow against our working class. It heralded many more attacks on the trade union movement, bringing with them disempowerment and limiting our ability to resist attack. The welfare state had been created to buy off the militancy produced by World War II. The movement at that time was defiant - and included demobbed soldiers trained in the use of arms. Unfortunately its leadership in the Communist Party was programmatically unable to carry the struggle further than the acceptance of sops. Nevertheless the existence of a strongly organised working class was a pivotal factor right up to 1984-85.

The liquidation of the Communist Party and the brave but defeated struggle of 1984-85 marked an important turning point. Today despite militant noises from some union leaders we are witnessing widespread sell-outs, including over pensions. However, even in this period of low combativity the mobilisation against the Iraq war gave an indication of the potential strength of our class.

We on the left need to address this problem not just by campaigning around individual issues. The answer is political. Not only the smashing of the anti-trade union laws and the defeat of the government's attacks on democracy. We need to create a Communist Party armed with Marxism, not reformism.

Blair claims that his father, who came from a working class family in Glasgow, would have been horrified at today's 'yob culture' and the lack of respect shown. He omits to mention, of course, the reasons for the alienation of many. What are the prospects for a young person growing up on a sink estate? Police intimidation, poverty, unemployment or dead-end jobs are hardly conducive to 'respect' - either for yourself or fellow members of working class communities. But in fact Blair wants young people to be compliant drones.

These issues will be at the forefront of the forthcoming local election campaign. We need to oppose the criminalisation of young people, as well as of all those at the sharp end of attacks on democracy. We need to encourage tenants committees to deal with anti-social problems on their own estates, not rely on the police or the council - there have been several examples of campaigns against asbos and heavy police presence in areas of London, including Hackney. However, they are isolated and limited. What is necessary is for working class people to begin to take these questions into their own hands.

But what will Respect do? At its November 2005 annual conference there was a big argument over a motion which contained a clause calling for the raising of the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 16. This would in fact simply bring it into line with much of the rest of Europe.

No speakers in the debate supported asbos, but I spoke to a number of delegates who did. According to them, something had to be done about anti-social behaviour. Because Respect refuses to take on the question of the state, it cannot offer any serious answers.

Stupidly, we have been ridiculed by some on the left because we raise the need for working class self-defence. The solution to the problems of policing lies in the hands of our own class, not in dependence on the state. We want tenants and residents committees to organise themselves democratically to protect their community and act against unruly elements themselves. The answer has to come from below.