I have just been down to pick up my morning’s newspaper. What I expected to find today was a split between papers that would focus on the speech of Peter Mandelson to the Labour party conference yesterday, and papers that would focus on the very sad case of the Pilkington’s and family A.
This is exactly what I found. The sections of the press over which Andy Coulson’s conservative communications machine have the greatest influence are quite predictably in full “moral outrage mode” at this tragic case, and are predictably keen to portray this as “proof” of Labour failing to heal “Broken Britain”.
I was pleased to hear Alan Johnson this morning on BBC Today. He made the case that he remembered growing up on the housing estates in the 50s pretty well, and it certainly was not all roses.
My experience of housing estates dates from the 70s and 80s, when as a young graduate I found myself as a “welfare services officer” on some very tough high density housing projects on the edge of one of our cities.
These were estates which had been thrown up on the cheap under a Conservative administration. They went up without any of the social infrastructure that was needed to build communities, and they were starved of cash. A situation that got a lot worse during the Thatcher years. People were there because they had not got a lot of choice in the matter, and you had a mix of people who were vulnerable for all sorts of reasons, and people who were out of work and bored. It caused problems then. It causes problems now. At that time I was trying to do what in retrospect was an impossible job, dealing with the neighbour complaints that arose from throwing vulnerable people together in this way. In many cases all I could do was to listen.
I do remember one case in the 80s which I regard as to some extent as a success story. A case in which I was perhaps able to prevent a tragedy. I found myself knocking on the door of a clearly terrified man who talked to me in broken English through his letter box. I did not know what he was saying but it was clear he was in trouble. I managed to find an interpreter from the polish community, and we established that the old man was someone who had moved to this country as a result of the war, he was brain damaged by a war wound, he had virtually no English. We managed to get into the flat, and I found he was having to nail his kitchen closed every day. Some completely wild young kids of 8 or 9 had found a way of getting into his kitchen and were wrecking havoc there. This was the only way he could protect himself.
Getting anyone transferred anywhere at that time was really difficult, because of housing shortages, but I made the case very strongly, and was able to get the gentleman moved to a different and safer environment.
I have no idea what happened to the children involved, or the other children growing up on that dreadful estate. There was nothing I could offer them. I think we would be able to do a little better now.
Most of us, most of the time do not think about what goes on in our housing estates, but occasionally something particularly awful comes to the attention of the national press and we are all horrified.
What I saw in the 90s is the movement to get rid of social housing as a key function of local government. The Thatcher years saw the sell off of social housing, so that many “good tenants” in “good areas” became home owners. This left some of the least desirable areas with a concentration of the worst social problems. Most of our housing has now been passed over to Housing associations, so it is much easier for local councils at election time to distance themselves from what is happening on estates, and – in the case of Conservative Councils like the one in my area to simply not think too much about what needs to be done to make things better.
The roots of why I became a Labour voter, and eventually a Labour party member, come from the feeling that what happens on our estates matters quite a lot to all of us, and that it is in all our interests to makes sure that families are supported to bring up their children well, that people with mental illnesses are not victimised, that people are actively helped into work, and that people are encouraged to lead healthier and more fulfilling lives. Failure to do this has a truly terrible effect on those who are left alone to struggle through, and occasionally it touches all of us.
Has this Labour Government solved all these matters? No of course not. No one ever will. The poor, the vulnerable, and the damaged are something we always have with us, but a Government that is committed to caring for the vulnerable in our society will get it right at least some of the time.