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‘People need hope, not prisons’

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Issue 1749

Socialist solicitor challenges Straw

‘People need hope, not prisons’

THIS IS the speech that JIM NICHOL gave when he was selected as the Socialist Alliance candidate for Blackburn earlier this month. Jim will be standing against Jack Straw, New Labour’s home secretary.

“LET ME tell you about my latest case, of a young man called Peter Fell from Blackburn who was wrongly imprisoned for 17 years for two murders that he did not commit. He was released on 1 December last year with nothing-no money, no friends, no clothes, no family. Just me, his solicitor, and a prison visitor who took him into his house.

Peter applied for an emergency grant of 313 from the Social Fund to see him through the winter. He received 103 and was told, “After looking at your application and personal circumstances, we have decided that your need for what you have asked does not have a high enough priority.” Tough luck if you happen to be a victim of the criminal justice system.

Peter’s case is a terrible example of New Labour policy. If you are poor you can go to the wall. The government’s dual policy of profit first, profit last, and anything left profit again, combined with the need to win Tory voters, has led to the most appalling onslaught on people’s civil liberties. In opposition Straw opposed the building of a single prison by the Tories for 12 to 14 year old children. He said he would cancel this contract.

Far from it, he ratified the contract and has set about building a further two prisons for children. Straw knows full well that 20 children have committed suicide in youth prisons in recent years. He knows that in Feltham 50 percent of children incarcerated have been diagnosed as having a mental disorder. He knows that 31 percent of the children in Feltham are black. Above all, he knows that these institutions have been condemned by his own chief inspector of prisons, who stated that he had not come across such a totally deliberate and unnecessary impoverishment of children anywhere.

But all of that it doesn’t matter to Jack. What matters is the vote of the bigot. On asylum seekers and others, Straw was way out in front in opposition when he declared war on the “squeegee merchants”. This was followed up by his war on asylum seekers. He introduced the hated below-subsistence voucher scheme and dispersed asylum seekers throughout the country, whilst proudly proclaiming that he is incarcerating many more than the Tories. He tolerates racism and violence against asylum seekers.

About two weeks ago there was an advertisement placed by the Folkestone Tories in the local newspaper. This is Michael Howard’s seat. The advertisement proclaimed that asylum seekers were bogus and that they, the Tories, were going to sort them out. The advertisement was revolting. Jack Straw was interviewed on Radio 4 the following day about the advertisement. He explained that William Hague was not a racist, that most members of the Conservative Party were not racist, but that the advertisement was unacceptable.

What a spineless politician. You do not have to be a raging revolutionary to take on these despicable people. He could have spoken hard against the racist Tories. Not a word of it-for there lurking in the background is the Tory bigot. Sometimes you know that your civil liberties have been taken away from you-certainly when you are prevented from peacefully marching on May Day because the government wants to give out a message to the banks, the global monopolies and the arms industry that they will not tolerate a repetition of Seattle and Quebec.

The police presence on May Day in London was no different to that used against striking print workers in Wapping in 1986 or the miners in 1984. There are many more civil liberties being taken away. New Labour’s proposed legislation means:

  • Innocent people acquitted of crime will have their DNA retained. This means that innocent people will routinely, probably hundreds of times per day, be checked to see if they have committed any crime.
  • Trial by jury will be abolished in certain cases. At present, for many offences, you can elect to be tried by 12 men and women sitting on a jury. Imagine you are a young black man accused of actual bodily harm on a police officer. At least before the jury you have a chance of putting your case and being acquitted. Straw’s proposal is that you appear before the magistrate-increasingly white, university educated, middle class men-where you will try to explain your case. No chance!
  • The Terrorism Act is now in force. If you support, as I do, the Palestinian uprising against the Israelis then you are a terrorist. What’s more, if you know anyone who is perhaps taking a collection for an organisation in Palestine, and that organisation is fighting against the Israelis and you do not report this fact to the police, then you are a terrorist. If you had supported the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela against a hated apartheid regime, you would be a terrorist.
  • Double jeopardy. Under Straw’s new proposal it will be possible for the government to retry defendants acquitted by jury. All they need is new, compelling evidence. I have represented many victims of miscarriages of justice. In each case the police continue to persecute them and to say they are guilty. I have no doubt in many of these cases an informer will crawl out of the woodwork who will suddenly remember that one of the defendants confessed to him whilst in prison. Many a future jury acquittal will be meaningless.
  • There are many other attacks on civil liberties on the books or in the pipeline-eavesdropping on telephone conversations, wide power to gather financial information if you are suspected of defrauding the social security system, and draconian powers to incarcerate the mentally ill without trial. I return to crime-Jack Straw is not interested in the causes of crime, but the Socialist Alliance is and so I am. Every day of my working life I see the no-hope kids from the rundown estates in east London. It is hope that they need, not prisons. You do not have to be a genius, let alone Jack Straw, to see that if you:
  • Restored benefits for 16 to 18 year olds.
  • Abolished tuition fees.
  • Restored grants.
  • Paid a minimum 7.40 per hour European decency hourly rate.
  • Gave proper pay for a proper job.

Then, combined with investing in the housing estates, education and welfare, crime would diminish rapidly. But Jack Straw still has his eyes fixed firmly on the Tory bigot. Rights are being eroded and will continue to be eroded under a New Labour government. We in the Socialist Alliance intend to put socialism back on the agenda. The world is a fabulously rich place but the riches are in the hands of a few. They need to be in the hands of the many.

I have been in socialist politics for 40 years and I can tell you that the Socialist Alliance is the best thing to have happened for years. Socialists from all walks of life have come together. There is more that unites us than disunites us. The chance to build a new socialist movement has never been more urgent. You have to choose, and I can tell you that your vote is the beginning and not the end. You have a choice between the spin or socialism. The Socialist Alliance is here to stay, and we want the biggest possible vote to hit Labour with and to launch a new socialist movement.”

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