Blears joins the Tories

Surprise in Birmingham as government minister Hazel Blears turns up at the Tory conference only to s

I turned a few heads this week by appearing at a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. Several Tory ‘representatives’ did double takes. Some were mildly rude; some were perfectly friendly. There were also plenty of Labour people who stopped to say hello, including, improbably, Sunder Katwala from the Fabian Society who looked like a fish out of water.

I had two distinct impressions of seeing the Tories up close. The first was that they were bursting with excitement at the prospect of getting back into Government. They’ve been told to hold the champagne, and tone down the triumphalism. But they can’t quite help themselves. Hubris hung in the air like incense. And as a Labour candidate in 1992 who lost by 500 votes, I know all about hubris. They seem convinced that they are on the way to Downing Street, but I am not so sure their confidence is shared by the electorate, especially in the current economic turbulence.

The second impression was that the Conservatives remain unreconstructed. Once you get past Cameron, Osborne, Gove, Lansley and few others, you can see the Hiltonisation of the party is skin-deep. The same nasty party lurks underneath, with its 80s attitudes, instincts and fashion sense. This is the Tories’ fatal misreading of New Labour. It was never a make-over job. It was a pretty tough and fundamental repositioning of policy, based on a rediscovery of our core values, and a reconnection to the ambitions of the majority of voters. If it was just about slick campaigning, Labour would have won in 1987, never mind 1992. Yet the Tories think it’s about backdrops, logos and taking your tie off. They think they can win with superficial spin, rather than substantive change.

In the fringe meeting, on ‘mending broken Britain’ the biggest support was for tearing up the Human Rights Act and for harsher prison regimes. If a vote was taken, I would have guessed that a sizeable chunk would have been in favour of hanging, or at the very least flogging. The guts of my remarks to the meeting was that we need fast, effective justice, with penalties that serve as both punishment and deterrent. We need better support for victims and witnesses. But we also need to tackle the social conditions and factors which create anti-social behaviour and crime. You can’t absolve people from the responsibility for their actions; everyone has a choice. But you can’t pretend that people’s circumstances don’t play a role.

The Tory grassroots instinctively want tougher penalties (although their MPs don’t vote for tough measures in the Commons). But they have nothing to say about early intervention into problem families, tackling gang culture, building more youth centres, doing more to support boxing, cadets and other distractions for urban young people, or creating more opportunities for volunteering. Indeed, if Osborne ever gets the chance for a first budget, the Tory cuts would fall hardest on the very programmes and schemes which help young people realise a better future for themselves. You don’t need a masters in sociology to understand that Tory cuts would lead to social chaos, just like last time.

Hazel Blears is MP for Salford, and Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. She has served as Chair of the Labour Party, as Home Office Minister, and as Public Health Minister.
Getty
Show Hide image

Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear