On no account let "Ed be Ed"

If Ed Miliband tries to be himself, he will be a disaster.

Aaron Sorkin has a lot to answer for. Ever since he penned episode nineteen of the West Wing progressive politics has echoed to a familiar cry: "Let [insert name of struggling liberal politician] be [repeat name of struggling liberal politician]".

As Ed Miliband wearily takes up arms against his latest sea of troubles, so the plea rings out once more . "He should sack any adviser who tells him to be anything other than himself", the New Statesman's Mehdi Hasan told the Independent. "He needs to "speak human" once again, and show he's not just another politician", said Labour List's Mark Ferguson.

There are two problems with this. The first is that Ed Miliband is just that:a politician. It's all he's ever been. As far as I'm aware, apart with flirting with the idea of playing for Leeds United, (one of the few career paths more treacherous than being leader of the Labour Party), that's just about all he's ever wanted to be.

Ed's problem isn't that the public see him as a politician. It's that at the moment they see him as a bad politician. According to the latest poll of polls he's now running behind Iain Duncan-Smith in terms of voter satisfaction. To be fair, he's also running ahead of Michael Howard, William Hague and Michael Foot at a comparable time in their leaderships. But then none of them had a cat in hell's chance of becoming Prime Minister

When people ask Ed Miliband "not to be just another politician" what exactly do they mean? Be an extraordinary politician. Another Churchill, or Roosevelt? A Gandhi? "Ed, we know you don't do huskies. But have you thought about a salt march?"

Or do they mean pretend to be something entirely different? Ed Miliband the florist. Ed Miliband the check out assistant. Ed Miliband the cabbie: "I 'ad that Progressive Majority in the back the other day. They all wanted to go to north London."

Ed Miliband is a career politician. No amount of pool playing or reminiscing about his dad's removal business is going to change that. The public may not be paying much attention to Labour at the moment, but they're not wandering around in blindfolds.

Which leads to the second problem. If Ed Milband is going to be a politician's politician, what sort of politician should that be? Sorkin would say a bold one. Or at least, Leo McGarry, his fictional chief of staff would: "Our ground game isn't working; we're gonna put the ball in the air. If we're gonna walk into walls, I want us running into them full-speed."

Somehow, I can't quite see those words emanating from Lucy Powell. Actually, I can. But I can't see Ed endorsing them: "Look Lucy, that's a little bit aggressive. I want to move away from that sort of politics. Do we have to run into the wall? Can't we just find a way of going round it. Or taking it down? Carefully. With well paid, decomodified labourers?"

The harsh truth is that if we let Bartlett be Bartlett, he'll be a disaster. In the same way that all politicians who try to be themselves court disaster.

John Major's handlers sent him off to Iraq before the 1992 general election and had him posing in the desert with a machine gun and the victorious British troops of Desert Storm. He triumphed at the subsequent election. As soon as they let him be himself he started banging on about out old maids, bicycles and warm beer, and got annihilated.

How different would British political history have been if Alastair Campbell hadn't ensured Tony Blair kept his mouth shut about religion? Or allowed him to wear that vest?

Let Ed be Ed makes for a great line, but lousy politics. I'm not sure that Labour would be in a better place if it's leader had decided to stick with his pledge to back Ken Clarke's sentencing reforms. Or that his recent highly praised speech on welfare reform would have contained the same sense of purpose had he followed his natural sensibilities and excised passages on those who "dodge their responsibilities" and "cheat".

"We'd all like to say what we think", one back bench MP told me the other day. "It'd be great. I'd love to wonder around mouthing off about every issue that took my fancy. But we've got to show responsibility. Ed's got to show responsibility."

It's easy for Ed to be Ed. The hard part is for Ed to be Labour leader. And harder still for him to be Prime Minsiter.

If being yourself was the criteria for leadership, we'd all be leading the Labour party. But thankfully, it's not.

Bartlett was a creation. A fictional character specifically constructed by a writer who knew his favoured brand of radical liberalism couldn't reach the White House any other way.

Forget Bartlett. It's time for Ed to be Hoynes.

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.