Jacqui Smith: The Interview

She may be using a softer language on the big crime and security issues of the day but Britain's fir

The Home Office has turned out to be a graveyard for new Labour politicians. David Blunkett and Charles Clarke were forced out after they failed to get to grips with a dysfunctional department. Although John Reid jumped before he was pushed, he too struggled to cope with rising prison numbers and a series of crises involving escaped prisoners. His solution was to split the department in two just before announcing his resignation. Only Jack Straw, the great survivor, left with his reputation intact.

Jacqui Smith, whose appointment by Gordon Brown took everyone by surprise, has no illusions about her chances of longevity. The gallery of portraits of her predecessors outside her office has already given her pause for thought. "I have taken the trek along the corridor and looked at the whole row of home secretaries. I think it's in order to inspire you, but also to demonstrate that you are moving through," she says.

It is not Straw or Clarke that she chooses as her role model, but Blunkett, with whom she worked at the Department for Education for two years. "My first ever boss as minister was David Blunkett, and David has always brought something very special to ministerial life," she says. "I think in terms of his ability to communicate the challenges we face in government and [I] never forget that success as government is the impact we have on communities and those that serve us." She also pays tribute to Roy Jenkins, Labour home secretary during the 1960s, as a reformer. But she baulks when we ask if she would like to be seen as a "liberal" in the Jenkins tradition. "No," she says without a moment's hesitation. "I'd like to be seen as a home secretary that made a difference to people feeling secure and enabling them to get on with what they want to do in their lives."

Her politics were forged by experience in her constituency, Redditch, a Worcestershire marginal that has stayed in Labour hands through three elections thanks largely to the local MP's appeal to the values of Middle England. She has long argued that Labour must hold to the centre ground if it is to win the trust of voters in seats like her own. "I come at this very much from the point of view of someone with a marginal constituency," she says. "I have to build the broadest possible coalition within my constituency, which seems to be a microcosm of what we've managed to do as a government and will carry on doing."

This does not mean being illiberal, she says, "but being pretty tough about representing the concerns of those who elected us and making sure we deliver on them". In practical terms, this involves giving extra powers to local communities to hold local police to account. That is why she has ordered the monthly publication of local reports on how crime and antisocial behaviour are being tackled.

"You cannot continue to make the progress we've seen in reducing crime if you don't engage with people at a local level in determining what the issues are they want to see addressed and being part of the solution as well. If people feel more engaged at a local level you have a result on everything from terrorism to antisocial behaviour. People also feel more confident about the society they live in." She remains unconvinced, however, of the need for locally elected police chiefs. "Having an elected police chief is shorthand for 'we want more accountability'. Of itself, I don't think it would deliver that."

It may be tempting to see Smith as gentler than her predecessors, partly because she is a woman and partly because of the calm way she approached the failed terrorist attacks in Glasgow and London on her first weekend in the new job. But, on all the most pressing issues, she is a hardliner in the tradition of Blunkett and Reid rather than an instinctive liberal like Clarke. On extension of the 28-day period of detention without charge, on identity cards, on penal policy and on immigration, she is, if anything, more convinced about the authoritarian approach than the tough guys who came before.

Dark omens

The 28-day issue has become the first battleground for civil liberties under the Brown government. The omens are not promising. Smith says although she cannot cite an example of an existing case that would have benefited from an extension, she is certain it will be needed in the future. She believes it is responsible to have the argument now about the balance between protecting human rights and catching terrorists, rather than wait for an emergency. "I don't see it as talismanic," she says. "Am I looking for a fight on the 28 days? No. But am I looking to make sure that I can be confident that the police and those who need to investigate terrorist plots have got . . . everything they need in order to be able to do that? Yes." We ask her to clarify: is the status quo among the various options being discussed? She admits it is not. "I have been persuaded that at some time in the future . . . we will need to be in a position where, in very rare situations, we may need to go beyond 28 days."

On ID cards, she is even more dogmatic. Although the Brown government has initiated reviews of policy on casinos, cannabis and 24-hour drinking, there is no turning back on this. Some had wondered - it now turns out to be wishful thinking - if Brown, during his hesitant first Prime Minister's Questions, had been bounced into restating the government's commitment to ID cards. The hope was that he didn't mean it, that ministers might eventually shelve the scheme in the face of protests or rising costs.

Not a bit of it, says Smith. "You do need a system which has at its heart the ability, at a national level, to tie people's identity to a record of who they are." It has been suggested that it would be possible to have an identity database, but no physical card. On this point, Smith, again, is crystal clear. "There will be an ID card," she says. "From 2009 we will be introducing ID cards for UK citizens. From 2008 we will introduce what will effectively be an ID card for those who have been in the UK for more than six months."

Nor will liberals find comfort in Smith's approach to criminal justice policy. Despite record prison numbers and increasing disquiet over indeterminate sentences, "Putting more people in prison is not an end in itself, but it might be part of the solution to reducing overall levels of crime." We put to her Clarke's concerns about prison numbers. "He was right to be bothered, because the number of people you put in prison is a representation of the amount of crime you've got . . . but you can be bothered without then arguing that you should fundamentally change the nature of your sentencing, or that you should reject as wrong a decision you took previously on indeterminate sentencing."

Much has been made of Smith's calm approach to the failed terrorist attacks at Glasgow Airport and outside a London nightclub. We wonder whether she had deliberately avoided the emotive language of the "war on terror", concentrating on the criminal nature of terrorism. "It is a conscious approach," she says, "and it's a conscious approach that stems from the need to enlist the broadest possible coalition in order to tackle terrorism . . . So, yes, it's tone, but the tone is fundamentally linked to the approach you need to take to counter terror."

Asked what she thinks of the specific phrase "war on terror", she is again frank: "It is not one that I used. It seems to me that what we should be doing is emphasising the values that we share which are under attack from terrorism, rather than trying to create a battle or war between those who oppose the terror and those who want to carry it out."

Smith is a fierce advocate of Brown's "hearts and minds" approach to tackling the radicalisation of young Muslims. She also believes that Muslim communities have not been best served by their leaders. She backs moves, put in place by Ruth Kelly when she was communities secretary, to broaden the kinds of groups with which the government engages and cut out, for example, the Muslim Council of Britain. "We've got to make serious attempts to go beyond those who have previously been seen as leaders of the community. She was absolutely right to do that. We have seen, in the immediate aftermath of the Glasgow and London bombings, that the response from leaders of the community was better because of the action previously taken."

Jacqui Smith: the CV

l3 November 1962 Born in Malvern, Worcestershire, daughter of two teachers

1979 Joins Labour after local Tory MP, Sir Michael Spicer, speaks at her school

1981-84 Studies PPE at Hertford College, Oxford. Runs unsuccessfully for president of student union before being elected chair of National Association of Labour Students

1986 Starts career as an economics teacher

1997 Elected Labour MP for Redditch as "Blair babe"

2003 After stint as one of youngest ministers in DoH, is appointed deputy minister for women and equality, driving civil partnerships legislation

2005 As minister of state for schools, funds Lesbian and Gay History Month

May 2006 Joins cabinet as chief whip in Blair's fraught last reshuffle

January 2007 Brands Celebrity Big Brother producers "shameful" in racism row

28 June 2007 Selected by Gordon Brown as first female home secretary and second youngest since Winston Churchill

29 June 2007 Survives baptism of fire with failed car bombings in London and Glasgow

July 2007 Dubbed "Jacqui Spliff" after admitting to experimenting with cannabis at university

Research by Matthew Holehouse

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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