Young people and ethnic minorities will be most affected by Olympic dispersal zones

The “out of sight, out of mind” attitude to policing.

As the Olympics get underway, Stratford is unrecognisable from the place it was a year ago. The previously run down east London area, mainly consisting of a shopping centre and a dual carriageway, is full of tourists, colourful Olympics logos – and a huge number of police.

With the support of the Labour-run council, police have stepped up their activities in Newham, the borough that includes Stratford and the Olympic Park. As any visitor to the area can see, there has been a drastic increase in the number of territorial support officers in vans and foot patrols. Less visible is the imposition of a wide-ranging dispersal zone. This means that within the area, officers can move on anyone considered to be engaging in antisocial behaviour, such as loitering, begging, soliciting, or causing a nuisance.

Dispersal orders, introduced in the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003, give police the power to disperse groups of two or more in designated areas where their behaviour has resulted (or is likely to result) in a member of the public being harassed, alarmed, or distressed. They are controversial because of the level of discretion they accord to police and the infringement of individual rights involved.

While the Metropolitan Police has denied that the dispersal zone in Newham has been imposed merely because of the Olympics, citing instead residents concerns about crime, the timing appears to be more than fortuitous.

In 2007, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation did a study on the use and impact of dispersal orders, finding that when they were targeted at groups of youths, they can “antagonise and alienate young people who frequently feel unfairly stigmatised for being in public places.” It also found that dispersal orders tend to cause displacement, merely moving problems to a different area rather than solving them.

Of course, in the case of Newham, that may be exactly what the police want to do. China was much derided for its “social cleansing” of Beijing in 2008 but that appears to be exactly what we are seeing here. Dispersal zones give a huge amount of discretion to individual police officers, and the threshold for moving people along is very low.

And, of course, there should be little doubt that those primarily affected will be those who are already disproportionately targeted by police: young people and ethnic minorities. Anti-social behaviour orders (asbos) may be on the way out, but stop and search is alive and well and expected to form a large part of the policing of the Olympic area. Studies and official figures alike have consistently shown that ethnic minorities are excessively affected by stop and search. Last year’s riots showed that huge sections of Britain’s youth are disaffected and alienated from the police: do we really want to compound that by essentially forcing them out of their own areas?

In Stratford last night, Newham Monitoring Project, the longstanding anti-racist organisation, launched its Olympic project. It will dispatch legal observers into the community to educate young people about their rights, and to try and get a sense of how the policing operation is playing out in practice. If officers employ a dispersal order, they do not have to keep records, so it is otherwise difficult to get a sense of who is being targeted and on what grounds.

The signs outside Stratford station proclaim “Welcome to Newham! Welcome to London!” However, while London opens its doors to the world, that welcome is not, apparently, extended to our own marginalised and disaffected groups. Boris Johnson spoke this morning about a “benign virus” infecting even the most cynical with enthusiasm for the Olympics. Yet it is difficult to feel enthused when providing the perfect Olympics involves forcing people out of their own local areas because they don’t fit the image that London wants to project. Dispersal zones may provide an “out of sight, out of mind” effect for the duration of the Olympics, but the impact on already rock-bottom perceptions of the police among segments of society will last far longer.


People pose for a photographs as they make their way into the Olympic Stadium. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.