I'm proud to be a member of the "Humourless Left"

Is the Jubilee fawning really what we do better than anyone else? If so, is that something to be proud of?

As we prepare to take down our soggy union jack bunting ahead of the ceremonial handover to St George flags on car roofs, I’m left with questions. Is this really what we do better than anyone else? If so, is that something to be proud of?

Yes, I’m glad of a day off (though it’s unpaid in my case). But I’m also allowed to have a look at what’s happened over the past few days and marvel at the sheer madness of it. Aren’t I? Or must we be shackled to the warble of jubilation, the hearty cheer and the wave of a plastic flag, above every sliver of criticism? Is no mockery allowed?

I fully accept the moniker ‘the humourless left’. Yes, we are the buzzkill, killing your buzz, your fading glow of empire and ‘wasn’t it fun when we were starving people to death and putting people in concentration camps, and now all we do is run call centres’. That’s fine. I am the Humourless Left, left without humour or fun at a time when no-one has any jobs or money while we watch giant golden things belonging to one family. 

But I have just seen, on television, Huw Edwards looking out of a window at the Queen passing by in a coach. He did it, and I saw it. It was as if the BBC were justifying the enormous expense of this four-day royal love-in by that moment. “See, I can see it through the window!” Huw was trying to say. And all I could think of back was “Oh, well good for you, mate.”

There have been similar moments of bafflement right across the weekend. I’ve seen Emma Bunton talking about bunting. I’ve seen Ronnie Corbett provide narration of a room full of people eating their lunch. I’ve seen Stevie Wonder and Will.I.Am wish her majesty a happy birthday, and suffer the tsunami of criticism from the Twitter pedants as a result – like we even know when either of the Queen’s birthdays is meant to be. I’ve seen people talking about boats for what seemed like a lifetime, but which was only really six hours of live TV. Boats! People on boats for six hours.

As ever, the BBC’s rivals have used this occasion as a stick with which to beat Auntie – sometimes fairly, sometimes not. It’ll be interesting to see when the accusations of ‘leftist bias’ return to the corporation after these days in which everything’s been wonderful, and everyone loves the Queen, and everyone everywhere has been just like the perma-grinning mobs on the Mall.

We’ve even seen the biased anti-Tory BBCCCP bring in David Cameron for a couple of hassle-free cosy chats about how much he loves the Queen as much as we plebs do at home, at a time when his ministers are raising fresh questions about their conduct. Give it a week, though, and the usual suspects will be railing about how the Beeb is a hive of pinko nastiness.

Truth is, in the cold light of day and with the right royal hangover receding, you can only broadcast what's there. The Big Society flotilla was a soggy shambles – bring along the little ships from Dunkirk and have done with it. The Queen’s concert was enjoyable enough, though not always for reasons of quality – poor Cheryl Cole (sorry, Cheryl) wailing away into the evening air will live long in the memory, but not for the right reasons.

And of course, there are questions now being raised about the free labour used to steward the billionaires’ fun – obviously by the Humourless Left, who can’t just sit back and anaesthetise their critical faculties for four days, mewling idiots that we are. I dare say there were lovely scenes in communities up and down the country getting together, but that was hardly touched by what we saw on TV – it was the usual Londoncentric celeb-heavy drivel.

It’s just that I feel almost apologetic about pointing this out, like I shouldn’t be doing it. I’m not ruining anyone’s fun, but come off it – if you think we sold ourselves as a nation of anything other than willing subjects prepared to bow and scrape to our betters, I think you’re mistaken.

Jubilee: A royal supporter holds Queen Elizabeth and Union flags as people wait on the Mall for the carriage procession of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Photograph: Getty Images.
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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.