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Owen Jones faces David Starkey on Newsnight: It was like Enoch Powell meets Alan Partridge

I did my best to challenge David Starkey in the Newsnight studio last night, says Owen Jones. But I was stunned by his comments.

Where to begin with David Starkey? Having spoken to friends and seen the response on Twitter, it's clear that many were left speechless at his racially inflammatory tirade on Newsnight. I can more than empathise: it was one of those moments when what is said so extreme, it is initially difficult to compute.

Let's be clear: what David Starkey said was not just offensive, it was downright dangerous. His initial suggestion that Enoch Powell had been vindicated -- "The Tiber did not foam with blood but flames lambent, they wrapped around Tottenham and wrapped around Clapham" - would, in isolation, be outrageous enough.

Powell predicted that mass immigration would bring turmoil to Britain's streets. It was a prophecy that proved unfounded. We are far less racist a society than we were in the 1950s, when a large majority objected to interracial relationships. But Starkey knew there would be a newly receptive audience in the post-riot aftermath.

 

His championing of Powell was eclipsed by his subsequent comments. In offering an explanation for last week's violence, Starkey claimed that "the problem is that the whites have become black". His theory was that white kids had become infected by black culture, and this had led them to violence and disorder. A prominent black politician like David Lammy, on the other hand, sounded "white". For Starkey, being white meant being "respectable"; being black meant "violence".

There is strong competition for the lowest point of Starkey's rant -- but when he embarked on an impression of a "patwa" accent, I could barely believe what I was watching. It was Enoch Powell meets Alan Partridge.

Some would argue that it's not worth even engaging with such apparent bigotry, but -- uncomfortable as it may make many of us -- his arguments will have resonated with many. We have to take them on.

His point that hip-hop culture transforms white kids into gangsters was an assertion grounded in prejudice, not fact (indeed, I challenged him -- as a historian -- to justify his sweeping assertions with evidence). I grew up sharing a room with a brother who was obsessed with hip-hop. I hope he doesn't mind me saying it, but he's about as far from "gangster" as it's possible to be.

Anti-social behaviour is real, and should never be dismissed by the left. It is far more common in poorer communities. When I went to Ashington -- once the biggest mining village in the world, since devastated by the closure of the pits -- I heard a number of stories about teenage anti-social behaviour.

But the point made eloquently to me by residents was that young people, who had grown up with all the frustrations and boredom of poverty, felt they had little future to look forward to. That's a reality in communities across the country - and, though no excuse, no wonder a small number respond by making other people's lives a misery.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation completed an extensive study into gangs: I doubt Starkey has read it. It found that there was a strong link between "territorial behaviour" and poorer communities. Gangs could provide some young people with fun, excitement and support they otherwise lacked. It "appeared for some to be a product of deprivation, a lack of opportunities and attractive activities, limited aspirations and an expression of identity", as well as a "coping mechanism" for those living in poverty.

It's nothing to do with ethnicity, in other words. It's to do with poverty.

As for riots -- well, Starkey has found an all-too-convenient way of blaming black people for riots that involved people from a whole range of ethnic backgrounds. Even if the looters weren't black, they had somehow "become" black.

Now, I'm intrigued that Starkey has such a unique in-depth knowledge of the cultural interests of those who took part in the violence. But let's deal with the facts that have emerged.

Of those who have appeared in court, the vast majority are men, aged under 24, and out of work. The riots took place in some of the poorest communities in Britain -- like Hackney and Tottenham. This was a tiny slither of Britain's burgeoning young, jobless poor: indeed, one in five young people are out of work. That isn't to justify their behaviour, any more than to state that a lack of affordable housing and good jobs has fuelled the rise of the BNP is to justify Nick Griffin's racist cabal. But, if a tiny proportion of those who feel they have no future to risk respond by rioting and looting, that is enough to bring chaos to Britain's streets.

Other commentators have looked to other explanations: Britain's hyper-consumerism, where our status has so much to do with what we possess; and a profound inequality in British society, not least in London where the richest 10 per cent are 273 times better off than the bottom 10 per cent.

Now that peace has returned to our communities, we have time to think through these explanations. But my fear is that -- with an understandable backlash underway -- Starkey's comments could prove to be a disastrous turning point. He has put race at the top of the agenda when millions are scared and angry. As some took to the streets in support of Enoch Powell's "river of blood", there will be whispers across the country "that Starkey has a point".

I did my best to challenge David Starkey in the studio -- difficult though that was. At a time of backlash and economic insecurity, we all need to be taking these arguments on in our communities. If we fail, last week's riots could be a dark foreshadow of far worse to come.

Owen Jones is author of "Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class"

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses