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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.

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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