What we can learn from Crisis Christmas

Like Crisis, the religious story is about the importance of keeping a door open to strangers.

Chantelle doesn't look biblical. Her big hair is held back with a red and white polka dot bow and her neon green bra shows at the shoulder. But like Mary in the Christmas story, this 21 year old is homeless, and turned up pregnant with an unmarried partner at an unlikely inn. It's just that her Bethlehem is south London, and her stable is a school canteen in a pop up shelter.

"It's somewhere to go isn't it?" she says, "My dad's a junkie, my mum's a bitch and I can't afford a deposit... council houses are for young girls, like, really young, fourteen... I'm not priority."

I met Chantelle at Crisis. Christmas is supposed to be a time of miracles, and every year this charity pulls one off. Run by some 8,000 volunteers, this organisation makes sure no one has to sleep rough or alone in difficult accommodation over Christmas week. They do this by taking over buildings closed for the holidays -- schools, hospitals, day centres -- and transforming them into shelters. They're still running as you read this.

I'm not religious, but if there is something to the Christmas story, this has to be it. When Joseph and Mary were travelling from inn to inn, they couldn't afford private rents and welfare didn't exist. Like the guests at Crisis, they were cast out, judged and failed by the market and the state. Eventually they were given a place to stay out of kindness, and a space for animals was transformed into a maternity ward.

Like Crisis, the religious story is about the importance of keeping a door open to strangers. It's about action beyond resources and targets; it's about the power of compassion, time and human relationships.

Of course it's difficult. The centre I was working in didn't get the keys to the building until the morning guests arrived. With minimal checks and training, volunteers walk in and put on housing surgeries, stand up comedy shows, arts and crafts workshops and dentist consultations in classrooms. Identifying themselves by coloured badges, volunteers, who may never have met before, work together out of little more than blind good will.

Together, they get through the tragedy of a sick man's collapse, the anger of someone being denied a bed, the laughter of a bad cracker joke and the quiet, intimate conversation as a cigarette lighter sparks in the cold.

And you learn. These people all come from my area of south London. They are my neighbours, but they tell me about a world I don't know. You learn that you shouldn't assume that everyone who is homeless is sleeping rough; people are fiercely proud of temporary or unstable accommodation. You learn to interact with dignity and respect for guests who have many more years experience than you. I sat down with an ESOL teacher with a degree in psychotherapy and an ex-serviceman who travelled the world for twenty-eight years. You learn how thin the line is between finding it difficult to pay the rent, crashing with a friend, and queuing for a hostel.

Nor is it all dark and sad. If you live day-to-day, you don't have the space to worry too far into the future. There's a preoccupation with getting enough food, finding somewhere else to sleep, bumming your next cigarette and topping up phone credit. The freedom of strangers and endless free cupcakes opens up a precious space in these shelters for laughter that frequently touches volunteers as much as guests, who are often struggling with big concerns of their own.

We should learn from Crisis. Unlike some of the work we do directly through the state, this programme is not subject to much bureaucracy. It makes use of buildings that would otherwise be closed. And it is built on human relationships rather than transactional roles, helping to transform the volunteer as well as the guest. We should make it easier to replicate these miracles, not just in the capital over Christmas, but wherever and whenever our modern day Mary might turn up.

To find out more about Crisis Christmas, visit the site here.

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99. She is also a Labour councillor.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser