Gang crime: another approach

Charities like Aasha Gang Mediation provide the things that working parents and the state can't.

A short walk east from the gleaming glass of the RBS building by Liverpool Street station, through Brick Lane, through the low rise red brick and concrete blocks of flats that make up the Spitalfields Estate, there's a big Victorian building, which looks like an old school. Outside, there's a small football pitch, and there are kids of all ages and races playing on it, with a crowd gathered round, screaming encouragement.

Next to this old building is a newer one. At the top floor of this, three Bengali men are talking to a room full of local youths, housing professionals, youth workers and others. Harun Miah is a short, stocky man in his 30s. Next to him is Abu Mumin, a slightly taller, bald man with a beard, and beside him Udjal Kamrujzaman. None of them look like criminals. But they have a fascinating story to tell.

Abu moved to England aged seven, and as an 80s child remembers a tough childhood - bricks through the window, kids riding through his estate on bikes looking for Pakis to bash. His friend would stuff copies of the Yellow Pages in his shirt when he walked down Brick Lane. His gang was originally formed to combat racists, but as the years went by it started to get involved in other things - drug dealing, battles with other gangs. One of the gangs with whom there was a particularly vicious rivalry was Harun's: "I wanted to track him down and do him some serious damage."

The Bengali gangs of Tower Hamlets became increasingly territorial and violent. One night in 1997 it all came to a head. Udjal describes the aftermath of a brutal clash between the main five gangs: "All of the tendons in my hand were cut with a meat cleaver. My friend's ear and fingers were hanging off. I wasn't sure if I was going to live. In hospital my mother and sister were crying over me, but I was already plotting my revenge. Harun came to me and offered a new perspective: it was time to forgive. The community set up a meeting between the different gangs. I didn't want to go: I was crying because all I wanted was revenge. But I sat down, and we talked, and we forgave each other."

Following a meeting in the East London Mosque, the young gang members turned into youth workers. At first they were based in a Portakabin; then they squatted in the Victorian building next to the one in which they're talking. Aasha Gang Mediation, as the group was now called (Aasha means hope in Bengali) began to work with gang-involved youths - mediating in disputes, holding excursions and doing outreach work. Now it does much the same work and much more, in far more opulent surroundings, thanks to a council grant. It's half term, and Aasha's facilities keep the local kids out of trouble. Besides the football tournament, on the ground floor the kids are playing Playstation 3, on the floor above that pool and table football, and on the floor above that there's even a boxing tournament taking place.

This is what voluntary sector groups do up and down the country: they provide the things that working parents and the state can't. It's not really the kind of work that can be quantified - you can walk around Aasha's building and see it in action, but how do you know how many stabbings or shootings they've stopped?

This is one reason why, year after year, charities like Aasha find themselves struggling for money. About a third of their funding comes from the council, but for the rest they have to apply to others like Comic Relief or the National Lottery. The Gherkin and the shimmering lights of the Square Mile loom over Aasha's centre, but very little funding comes from private equity - at the last count, they'd managed £10,000 for the "Canary Wharf room". The group's building, which keeps hundreds of kids busy every week - and will for years - cost slightly less than Operation Trident's gang initiative. I was recently talking to a senior civil servant who said to me: "I'm amazed the banks aren't getting involved in funding projects in Tower Hamlets. There's so much poverty there, it's right on their doorstep and if ever there was an institution that needed the positive publicity it would bring, it's them."

The problem with the kind of funding a charity like Aasha gets is sustainability. At most, a voluntary body gets money for a project for one or two years. Let's say you want to employ a gang member, because he's got a good insight into the culture you're trying to subvert. How easy is it to employ someone like that on a six-month contract? What future employment prospects does he have once that's ended?

There's another problem with how the funding is granted - more often than not it involves the filling out of huge, abstruse forms, rather than monitoring in person. But a quick walk around Aasha's base reveals that the work they do isn't easy to express in terms of concrete aims - one day it's stopping a fight breaking out, the next it's talking a kid through his employment prospects.

Aasha's work will never generate the headlines that a police operation will. But in the long run, early intervention isn't just the best way to banish gangs for good: it's the only way.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, the Times, Private Eye, The National & TLS. He lives in London and tweets as @aljwhite. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture, republished this year.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.