Let battle commence between elephant and mouse

A friend was uneasy about my condemnation - swift, he called it - of Lord Harris of Haringey in his capacity as chair of the police committee in the Greater London Assembly. For some years now, I have campaigned for the democratic involvement of the citizens of London in the organisation of policing. With the presence of the Mayor and his team in the political leadership of the city, we were set for a fair start until Lord Harris's piece in the Evening Standard, which was without perspective, sans a grasp of what was going on in the black community - a major ingredient if we are to leap further forward in the post-Lawrence era. I must admit that I hesitated when the criticism came from a dear friend. But only briefly. After all, I had seen battles of blood and hellfire, from the 13 dead in New Cross, to PC Blakelock, to so many deaths in custody. In this terrain, I walk with a well-developed instinct for characters and wordy statements. I warned my friend that, sooner or later, I would be proved right.

Only two hours passed before he drew my attention to the Evening Standard of 30 June. Ken Livingstone had an audience with Doreen Lawrence in which she complained about the failure of the Met's legal department to settle her £500,000 demand for damages for the police's role in her ordeal.

I raised the issue of compensation for the Lawrences long, long ago in this column. Five million pounds was my figure, and that was not all. In return for doing the state some service, I suggested that she and her husband, or one of them, be elevated to the House of Lords. I know no other citizen in the past 25 years who has contributed so much to the reorganisation of a major institution of the state as Doreen Lawrence. Her persistence and her insistence that the investigation of such a heinous crime was so incompetent and corrupt served to educate almost the entire society that something was rotten in the state of this island. She lost her son and her marriage is now in tatters. Yet, rather than compensate her, there are those stuffed in closeted offices who seek to undermine her every achievement. Compensation is delayed; lesser mortals climb into seats in the House of Lords having ridden the backs of the Lawrences.

Mayor Ken announced at once that he had seen Doreen Lawrence and that she should be paid her due. Harris - the head of the police committee that is charged to lead the renaissance in democratic policing - objects. It is no business of Ken to see Doreen Lawrence on this issue, he says. Even worse, Ken was wrong to make it public. Listen to this: "We are independent of the Mayor and he needs to remember that. He must also remember that responsibility for policing matters is vested with us [the committee] and not with him." Ken replies: "I was elected by the people of London to tell these people [Lord Harris, etc] to get their act together and that is what I will do." Sweet and simple, I think. The election of Ken as Mayor by the people of London has, in my view, broadened and deepened the democratic fibre of the city. We are not limited to the hacks the political parties serve up to the electorate. Although it was purely a historical accident, Ken has made it possible for us to say: "Even a shoeshine boy could be a mayor; even a lap-dancer could be a mayoress."

Now Harris and the rest hanker after the old days of the party whip, of keeping the people at bay, of centralising their own power on their own turf. Ken must be cut down to size, a puny chairman of committee. Harris needs to be told that Ken can defeat him in an election for any seat in the Greater London Assembly; that he is working under Ken's regime; and that whom Ken appoints, Ken can disappoint.

I advise Doreen Lawrence that, if she gets trapped in Harris's war with Ken, a casualty of a battle between an elephant and a mouse, she must remember that she has many supporters across the country. Let's gather them at Harris's door. We aim for one person per pound of compensation, mobilising from John O'Groats to Land's End, sometime in the autumn. I will put on my marching shoes, and so will thousands of others.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 10 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Education, education, profit