The night that 13 black teenagers died

The issue of the 13 teenagers, all black, who died in a fire at New Cross, south-east London, 20 years ago, keeps coming back. I have received a third letter from the police, inviting me to their offices to be interviewed. Yet I had said - and publicly - that I had nothing to offer, because I was not at the party. Months ago, the police pursued my daughter at London Weekend Television in an effort to locate me.

I was elected by a general assembly of 300 people, who met weekly after the fire, to organise a demonstration. They wanted to protest against the police theory of how the fire started, and against the failure of the authorities, including Margaret Thatcher and the Queen, to pay their respects, as is traditional after such a huge tragedy.

The demonstration was held on a weekday, yet more than 10,000 people turned up - an indication of the depth of feeling in the black community. Coaches came from all major cities in the UK, including Liverpool and Southampton. Within a couple of months, the Brixton riots took place, and it was clear to all that the one had influenced the other. The Daily Mail demanded that the police ask me to state where I was during every second of the Brixton riots. I gained a pariah status, which, it seems, persists in some quarters.

Three organisations were formed to deal with the blaze and its aftermath - one of them to raise funds to assist with funeral expenses. We monitored in detail what the police were doing. It was the very first time in our history as black people that we had made such a dramatic or organised intervention in the politics of this country.

The fire broke out as 16-year-old Yvonne Ruddock was holding a birthday party at her home. The very first officer on the scene told Yvonne's mother that a man had been seen throwing a petrol bomb through a window on the ground floor; the same man was seen also running away from the house. Just beneath the window was a settee, which caught fire.

Days before the party, Conservative MPs in the Midlands had announced a campaign against black house parties, claiming they were too noisy. This was picked up by right-wing organisations all over England. Deptford, where the party took place, was a hotbed of racialism. So everything seemed to fall into place.

But a new officer came in to lead the investigation. He had another theory. The kids had got into a fight, he said, and one of them set fire to the house, went up to the top floor and died there.

Thereafter, we were offered more theories. Mrs Ruddock's boyfriend's brother, the police said, had a domestic row and burnt the place down. He was brought back from the United States, to no avail. Then there was the nail polish theory: Yvonne Ruddock had been decorating her nails and the nail polish remover fell on the carpet and somehow exploded. The latest theory involves matches. Some kid had been playing with matches and set the place on fire.

The police are recommending a new inquest. The local coroner said she would rather have a judicial inquiry.

There the issue stands. Currently, the police are disowning the previous theories. They tell us they cannot be responsible for them. We have had five theories in all. I would not be surprised if we are garlanded before the end of the day with a sixth, a seventh or an eighth theory.

I say only this: I had no part in any of those theories and therefore have refused to attend any investigative interview.

Should there be a judicial inquiry, I will arm myself with legal representation and join the merry dance. And I am still committed to the bomb theory, because it was formed in all innocence of its huge implications. It was only when black people responded that the theory changed.

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 28 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And men shall speak unto men

David Cameron shows Labour how to do it

Leftwing rhetoric masked rightwing reality in Cameron's conference speech.

“The tanks are in the kitchen,” was the gloomy verdict of one Labour staffer to a speech in which the Prime Minister roamed freely into traditional left-wing territory.

But don’t be fooled: David Cameron is still the leader of an incredibly right-wing government for all the liberal-left applause lines.

He gave a very moving account of the difficulties faced by careleavers: but it is his government that is denying careleavers the right to claim housing benefit after they turn 22.

He made a powerful case for expanding home ownership: but his proposed solution is a bung for buy-to-let boomers and dual-earner childless couples, the only working-age demographic to do better under Cameron than under Labour.

On policy, he made just one real concession to the left: he stuck to his guns on equal rights and continued his government’s assault on the ridiculous abuse of stop-and-search. Neither of these are small issues, and they are a world away from the Conservative party before Cameron – but they also don’t cost anything.

In exchange for a few warm words, Cameron will get the breathing space to implement a true-blue Conservative agenda, with an ever-shrinking state for most of Britain, accompanied by largesse for well-heeled pensioners, yuppie couples, and small traders.

But in doing so, he gave Labour a lesson in what they must do to win again. Policy-wise,it is Labour – with their plans to put rocketboosters under the number of new housing units built – who have the better plan to spread home ownership than Cameron’s marginal solutions. But last week, John McDonnelll focussed on the 100,000 children in temporary accomodation. They are undoubtedly the biggest and most deserving victims of Britain’s increasingly dysfunctional housing market. But Labour can’t get a Commons majority – or even win enough seats to form a minority government – if they only talk about why their policies are right for the poor. They can’t even get a majority of votes from the poor that way.

What’s the answer to Britain’s housing crisis? It’s more housebuilding, including more social housing. Labour can do what Cameron did today in Manchester – and deliver radical policy with moderate rhetoric, or they can lose.

But perhaps, if Cameron feels like the wrong role model, they could learn from a poster at the People’s History Museum, taken not from Labour’s Blairite triumphs or even the 1960s, but from 1945: “Everyone – yes, everyone – will be better off under a Labour government”.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.