Dear Jack Straw

The Shadow Home Secretary wants to rid the streets of begging and squeegee teams. He should know better, says the editor-in-chief of the Big Issue
  • @johnbirdswords
In May last year John Major had a go at beggars and street people. He said there was no need for people to live out on the street and that begging was offensive. This week you took over the job of knocking street people. Having visited the US, you were pleased to see the mayor of New York cleaning up the streets in a novel and confrontational manner.

But I wonder what you hope to gain out of your attack on "winos", "squeegee merchants" and "graffiti makers". We who work in the streets of most of Britain's major cities can only surmise you did it for electoral gain.

There was no sense that you were speaking for a party that has a reputation for looking beyond appearances to find the causes of social problems. You have laid yourself open to the charge that you do not actually give a toss about the social problems that are increasingly reflected in street life. One might have expected such comments from an irate backwoodsman, happy to link all these problems together in a portmanteau of denunciation, but not from a member of a party supposedly sensitive to social problems.

Much of what you said was pure waffle. The present government has lost control of the streets, and no amount of huffing and puffing will bring back secure streets and social peace. Mr Major's comments were simple political puffery with the intention of appearing decisive. In fact, nothing has changed since his earlier comments. The quality of street life, for all those who use our streets, declines by the day. Mr Major's words disappeared into the ether, and so will yours.

If the streets are to be made safer and more usable it will be because concerned members of the community make it happen. Street users have to repossess the streets and your comments do nothing to help them. Foolish outbursts from politicians bent on claiming electoral goodwill only alienate people.

To turn the argument into a question of whether the streets should be policed more rigorously raises another interesting point. Does this mean you will be calling for a vast increase in policemen patrolling streets which are deteriorating? That will just make the streets a more hostile environment - not friendlier, more open and more public, which is what we need. Will there be a special squeegee squad for instance? Will Labour pledge to set up a graffiti action force? Last year's attempts to outlaw squeegee merchants were largely abandoned because they would have been impossible to police.

Your comments serve only to remind us that politicians, of left and right, are miles away from solving the social problems presented by what is happening in our streets.

The streets are a social barometer of the health of a society. It's fairly clear what the barometer is saying about the health of our society. And you, Mr Straw, should have known better.