The wrong road to a squeegee-free city

If Labour's Jack Straw really wants to clean up Britain's street life he should take some tips from Barcelona, argues Jim White
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Jack Straw makes an unlikely Travis Bickle. The hair, the glasses, the carefully articulated northern vowels are a pole away from Robert De Niro's grunting portrayal of a Mohican-cropped vigilante in Martin Scorsese's film Taxi Driver. Yet there was Mr Straw, in his capacity as Shadow Home Secretary, addressing an audience in Lewisham, south London, on Monday night apparently taking up Bickle's mantra about wanting "to clean the scum off the street".

In his speech Mr Straw said Labour was anxious to reclaim the streets for the ordinary, decent, law-abiding citizen; to wrest them from the extraordinary, indecent and criminal who are widely assumed, by large numbers of voters, to be presently in possession of them. Thus he urged the police to take tough and swift action with people daubing buildings with graffiti; his vision was of cities freed of "winos, addicts and squeegee merchants"; he was keen, he said, to make "street life everywhere an innocent pleasure again".

The response to Mr Straw's speech was instructive. On Radio 4's Today programme, Michael Howard spluttered about having his clothes stolen and, extraordinarily for as right-wing a Home Secretary as the country has had in a generation, implied that his shadow was over-reacting on crime: since Tory policies were working, things were not as bad as he made out.

In the Guardian, correspondents fulminated about Mr Straw, reckoning his speech was yet another cynical attempt to make Labour electable in Middle England. Joe Oldman, of the homeless persons' charity Char, wrote: "it is cowardly to attempt to boost the electoral fortunes of his party at the expense of the weakest, most vulnerable members of the community"; another correspondent compared, somewhat illiberally for the reader of a liberal newspaper, Mr Straw's policies to Hitler's.

Mr Straw himself claimedthat his robust attitude to street life was an honest attempt to "secure a quieter life for innocent people". Perhaps wishing to distance himself from John Major's remarkably similar-sounding desire for a Britain of lengthening shadows on the cricket field and warm beer in the pavilion, he said he did "not hark back to some golden age". Moreover, his comments should in no way be miscontrued as axiomatic of any right-ward lurch. After all, he commented, "it is 16 years of right- wing policies which have made crime a near-universal experience".

In this sense, Mr Straw is correct. His speech had nothing to do with right and left. It was, rather, a reminder that the love of cleanliness, peace, decency and social order has long been as much a part of Labour philosophy as Tory. To wish to see the streets freed of grubby youths with ill-mannered dogs, of confrontational beggars with poor personal hygiene and, most of all, of teenagers with foaming buckets who assault the nation's windscreens at every set of traffic lights, is not the aim of the right. It is the goal of the Puritan. Monday night's speech was that of the Roundhead complaining about the Cavalier; the Leveller blaming it all on the Libertarian. The name is the giveaway: Jack Straw - what better moniker for a Cromwellian?

This is not to say that Mr Straw is not addressing a genuine fear in large numbers of British minds: a fear of confrontation, of embarrassment, of the kind of disconcerting encounters that occur on city streets. And slick metropolitans should be careful of simply dismissing the fears of those who tremble when the piece of mobile defensible space that is their Mondeo is invaded by a shouty youth with a mop. Mr Straw's speech will have struck a chord with a large number of British people. The fact that since in Scotland, Wales and northern England people tend to be less alarmed by their fellow citizens the chord will mainly have resonated in the breasts of Middle England does not make it any less valid. Or more cynically struck.

What Mr Straw claimed he was seeking to do was to find a way to improve street life for us all. Those who choose the urban way of life do so in part because of what goes on in the street; they know that the street is a big stage on which citizens perform daily for free. It would be a dull spirit, for instance, that was not lifted by a walk through London's Soho these days, with its pavement cafes, performance artists and bizarrely clad clientele. True, there are drunks there who lurch along barging respectable citizens into the gutter; but they are usually wearing a suit and tie and are letting off steam after a hard week's commodity trading.

Soho, however, is not the norm. Too many of London's (and, indeed, other British cities') streets are characterised by bad graffiti, vandalised bus stops and shin-deep litter, the kind of urban detritus that makes even the streetwise uncomfortable.

If Mr Straw's argument is simply a qualitative one - that all graffiti should be witty and well-crafted, all beggars should say please and thank you, and all windscreen washers have a jolly gag to tell as they scrub - in other words, every high street should be as stimulating as the junction of Greek Street and Old Compton Street - few could argue with him. But if that is his ideological direction, he is going about it entirely the wrong way.

The Times yesterday pointed out the similarities between Mr Straw's speech and New York Police Commissioner William J Bratton's recently published booklet, Reclaiming the Streets. Bratton, an unashamed Bickle-alike, is keen on urban cleansing, cheerily imprisoning the homeless and persecuting the mentally ill. He is also part of an administration that is presently cutting train services, raising fares on the buses and reducing hand-outs to the poor.

Legislation - which is what Mr Straw seeks to wield - does not necessarily make for better street life. You can see that in the London Underground. Down there, all buskers are illegal and liable to be escorted from platforms by the police. The effect of this is that the talented and law-abiding musician whose playing might cheer up the commuter and earn a full cap in return is discouraged, while the aggressive, who do not mind bending the law, grind on regardless. What the Tube authorities should do is act entirely on qualitative grounds: subsidise the good, chase away the tone deaf, and arrest on sight anyone playing "The Streets of London".

What does make for more tolerable street life is this: the better run a city - the better its public facilities, the better its transport, the better its provision for the homeless, the deprived and the unstable - the better and, consequently, the less aggressive the secondary activity within it is. Promoting civic pride through a well-run, well-provisioned city is a more effective way of returning the streets to the law-abiding and innocent than hosepiping the homeless or arresting the unwashed.

If Mr Straw wants to find a model, it is not in America, it is in Europe. The streets of Barcelona, for instance, are a continuous, enriching fiesta. This is not because the police have draconian powers to cleanse the streets of those who do not conform to a neat and tidy orthodoxy, but because a superbly run, provisioned and proud city is not conducive to ugly behaviour.

The trouble is, down Las Ramblas the noise goes on all night. And you get the feeling, through the catch-all, sweep-away, sober Puritanism of his speech, that Mr Straw likes to be a-bed nice and early.