It’s not the economics, it’s the politics, says Sam Wheeler

Earlier this week John Blundell suggested part of the solution to the dramatic increase in begging and homelessness in Manchester was to “crack down”.

John comes from a different tradition of the Labour Party than I do, yet we have always got on. Whether in his superb work to ensure the poorest children in Rochdale are fed and educated, his efforts to ensure local people in Rochdale have some colour and beauty in their lives, or making the intellectual case for a Land Value Tax, which would allow our cash-strapped local authorities to benefit from soaring land prices, he is a thoughtful man, even if those thoughts are rather eclectic.

Yet in this case he is being impractical. As an economist John might see people as perfectly rational actors. As a historian I see us quite differently, motivated by attachments, sentiment and impulses, complicated human beings with strengths and frailties. 

The proposal for fining people on the streets might, in theory, discourage someone if they had a choice. Yet John himself highlights how few people begging have that option. It is not a choice for a trafficked person enslaved to some gangmaster. It is not a choice for an addict in-hoc to their dealer and their own damaged brain chemistry. It is not a choice for someone suffering from severe mental health problems who has little conception of where they are, let alone local by-laws. 

Who will enforce such measures when the police are already at breaking point?

Further, who will be doing the enforcement? Greater Manchester Police had around 8,000 officers in 2010. At the time it projected it needed 10,000 across the conurbation to keep up with population increases. Instead that figure has collapsed to around 6,000. The Prime Minister was told by officers earlier this year that cuts, “have caused community policing to collapse.” This Autumn we heard that the Specialist Sex Crimes Unit was being disbanded, to the horror of those who have been victims of rape, sexual assault and abuse. 

Police already have the powers to arrest in order to, "prevent a further breach of the peace" if a person is acting in an anti-social way. If the position is that they are not acting upon such cases currently, it seems unlikely they will do so in order to confiscate a cup full of copper coins. The economic incentives don’t line up. 

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'Homelessness has more than doubled under the three Conservative-led governments'

John and I are not entirely in disagreement however. He is correct that homelessness and begging are two separate, if related, issues. Not all homeless people beg and not all beggars are homeless. He is right to condemn the embarrassed, laissez-faire liberalism that tolerates people on the streets as long as they’re quiet. And he is correct that individual acts of charity, dropping a quid in someone’s cap, may salve our consciences but they do not solve the structural problems of inequality and economic exclusion in our society. 

I would go further and say charities cannot either. Putting aside those large organisations paying their chief executives six-figure salaries, there are a great many small voluntary organisations across Manchester which do tremendous work. But as a socialist I believe it is our duty to build systems that mean all our fellows have a warm, dry, safe place to lie down at the end of the day, to attack the root causes of deprivation not just their inevitable outcomes.

There are aggressive individuals abusing our citizens, but they're not begging on Market Street, they’re sitting in Downing Street

And the root causes are political. Homelessness has more than doubled under the three Conservative-led governments. This is a crisis everywhere, yet in Manchester the shift has been so fast it has overwhelmed the coping mechanisms. In 2010, when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition entered power, on a given night in Manchester seven people would be on the streets. We might agree that’s seven too many, but last year that figure was 78, more than eleven times the number. 

This was not some sudden ideological shift by Manchester City Council. Richard Leese was not visited by three malevolent ghosts like Ebenezer Scrooge in reverse. Rather the figures directly map the politically-motivated attacks on the finances of this city by the Conservatives and their Lib Dem minions. This has seen over the last seven years the theft of thousands of pounds worth of services from every man, woman and child in this city by governments we have overwhelmingly rejected at the ballot box. 

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These people are living, breathing casualties of Manchester not being allowed to run its own affairs

At this time when the London government combines weakness, callousness and ineptitude in equal measure, every politician in Manchester should be demanding we are given the powers to build the sort of city we want. The conurbation has as many people as Wales and a bigger economy, yet not a fraction of the powers. If we did we could reform right-to-buy and build proper social housing. We could re-band council tax so the mega-rich paid their fair share, or abolish it altogether in favour of a better system. We could retain local business rates, and vary them to support small and medium enterprises. The possibilities are endless. Those sleeping in doorways and under arches are not individual ‘bad choices’, they are living, breathing casualties of Manchester not being able to run our affairs as our people, and those we elected, would wish.

There are aggressive individuals abusing our citizens, taking money out of their pockets, conning the vulnerable and making it harder to live and enjoy our great city. But they’re not begging on Market Street. They’re sitting in Downing Street. And if we want to tackle the problems of our city, removing Theresa May is one forced eviction every Mancunian should get behind.

This article is a response to a previous article by Councillor John Blundell. Read it here: Manchester's aggressive beggars should be fined

Sam Wheeler

Sam Wheeler is a Manchester native, a Labour Party and trade union activist of over a decade, and has been selected as a Labour candidate for the new Piccadilly Ward at May’s local elections.