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Sauce for the goose?

I remain puzzled by the Porter affair, and the venom with which it is still pursued by nearly all British papers.

The former leader of Westminster Council masterminded the “homes for votes” scandal in the 1980s when good council homes were sold to prospective Tory voters in key wards, in order to stop Labour getting into power.

Summarises The Times, not completely accurately. The policy was based on a reasonable assumption by the councillors involved that owner-occupiers would be more likely to vote Tory. They did not hand-pick the beneficiaries.

I have two questions for which no satisfactory answers have been provided. Indeed, I have not seen the questions asked in the mainstream media.

1. If Porter and her colleagues could be surcharged by an official for selling off some dozens of council flats for indirect political advantage, where are the surcharges for the Labour, Liberal, and Tory politicians who built and subsidised the occupation of London’s three to four million council flats?

2. Why the hatred directed at Shirley Porter in particular? She is not a particularly endearing character, but then neither were most of the other Tory politicians caught up in the sleaze craze of the ’90s, and most of them have been rehabilitated in the public eye and are writing books or presenting TV shows. Is it because she is so rich? Or is it because she is Jewish?

17 comments to Sauce for the goose?

  • Paul Marks

    The intention of building council houses and flats was to “build the Conservatives out of London” (Herbert Morrison – London Labour party boss in the 1930’s and senior minister in the government after World War II).

    The intention was that the public housing project dwellers would vote Labour.

    S.P. thought that people who bought council properties might be more likely to vote Conservative, but she did not know that would be the case.

    Here actions were no more criminal than the Labour party actions (as for selling at a low price – that was the national law passed by Parliament).

    So why was S.P. convicted (and so attacked in the media).

    Two reasons:

    The lady was a senior Conservative (at a time when the Conservative party was hated – due to “sleeze” and other such).

    And S.P. is a long nosed Jew (the way she looks and her manner is almost a parody of a Jew).

    I suspect that you will not believe the second reason Guy – but it happens to be the truth.

  • Paul Marks

    The fact that you mention S.P.s Jewishness yourself, shows that you are open to the possibility that dislike of Jews may be factor.

    I apologize for missing that when I looked at your post.

  • andrew duffin

    She is rich, she is Jewish, and at the time she was seen as a proxy for Mrs. Thatcher, whom the left were desparate to attack but to whom no real dirt would stick.

    The first two are enough for many lefties but the third one was the clincher.

  • Alex

    Oh come on guys the Jewish things got nothing to do with it, its more likely because shes very wealthy.

    However for me it’s because she moved the Labour voters into tower blocks that had been condemed due to asbestos!

    Also the fact that she ran away and refused to face the music also doesn’t exactly make you warm to her.

  • So Shirley Porter wasting tens of millions of taxpayers’ money to diminish availability of social housing, purely as part of a project to secure her party’s electoral fortunes, is somehow equivalent to the use of such money for the provision of council accommodation in a time of widespread slum occupancy? And as a consequence, any outrage directed at her can be attributed to anti-semitism? You believe this stuff?

    You don’t think, just maybe, that any multi-millionaire corruptly shuffling low income people into dangerous tower blocks for political advantage, and then skipping the country and pleading poverty, would incur the same opprobrium whether Jewish or not?

    Oh, and on another note, that Morrison quote appears in Wikipedia’s list of famous misquotations. Can you provide a source?

  • I guess Gordon’s purchasing of Labour votes using our money, with a million new public sector workers is not important.

  • On a further note, you say that “no satisfactory answers have been provided” to your questions.

    You are of course peddling exactly the same line as pursued by the Conservatives ten years ago, except with the ludicrous new anti-semitism angle. Even the alleged Morrison quote appeared then (without attribution, naturally).

    Porter’s corruption was discussed in parliament at the time, when the Major government refused to condemn Westminster Council’s behaviour. On the particular aspect you raise, Frank Dobson said this:

    “Some Tories have tried to justify the outrageous conduct of Westminster Tories by saying that Labour councils build homes for party political reasons. In particular, those of a historical bent have claimed that under Herbert Morrison, London county council built homes all over London that were filled by people who felt grateful and therefore voted Labour. Perhaps they did, but there is no equivalence between Herbert Morrison’s LCC and other Labour councils on the one hand and the scoundrels in Westminster on the other.

    “Labour councils used the powers given them by Parliament to provide decent homes for the homeless and for others who had nowhere decent to live. They did it proudly and in public. There is no comparison between them and the Westminster Tories, who decided, shamefully and in secret, to use their powers unlawfully to deprive homeless families and families living in overcrowded, unhealthy and degrading conditions. They decided not to house them but to deprive them of somewhere decent to live. Instead, they left those families to rot in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and hostels. Worse still, they placed some in asbestos-ridden flats–all to help rig a council election in eight wards.

    “Those terrible decisions were taken by rich and powerful Tories. The victims were homeless families, who are usually poor. Sometimes they include men, but most homeless families consist of a poor woman and the children of that poor woman. What a life for those children–often having to cook, eat, sleep, wash, live, play and try to grow up in one rotten, shabby, infested and overcrowded room. Those children should have been helped by those in authority, but in Westminster they were not. Instead, the Tories ordered council officials to be mean and nasty to the homeless children.”

    (Hansard, 14th May 1996)

    Can you explain what you found not “satisfactory” about this response?

  • dearieme

    A friend who worked in a council Housing Dept told me that housing was allocated, in that council, not on some hoped-for correlation with politics, but specifically to people known to be Labour supporters. To get assigned even better housing, it helped to sleep with a particular Councillor . So I view the Lady Porter affair with great scepticism. Mind you, I would like to know more about that extraordinary deal which involved selling off cemetries for nominal sums.

  • You view the Westminster Council scandal with “sceptism” why, exactly? On the basis of rumour and tu quoque versus the District Auditor’s report and numerous subsequent court rulings?

    As for the cemeteries, there’s no mystery. Doubtless on account of her Jewishness, some people took offence at Porter’s disposal of high value cemeteries to developers for fifteen pence purely in order to keep down poll tax.

    Quite plainly, in the light of these reasonable actions, Andrew Hosken must have been a raving anti-semite to conclude in his biography that she “left behind a unique and irrefutable record of corruption and dishonesty in public life”.

  • guy herbert

    My point is precisely that that Mr Dobson seeks to rebut in the Hansard . He does it with a good deal of sentimental rhetoric, but it stands that the councillors were not surcharged for being nasty to poor people and providing them with bad accomodation, while living rather grandly themselves – or again most London councillors, including many former Camden councillors, might have been surcharged. (And at least the Tory councillors in question did not live in plum council accomodation, subsidised by the ratepayer.) It was that they did what they did for political advantage. Not so very shocking in politicians really.

    I disapprove somewhat more of a politician who gets power on a promise of robbing Peter to pay Paul, than one who uses the power they are given in a biased way. (Mr Dobson, was it not who called for the nationalisation of all development land when he was Leader of Camden.)

    I can see the point of the surcharge battle, even if I dislike the principle, now expanded into the glories of the Standards Board for England, of bureaucrat-imposed penalties rather than real trials with charges to be proved. What I can’t see is the cause of the personal hatred directed at Porter. Of course she fought to avoid paying up, wouldn’t you? That doesn’t strike me as particularly evil. Perhaps Andrew Duffin is right and she is a proxy for Mrs Thatcher – who is also hated with incomprehensible bitterness. Mrs T is not Jewish, so maybe that is a red herring.

    Perhaps, and I think aloud here, it is that the the mob does run on hatred in general (see Dobson’s speech, quoted above, all that righteous indignation), and this generalised, unqualified rage fixes on certain objects from time to time, Porter just being the unfortunate seed of grit on which the crystallisation happened to take place. I think Blair is evil and dangerous beyond belief, he has transformed the country with enormous skill and malice, but I cannot find in me towards him a fraction of the personal animosity that seems to be available for this ultimately insignificant woman.

  • You’re right that Porter and Weeks were not “surcharged for being nasty to poor people and providing them with bad accomodation”. They were surcharged for using council funds in a large scale gerrymandering project, or as Lord Bingham put it, a “blatant and dishonest misuse of public power”.

    If your examples at Camden Council had been found by the Audit Commission, and by five Law Lords, to have been guilty of this, then I would expect them to be surcharged too. However, at least if Hosken is to be believed, Porter left a “unique… record of corruption”, and until you supply documented examples of similar behaviour on a similar scale elsewhere, I’ll stick with this conclusion.

    As for your second paragraph, you appear to be suggesting that Porter’s actions didn’t involve “robbing” anybody. They quite plainly did, if “robbing” somebody involves squandering their money. She “robbed” the taxpayer, to a far greater degree than any councillor allegedly living in “plum” accommodation.

    I’m not particularly aware of “hatred” for Porter — a partisan speech made in the Commons is hardly an example of mob justice — but if it exists it is far from surprising. She is a very rich person who blighted the lives of the very poor for her personal ends. She then acted in an absurdly self-righteous manner, protesting her innocence to the end, as if she had some natural right to abuse taxpayers’ money. Finally she has reappeared, after claiming to be down to her last £300k, and failing to pay the full surcharge, to buy a £1.5 million house. You’re right that she’s insignificant, but I can’t think of a better case of such high-handed corruption.

    She comes across as callously arrogant. She’s a person who essentially argued in the European Court that her human rights included one to waste £20 million of other people’s money on a party political scheme to move people into dangerous accommodation. And you wonder that she’s not popular?

  • guy herbert

    As for your second paragraph, you appear to be suggesting that Porter’s actions didn’t involve “robbing” anybody.

    No. I suggest she did not hold herself out to the electorate as willing to plunder others to pay them off. As I understand it, the surcharge wasn’t a measure of funds lost, it was a measure of funds “misapplied” by the district auditor’s lights: Westminster wasn’t that much worse off, but it was held the money ought to have been spent in a different way. Local authority funds are by definition other people’s money squandered, since the money is intended to be spent on things the taxpayers who provided it wouldn’t have bought themselves – or it wouldn’t be necessary to take it from them.

    I’m not suggesting that any other councils or councillors did anything unlawful. The whole point of my posting is however that institution of council housing itself is no more moral – even if it is sanctioned by law – than Porter’s activities, and amounts to a vast premeditated (but totally legal) bribery of the electorate by politicians of all parties. There are almost no London Housing departments that have even managed to carry out that mission and at the same time enact the fairytale of succouring the poor convincingly. (Some that have tried have found themselves unpopular with their original clients, as the new Young Foundation study suggests.)

  • So to recap, secret illegal corruption directed towards gerrymandering is better than open politicking? We wouldn’t want voters to sanction political action, I guess. Best keep them out of the loop.

    I would have said that the people moved into asbestos-filled flats were probably, on balance, “much worse off”. I suppose, depending on your perspective, “Westminster wasn’t that much worse off”. Depends how you rate £37 million. But in any case, you have not addressed the fact that council housing, regardless of its success or vote buying potential, was money spent on providing housing to those who could not afford it; Porter’s efforts were in the opposite direction.

    It’s interesting that legality is irrelevant to you. In the end, this doesn’t seem to be about Porter, or anti-semitism, but promoting the notion that all “[l]ocal authority funds are by definition other people’s money squandered”. You say this is because the money would have been spent on other things. But this criterion is hardly confined to local authority spending. I assume, then, that you are against all government spending?

  • guy herbert

    But in any case, you have not addressed the fact that council housing, regardless of its success or vote buying potential, was money spent on providing housing to those who could not afford it;

    Is it a fact? It was money spent on providing housing, that’s a fact. “Who could not afford it,” is a moral hypothesis wrapped up with an economic one, viz – that housing ought to be provided at public expense to some people, and that those same some people will not be able to buy housing otherwise. There’s also a lesser presumption that council housing doesn’t go to those who could afford it, or that it doesn’t matter if it does, but that’s not a problem for me, any more than “the problem of evil” troubles me as an atheist.

    It’s interesting that legality is irrelevant to you.

    It isn’t. It is highly relevant to the point. Point 1 of the original posting is to point out that legality and morality don’t run in parallel here. To recap, direct vote-buying on a huge scale is legal, some marginal, indirect, manipulation of voting patterns is not. Some, not all. Councils of all colours spend money outside their manifesto commitments in order to promote loyalty on their clienteles.

    Had a council decided to build a ‘community centre’ in a marginal ward, even if the decision were effectively made in the Labour caucus

    In the end, this doesn’t seem to be about Porter, or anti-semitism, but promoting the notion that all “[l]ocal authority funds are by definition other people’s money squandered”. You say this is because the money would have been spent on other things. But this criterion is hardly confined to local authority spending. I assume, then, that you are against all government spending?

    By jove, she’s got it!

    Government spending is, like government in general, an evil only to be tolerated as far as it is a necessary evil. Given that there are governments and policies, we can strive to improve both, so you will often finding me arguing for doing something this way rather than that. And I am inclined to be generous in my assessment of necessity, since I am well aware the amount of government is never likely to be reduced enough to test my criteria. But less is better.

  • On the contrary, “[w]ho could not afford it” is not a moral hypothesis: it is an empirical statement. The contention that people benefited from council housing is entirely divorced from moral considerations, on which I have not commented. And it is almost certainly true, unless you wish to suggest that council tenants perversely opted for asbestos-riddled tower blocks over superior options.

    Secondly, although you have chosen not to address this point, people voted for politicians who supported council housing. Thus it also seems likely that the majority believed benefit would accrue from such a policy, whether or not you agree or view it as morally right.

    This stands in contrast to the Porter situation. People did not vote in Porter on the understanding that she’d spend their money on furthering her political career to the detriment of council tenants. It was instead a secret plan that she misrepresented to the public. Unless you wish to attack representative democracy itself, you must accept that the one policy was legitimised by popular consent, and the other was not.

    By jove, she’s got it!”

    I was aware of the libertarian dogma. It’s just that, predictably enough, you have drastically shifted ground between your last two posts.

    First you said

    “[l]ocal authority funds are by definition other people’s money squandered, since the money is intended to be spent on things the taxpayers who provided it wouldn’t have bought themselves”.

    This implies all tax money is squandered, including that spent, for instance, enforcing contracts.

    Your latest reply is different:

    “Government spending is, like government in general, an evil only to be tolerated as far as it is a necessary evil.”

    This implies some tax money is not squandered, but “a necessary evil”.

    The first, unlike the second, admits no exception.

    If this latest position is your true one, and you withdraw your earlier argument, then you cannot rule out council housing with a blanket dismissal of all public spending: you must instead explain why it is not a necessary evil. This is something that you haven’t yet done.

    But we have, I believe, established that your defence of Porter hinges on a particular political stance that is apparently not shared by the majority in this country. It is therefore unsurprising that they disagree with you in their assessment of Shirley Porter, and we can dispose of the anti-semitism canard.

  • guy herbert

    I withdraw neither argument, since they aren’t inconsistent, and the posing of both doesn’t amount to a shift of ground. The second position amounts to a general statement of my beliefs about government, the first an observation about the nature of public spending. I can both believe that all taxation is squandered from the point of view of a general taxpayer, and that some taxation and some government is a necessary evil. (Were I the libertarian dogmatist you take me for, we would now be going down an anarchocapitalist by-road in which taxless, subscription-based government is the rule…)

    You have misunderstood perhaps what I mean by necessary evil, because you have it back to front. I mean that I would rather have no government intervention except where it is shown to be necessary. So there is no burden on me to show that any particular aspect of government is not necessary in order for me to remain consistent – though I ought to say why, if I support some governmental institution, I think it is necessary.

    My point 1 isn’t a defence of Porter so much as an attack on the institutionalised plunder by the mob that constitutes democracy – and was anticipated by Aristotle. Representative institutions need not be wholly democratic, and unconstrained democracy I am opposed to.

    You wrote, quite generally: “[…] you have not addressed the fact that council housing, regardless of its success or vote buying potential, was money spent on providing housing to those who could not afford it.”

    I really can’t see why you think that, “those who could not afford it” or capable of empirical test at all, never mind factually justified. Except in the decade after the war when the housing situation was exceptional, many new council houses went to people who already had homes, though not good ones. It would be entirely plausible to say that money spent on council housing was spent on providing housing to people that was better than those people could afford on the open market (though seeing the performance of some estates one might doubt that it is true in all cases). If that weren’t true at the point they took it then no-one would want council housing.

    What neither you nor I can know is what accomodation would be available and at what prices in the absence of council homes. The management of the council landholdings seems so clumsy that it is hard to believe the job could not be done more efficiently. But we cannot guess who could afford what in other conditions.

    My point 2 is a defence of Porter. What I’m defending her against there – indirectly, in that I can’t see the reason for it – is the disproportionate hate that seems to be directed at her specifically. I don’t think anywhere I have suggested she is actually likeable or virtuous.

    If people think she has done bad things, then her co-conspiritors also did them. Why do we not know their names? Why are their movements not splashed in The Standard? If it is not because she is rich, and it is not because she is Jewish, is it because she is a woman? Is it that she has an abrasive personality and upset some journalists who are now taking a personal revenge? Or is it perhaps a bit of all those things which together make her distinctive enough to form the nucleus of a group hate?

  • You are right. The two statements are not inconsistent, provided I accept some unstated, lexicographically novel interpretation of “squandered”. If I consult the dictionary, on the other hand, it means “wasted”. You maintain that government spending can be simultaneously “squandered” and “necessary”. This is, if not inconsistent, simply meaningless.

    Leaving the Clintonesque semantics aside, the interpretation you now claim for your first statement on public spending negates the point that you were making. I repeat: you cannot dismiss council housing by the device of dismissing all government spending if you also say that some government spending is necessary. This holds irrespective of whether you now purport to be merely espousing a presumption against government spending.

    Because, in the end, this is not related to the original claim about Porter, and because this exchange has gone on too long, I won’t address your more detailed arguments about the mooted benefits of council housing.

    You have again ignored the matter of popular consent as a differentiator between Porter’s behaviour and council housing provision. I suppose this is understandable if you say democracy is “institutionalised plunder by the mob”, recruiting to your cause an advocate of slavery. But then, as I have already said, if people don’t share your extreme views on government why should they share your assessment of Porter based on them?

    Finally: We don’t know the names of her co-conspirators? Just above, I referred to “Porter and Weeks”. Weeks was her co-conspirator. Liability was confined by the court to those two. However he wasn’t the leader of the council and, as far as I know, didn’t appear in the European Court claiming the human right to gerrymander, didn’t skip the country, and didn’t just reappear to buy a house worth five times what his alleged assets were when it came to refunding taxpayers.