Shed No Tears For Blunkett - Mark Barnsley

David Blunkett

Critical appraisal of New Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett including his time as leader of Sheffield Council in the 1970s and 1980s.

Originally published in Direct Action in 2005.

Submitted by Fozzie on September 16, 2022

When David Blunkett boasted, characteristically, that he would make his predecessor as home secretary, Jack Straw, “look like a woolly liberal”, I doubt there were too many people who believed this was possible. Straw may have been at least as Draconian as Michael Howard before him, but he didn't have 9-11, an event, which if one were needed, gave Blunkett’s innate authoritarianism and xenophobia full-reign.

In the wake of Blunkett’s overdue resignation1 ] a picture is being painted, with himself as the primary artist, of "an honourable man brought low by love”. The career of this vain, arrogant, conceited individual was not brought to an end because of his private life, something he has done his utmost to deny the rest of us, but because he is a liar and corrupt, neither of which are new.

I first met Blunkett in 1974, and later suffered under him when he was leader of Sheffield City Council. Neither his dishonesty, nor his corruption, nor his right-wing views are recently acquired. He's simply been better in the past at hiding them. First and foremost, he has been a ruthless careerist, no wonder, like Margaret Thatcher before him, he's blubbing now.

Thatcher was a great political ally to Blunkett in his Sheffield Council days; he could cover up the corruption and incompetence of his administration by blaming everything on central government: Northern Grit squaring up to Whitehall. Thatcher was despised in Sheffield, leaving the local Labour administration as secure as a one-party state, and they ran it accordingly. As Blunkett well knew, during this period, you could have put a red ribbon on a dog, and people would have voted for it.

In the 1980's, Sheffield City Council had a publicity machine worthy of Stalin’s Russia, and any talk of 'socialism' was never more than empty rhetoric for Blunkett and his pals.

Under Blunkett, more than half of the council's 32,000 employees earned basic pay below TUC guidelines, and 10,000 were paid less than the Council of Europe ‘decency threshold’. Women workers got a particularly bad deal, earning far less than their male colleagues, and getting fewer promotions. Only 1% of council employees were black, a quarter of what should have been, and there were rumours of a ‘colour bar’ in the Town Hall’s heavily subsidised restaurant, where no black person had ever been employed.

Meanwhile, there were plenty of jobs and high salaries for the Labour Party faithful. Irrespective of their true politics, careerists from all over the country flocked in. Sheffield didn’t need freemasonry, we had the Labour Party. Usually the jobs doled out were in social or youth work; Sheffield had more social workers per head of population than any other place on the planet. In special cases, a job would be invented, such as the creation of a highly-paid ‘Peace Officer' role for one Blunkett crony.

Blunkett presided over a huge homeless problem, while massive numbers of council- owned properties lay empty for years, and sometimes for decades. Early in 1983 ‘Peace City' was somewhat embarrassed to find that a group of young peaceniks had squatted one long-empty council-owned building and turned it into a 'peace centre’. In response, Blunkett’s pal Roger Barton, then Chairman of the ‘Nuclear Free Zones Committee’, cut off the electricity to the building. Blunkett promised the young pacifists that they would not be evicted, a promise he quickly broke. Another embarrassment for the Blunkettgrad ‘Nuclear Free Zone’ was when a British Rail guard blew the whistle on the transportation of nuclear waste through the area, a fact the council had tried to keep quiet.

As homeless figures in the city continued to soar, other long-unused council-owned properties were occupied. The council's response was always swift and ruthless. One group of squatters wrote to Blunkett personally to ask for a stay of eviction while they found somewhere else to live. With typical arrogance Blunkett replied: “It would seem to me that anarchy can hardly expect reasoned and structured responses within the system which is being attacked”. After the eviction the building stayed empty for several more years.

Blunkett's administration also waged a long and bitter war against travellers, even evicting them in the middle of a TB epidemic. The treatment of Sheffield travellers led to a perinatal mortality rate of nearly 50%.

Blunkett and his cohorts constantly railed in public about the corruption of Tory politicians in Whitehall, while Sheffield City Council junkets were legendary and almost every night the Town Hall hosted a lavish function or banquet for some group of councillors or another.

Some friends of mine once went to visit Blunkett in his Town Hall office in 1983. Walking in unexpectedly, they witnessed a huge feast laid out; this was Blunkett's elevenses.

A big part of maintaining the illusion necessary to running Blunkettgrad was the notion of ‘squaring up to Thatcher'. Things were made easier by the fact that to a very large extent the Council ‘owned’ the unions, the tenants associations, the peace groups, and just about every political front, tendency, and organisation operating in the city. One Blunkett stand was over ‘rate-capping’, when Sheffield and several other Labour council's refused to set ‘a Tory rate’. The inside word at the time was that Blunkett had been instructed to back down personally by Neil Kinnock, who was then waging a war against Militant Tendency, particularly in Liverpool, where they controlled the anti-rate-capping council. Blunkett’s promised reward was the advancement of his cherished political career. He was subsequently elected as MP for Brightside, one of the most solid Labour seats in the country.

Another ‘stand’ was against bus-fare increases. The city's famously low fares had actually begun to increase, but in 1986 Thatcher’s deregulation of public transport threatened to send them spiralling. After more hot-air, Blunkett again capitulated, and as always he crushed dissent ruthlessly. As a member of a group opposed to the fare increases I was sent to prison for putting up a poster advising passengers not to pay. I wasn’t prosecuted by the police, I hadn’t committed a criminal offence, but by the Labour council, for not having planning permission.

As home secretary Blunkett’s abuses of human rights and civil liberties have been staggering. He has introduced internment without trial for suspected foreign terrorists, and barely a day went by without him dreaming up another crackpot neo-fascist scheme to attack civil liberties and put more and more people behind bars. Under Blunkett the British prison population rose to over 75,000, with growing numbers driven to suicide. Callously, Blunkett refused to meet the mothers of young women driven to these acts of desperation, while his only comment on prison suicides has been to quip that he was inclined to open a bottle of champagne after Harold Shipman killed himself.

He sought to hide his corruption by playing the same ‘my private life is my own’ card that he has been trying to deny to the rest of us.

The man who has assured us in relation to ID cards, that ‘if we have nothing to hide, we have nothing to worry about’ has come unstuck.

His assistance with passport and visa applications on behalf of his rich former mistress sits in stark hypocrisy with the hard-line stance he has taken towards those fleeing war and torture abroad. Just like Thatcher before him, the only person David Blunkett is able to shed tears for is himself.

  • 1Libcom note: Blunkett resigned as Home Secretary on 15 December 2004 amidst allegations that he helped fast-track the renewal of a work permit for his ex-lover's nanny.