Away from home

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LONG time, no post, but that’s because I’ve been distracted by the day job. After the annual Christmas slowdown, the news mill bounces back into an unrelentless pace as soon as January arrives and the first three New Journals of the year have been loaded with news and investigation, some of which have already been lifted by our magpie friends on the nationals.

There are tales to tell on these blog pages too, including the latest from behind the scenes at Camden Town Hall, and further updates can be expected here on a more regular basis in the coming weeks.

But’s it’s also the case that I’ve also been a little haunted by a raw start to the year in Calais and Dunkirk. We travelled a fortnight ago to cover Keir Starmer’s trip to meet the refugees camping in the cold. It should be made clear that the New Journal‘s travel abroad was not sponsored by any political party or group, and was paid for by the newspaper. But it doesn’t really matter how you get there or who with: once you see the conditions that up to 10,000 are living in the shared reaction is the same and it’s one of horror.

The conditions at Dunkirk particularly, where men, women and children were living on a bog seamed with human waste, can hardly be described in print.  The sceptics may think the reports back from the camps are fuelled by some floaty north London guilt, and it’s true that it did feel wrong that it was okay for us to hop on a train home back to a home with four walls, radiators and a bath, while those we spoke to would be returning to a freezing swamp.

As if it could do any good, I stripped off a few layers of clothing, just a hoody, tracky bottoms and a wellies, in the car park to hand out. A group of refugee children took a packet of opal fruits, or whatever they are called these days, from Sally Gimson (pictured with Starmer above) as if they had won the lottery. You are stood there feeling helpless by the scale and desperation of it all.

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The reaction to our coverage in the CNJ was mixed: there were some appreciative private messages thanking us for doing what a paper should be doing. Others tweeted back with the kind of lack of compassion which I just don’t believe would be possible if we could teleport all the readers directly to the scene of this miserable disaster. We were simply interviewing another wave of Uber drivers, came back one response. Many others had no sympathy at all, insisting that all of these families had chosen to live like this and they could just go home or stay in France. If somebody chooses to camp in a shit-swamp without light at night or anywhere to wash and with scabies all around, and possibly cholera on its way, you have to consider why, and it’s not for a day out in the woods or a picnic.

I can understand people’s fears and worries, that there is poverty in the next street or maybe even in their own homes which they feel either should be treated first, or would be exacerbated if London’s population grew denser with the sudden and regular addition of thousands more people. So, I can understand that while some people reacted to our reports by wanting to help with donations of their own, others flicked the page with indifference or even dislike. Some people were never going to read it.

I was interested, however, in the way people viewed their local MP spending a Friday in France, rather than London. Starmer was attacked on social media many times as someone who had got his priorities wrong by not spending all of his days working on local Holborn and St Pancras casework. What’s he doing there, when we’ve got problems right here in Camden, was the tenor.

It made me think that some of Camden’s constituents may have got a little too used to having very local MPs, whereas now they have ones busy with big projects ahead. Once Frank Dobson had been axed by Blair as health secretary, and the fiasco with the mayoralty candidacy was behind him, he was very much a local MP. People got used to having him around. With Keir, maybe residents are going to have to get used to a different kind of MP again, one that may be away from home much more. He’s already announced he will go on a three month tour of Britain which will take him away from Holborn and St Pancras to have conversations about immigration in public meetings in several big cities many miles from London.

The cynics who believe the track ahead for Starmer is being laid for the Labour leadership talk of such round-Britain expeditions as a way of breaking out of north London; for they will say that one obvious hurdle to a Starmer leadership could be the fact that Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn are both from north London and the Labour Party risks looking hopelessly narrow if next time the vacancy comes up it chooses a) another man and b) another man from north London. Starmer can cut through this – and it should be said conduct a decent conversation about immigration in areas where sympathy for refugees is at a greater premium than Dartmouth Park – by touring the country and doing that old fashioned thing of meeting people. Doing so will, however, take him away from Holborn and St Pancras – and so would more senior roles in the Labour Party as they come up, whatever they may be, in the future.

For those of his new constituents who really think one Friday in France to see the freezing-face reality of an issue he has been charged to investigate as Labour’s shadow spokesman on immigration was an affront to Holborn and St Pancras and the work he could have been doing directly relating to Camden, there maybe more disappointments ahead. He’s going to be away. A lot. And it might take a bit of getting used to.

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