Baa Baa White Sheep, 1986: “loony left” Hackney

The wikipedia page on the “loony left” phenomenon is a great read. Excerpts below:

The “Baa Baa White Sheep” story was a wholesale fabrication, reporting events that never happened. Nonetheless, the story “got legs” (as journalists put it) and was widely reported, modified, and re-reported by the press, to the extent that it has gained almost the status of an urban myth, being reported of people and institutions different to those of the original story of 1986.

The original story reported a ban at Beevers Nursery, a privately run nursery school in Hackney. It was originally reported by Bill Akass, then a journalist at the Daily Star, in the 1986-02-15 edition under the headline “Now it’s Baa Baa Blank Sheep”. Akass had heard of a ban issued, by nursery school staff, on the singing of the nursery rhyme “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”, on the grounds that it was racist. In his story, he wrote:

Staff at a nursery school in Hackney, London, claim that the traditional nursery rhyme is offensive to blacks. At first they wanted the 30 children aged between one and three — only two of whom are black — to sing Baa Baa White Sheep instead. But now it has been banned altogether at Beevers Nursery in De Beauvoir Road.

Leaders of left-wing Hackney council welcomed the ban last night. A spokesman said: ‘We consider playgroups and nurseries should be discouraged from singing the rhyme. It reinforces a derogatory and subservient use of the word “black” among our youngsters in their formative years. This is particularly important because the majority of children in our nurseries come from black and ethnic minority communities.’

—Bill Akass (1986-02-15). “Now it’s Baa Baa Blank Sheep”. Daily Star

The nursery was run by the parents, rather than by Hackney council. But Akass had telephoned Hackney council for its reaction to his story, Martin Bostock, then the press officer for Hackney council, reported that he had considered the possibility of simply responding that “We don’t know what this nursery is doing, but whatever they’re doing it is up to them.”. However, council leader Tony Millwood, according to Bostock, refused this advice and wanted to take a more supportive stance on the alleged ban, and in conjunction with the press office drafted and issued a statement saying “that we supported what they’d done, although making it quite clear that it was not a council nursery and not a council ban”.

Three days later, in the Hackney Gazette, Tim Cooper took up Akass’ story. He went to Beevers Nursery and asked parents there what their reactions, in turn, were to the Hackney council statement, itself a reaction to the claim that Beevers had issued a ban.

Cooper’s story reported one of the nursery playleaders as saying “We’re run by parents and if they want us to stop singing it, we would. But there have been no complaints so far, through someone once suggested it could be racist.”. Cooper later stated that there had been no such ban, but that the statement issued by Millwood and Hackney council had given the story the impetus that it was then to run with:

I think they really shot themselves in the foot. I think they issued the statement because they, or the council leader at the time, believed that the ban was in force and tried to justify it. I think that they were wrong. There was no ban in the first place. By issuing the statement they virtuall created the story, which obviously snowballed from there.

—Tim Cooper, Hackney gazette

And snowball it did. The story was carried by the Sun in its 2nd February 1986 edition, under the headline “Lefties baa black sheep”, with the ban attributed directly to “Loony left-wing councillors”. The Sun’s version of events was subsequently carried by the 23rd February 1986 Sunday World. It was taken to the letters columns of the Hackney Gazette and the Ilford Recorder, and even reached the pages of Knitting International. Despite neither the journalists nor the letter-writers presenting any evidence for their assertions, only one paper, The Voice rejected the story in print, calling the story a deliberate attempt to discredit the council.

Race and Council Housing in Hackney, 1984

Race and Council Housing in Hackney

Report of a Formal Investigation conducted by the Commission for Racial Equality into the allocation of housing in the London Borough of Hackney

145 pages
Published January 1984

This is quite heavy-going and sober, with lots of tables and statistics. The upshot is that the CRE found that Hackney’s housing allocation was racist, in stark contrast to its media portrayal as a “loony left” Council. The Council responded positively and agreed to various improvements including ethnic monitoring, something which is standard practise now.

Some of the more readable excerpts are below:


Research has shown that ethnic minorities have been widely discriminated against and disadvantaged in the public housing sector. The Commission therefore decided at an early stage in formulating our strategy on housing to initiate a wide-ranging investigation into the public housing sector. An important part of this work was to establish the extent to which ethnic minority disadvantage in public housing was the direct result of discrimination, as distinct from the indirect effect of local authority allocation polices and practices. Hackney, as an inner-city area with a large ethnic minority population, was considered to be a suitable and representative borough on which to concentrate a comprehensive investigation of the causes of such discrimination and disadvantage.

We embarked on a formal investigation into the allocation of council housing in the London Borough of Hackney in May 1978. Our terms of reference, which were drawn up under Section 49(3) of the Race Relations Act 1976, were as follows:

To inquire into the allocation, disposal and management of local authority housing accommoda­tion and the provision of housing services and facilities by the London Borough of Hackney by themselves, their servants or agents to the residents of the Borough with particular reference:

(a)    to the elimination of unlawful racial discrimination within the meaning of the Race Relations Act 1976;

(b)      to the promotion of equality of opportunity between persons of different racial groups within the meaning of the said Act; and

(c)    to the arrangements made by the Borough pursuant to the duty imposed by Section 71 of the said Act.

Before embarking on the investigation, we held discussions with both Councillors and officials in Hackney and in the course of these the Council proposed an alternative approach to the question, whereby they would set up their own internal housing and race relations monitoring unit to work with us on a cooperative basis, rather than the Council being made the subject of a formal investigation. While we welcomed this initiative and expressed the hope that such a unit would be set up, we nevertheless decided that the investigation should proceed. It was also our view that if we found unlawful discrimination, the results of this type of exhaustive study of one borough’s housing allocations could subsequently be used as a basis for persuading other local authority housing departments throughout the country to develop their own effective equal opportunity programme.

The investigation was concerned with three distinct areas. Firstly, the allocation of patterns of housing cases from the waiting list, transfers, homeless and decant categories, were reviewed over the years 1978 and 1979. Secondly, two poor-quality estates with a high ethnic minority population were studied, in order to determine the factors behind the allocation of tenants to them. Thirdly, the role of the Greater London Council in rehousing a sample of homeless cases from Hackney was examined, also for the period 1978-9. We were therefore concerned with reviewing patterns of allocations for seven distinct populations.

We considered the results of the investigation in September 1982, and provisionally formed the view that the Council had unlawfully discriminated against black applicants and tenants in housing allocations. The basis of the Non-Discrimination Notice, which was subsequently issued and became final on 22 June 1983, was that the Council had been found to have practised unlawful direct discrimination against black applicants and tenants who had been allocated housing from the waiting list, or who had been homeless or decant cases, in that whites had received better-quality allocations of properties than blacks. The finding, in relation to the homeless and waiting list cases, was also supported by evidence obtained in relation to the allocation patterns that had occurred on two individual estates in Hackney.

In order that the borough could comply with the non-discrimination notice, the Commission made specific recommendations. These included:

(a)    the keeping of ethnic records and their subsequent monitoring;

(b)   the setting up of relevant training programmes;

(c)   a review of procedures and practices operated and the criteria used in assessing which applicants and tenants would be offered available property;

(d)  the allocation of a senior official in the housing department, who would be responsible for ensuring the Council’s compliance with the non-discrimination notice and the 1976 Race Relations Act generally.

In May 1983 a final notice under the Race Relations Act was issued against Hackney, the contents of which are attached to the report (Appendix D).

It is worth noting that an important precedent was set in issuing this non-discrimination notice against Hackney Council, in that it is the first time such a notice has been issued solely on the basis of statistical evidence. Until now, findings of discrimination have generally been centred on individual acts of discrimination. The practical difficulty of relying on this approach is that the scope for comparison, to determine whether there has been less favourable treatment on racial grounds, is necessarily narrow. When one finds less favourable treatment there will often be factors present which might appear to explain away the differences on non-racial grounds. However, when large numbers of cases are examined statistically, and less favourable treatment of a racial group is established, and one then examines all possible non-racial explanations statistically, it becomes possible to say with statistical certainty whether they can in fact explain the difference. In practice, non-racial explanations start falling away when subject to this kind of scrutiny. This is the reason why the Commission is insistent that ethnic record keeping and monitoring are essential to securing equality of opportunity, not only in the housing field, but elsewhere. And it is for this reason also that this investigation represents a significant milestone on the long road toward eliminating racial discrimination.

Hackney’s response to our provisional, and then final, finding of discrimination has been extremely positive, and at a council meeting on 22 December 1982, the Chair of Housing Services said:

The CRE has made it clear that what is happening in Hackney is most likely the pattern in most urban authorities . . . The Council should accept the report fully, should implement its recommendations, and should continue to support to the very fullest the efforts of the CRE in seeking to stamp out racial discrimination.

Since then the Council has initiated a number of moves to comply with our recommendations, including the introduction of ethnic records and monitoring, as well as a thorough review of their various housing policies and practices. The final chapter of this report provides a detailed breakdown of the changes that Hackney is implementing in response to the results of the investigation.


Hackney Council’s response

After receiving our notice of the provisional findings of our investigation, the chairman of the housing committee, Councillor Charles Clarke, in a published statement to the full Council, set the tone for the positive and constructive approach which the Council has subsequently adopted in relation to our findings and requirements.

Councillor Clarke said:

I believe that the CRE is setting out on a determined course to establish the secure legal basis which is necessary to fight the racial discrimination that exists in institutions throughout Britain. This is, for example, the first formal investigation by the CRE into public housing. They have made it clear that what is happening in Hackney is most likely the pattern in most urban authorities and hence the study’s importance is not only for this borough but for the whole country. It is for that reason as well as for our own purpose in ensuring that discrimination can no longer take place in our own housing policies that I believe that the Council should accept the report fully, should implement its recommendations and should continue to support to the very fullest extent the effort of the CRE in seeking to stamp out racial discrimination.

The Council during 1983 begun to initiate new policies and procedures and to set up the relevant systems to comply with the requirements of our non-discrimination notice. In response to our requirements the Council informed us of their proposed plans and time-scales in the middle of 1983. The brief details of these are:

(a) The Council had already decided in principle to record the ethnic origin of those seeking or receiving all Council services in December 1982. As far as allocation of housing was concerned, a pilot project was conducted in the middle of 1983 and a comprehensive system was introduced in the latter months of the year. The ethnic question itself is part of the normal application forms filled in by applicants and tenants themselves. A detailed method of assessing the quality of accommodation was also devised during the same period. Hackney hoped that the monitoring system would be operational by the end of 1983 and that the first significant results would then be available, from which further policy issues on methods of allocation could be considered.

(b) Training programmes were introduced during 1983 with an initial emphasis on those staff who were involved in the allocation process. Further plans were made to introduce training on race relations awareness for housing staff generally.

(c) A new post was created at senior managment level, the purpose of which is to monitor progress on race relations in the department and to ensure that CRE requirements are complied with by the Council. This officer is also responsible for a review of the procedures and processes of the allocation system in order to ensure that they are not discriminatory, in the light of our results. This officer will also be responsible for subsequent analysis of the results of Hackney’s own ethnic monitoring system.

The Council has also established a special panel composed of members and representatives from voluntary groups representing tenants and ethnic groups, and this is a sub-committee of the housing services committee. While its immediate task was to co-ordinate the Council’s response to our non-discrimination notice and to take necessary action, the panel has subsequently expanded its terms of reference to include such important areas as personnel issues, housing management and grants policy. It is the main agency for monitoring the Council’s response to our notice, and all relevant reports are considered by it before being submitted to other Council committees.

At one of its early meetings the panel and members considered that the Council should move at as fast a rate as possible in responding to the issues raised by our notice, and it was hoped that this rate would be faster than our time-scales. 

As mentioned above, the response of Hackney to our investigation has been very positive, and given the Council’s current commitment to the eradication of racial discrimination within the housing department, and the introduction of constructive initiatives in relation to race and housing, we would hope that the department will in future become a model as an example of good policy for other departments throughout the country to follow. We also note that the types of policies on race relations being introduced within the housing department are also being introduced in the other directorates throughout the Council.

The nature of the investigation, and the detailed examination of the wide range of factors which had to be taken into account before any conclusion that unlawful discrimination was occurring could be reached, underlines both the complex nature of racial discrimination and the difficulty of proving its continuing existence. It would have been virtually impossible for any individual housing applicants or tenants who believed themselves to have been treated less favourably on racial grounds, to have collected comparative information, even about other housing applications being dealt with at the same time as their cases. It would have been just as difficult for them to establish the foundation for a case which would satisfy a county court.

As Councillor Clarke stressed in his statement to the Council on 23 December 1982, we do not believe that Hackney is in any way unique; where other local authorities have undertaken less detailed internal studies of housing allocations, for example in Islington, Lambeth, Lewisham and the GLC, the types of patterns which emerged were similar to those we found in Hackney. We shall, therefore, over the coming months be discussing this report with other local authorities with a view to persuading them to also monitor their housing provision, without the need for concrete proof of the kind we found in Hackney. This will ensure that black people are being treated equally and, where they are not, that changes are introduced.

Squatting history walk in Hackney, July 17th

I heard about this via the nice people at Past Tense.

Hidden Histories: Common land and squatting in Hackney

A walking tour of central Hackney revealing the histories of common land use and squatting over the centuries.

Sunday 17 July 2pm

Meet at 2pm outside the Lido on London Fields.

The walk will last about 2 hours, followed by a picnic in London Fields

All welcome!


Workers’ Playtime on the death of Colin Roach and “community policing”, 1983

“Workers Playtime was a short-lived libertarian paper that ran to ten issues between 1983 and 1985 before, as is so often the case with libertarian papers, folding.”

London Under Six Foot of Blue Sewage

The abortive attempt by the filth to hunt down David Martin using a process of elimination made visible the new style of London policing. The novelty doesn’t lie in the botched assassination of Stephen Waldorf. That’s only causing a stir because the wrong person was taken out (middle-class, clean record, influential friends).

On the contrary the record of the police in using firearms ‘solely to deal with threats to their own lives or to the lives of others’ is well known – from the India House killing of two youths waving toy guns in 1973 (by a then unknown squad called the SPG), through shooting armed robber Michael Calvey in the back in 1978, to the murder of Gail Kinchin as she was being used as a human shield by David Pagett, who’s now doing 12 years for her manslaughter.

No, the novelty lies in the image of responsibility to the community the police are concerned to show. This concern is born of a shrewd appraisal of the political forces (left and right) who are mustering for a reform of the Met imposed from the outside. It picks up on the rhetoric of the Scarman report as a defence against any change in direction except for where the police themselves want to go. So the day after the Waldorf shooting Kenneth Newman apologises (!), an enquiry is set up, and two of the hit squad are immediately charged, one with attempted murder.

Of course nothing has really changed. The inquiry is an internal one and ‘Wyatt Earp’ and ‘Bat Masterson’ still only face the inhuman barbarity of aquittal or even a year or two in an open prison. But better relations with ‘the community’ are clearly seen as the key to alioiding trouble through giving an image of responsiveness. A more blatant illustration of this process in action can be seen in the events in Stoke Newington the week of the Waldorf shooting.


On January 12th, Colin Roach, 21, unemployed, black, asked a friend to drive him over to Stoke Newington High Street to visit his brother. The friend now says he seemed ‘petrified’. On the journey he talked about someone who was going to kill him. He watched Colin get out in the High Street and then walk into Stoke Newington police station. Concerned, he went to get Colin’s father who lives in Bow. His concern was justified – as Colin walked into the front entrance of the sty a sawn off shotgun was pushed into his mouth and he was blown away. The police claim he did it himself.

His friends insist that though he was worried about something following his release from a three month jail term a week or two before, he wasn’t suicidal nor a suicidal type. He’d spent the day normally enough visiting friends, buying parts for his car etc. Relations between police and community in Stoke Newington are founded on total distrust and mutual loathing. This was reinforced by what happened after the shooting. Colin’s father arrived at the station not yet knowing about his death. He was questioned for three hours (as ‘part of the process of identification’) and a statement was taken from him before he was told. He was then asked if he wanted to telephone his wife to break the news to her! He declined, so the police thoughtfully drove him home, taking the opportunity to search part of the house, and helped him calm down Colin’s mother, who became ‘terribly distraught’, by having a policewoman physically restrain her.

The following day the family were refused permission to see the body. So far just an-other example of the sensitive policing Stoke Newington’s used to. It met with what’s increasingly becoming the typical response.

Two nights later a large crowd gathered outside the police station to demonstrate their anger and dissatisfaction. A `violent confrontation’ ensued in which two police were injured. So eight people were grabbed and awarded the usual package of charges. The local ‘community relations’ industry began to work overtime. Hackney CRE called for a public enquiry into the incident, Hackney Black People’s Association for one into local policing. Local councillors and left MP Ernie Roberts started making noises.


In an attempt to defuse the situation the police called on new style ‘public accountability’. A meeting of ‘community leaders’ was called the next day. Police gave their account of the incident, including a post-mortem report which supported their argument that Colin had shot himself. Local police commander Bill Taylor said the police had called the meeting to be ‘as open and helpful as we can’, to ‘allay misunderstandings’. He was ‘challenged’ by community activists and leaders though attempts to go ‘too far’ were stifled by local MP Clinton Davies, who insisted all contentious issues should be left to the inquest.

The community leaders left boldly asserting that ‘several questions still needed answers’. Clearly unimpressed by all this local youth staged another demonstration outside the police station two days later (17th). Police eventually launched a baton charge, making 19 arrests. The crowd dispersed but remained in the area in small groups for some hours. The same night a public meeting at Hackney Black People’s Association formed a Support Committee for the Roach family. Support was promised from both Hackney Council and GLC police committees.

A march from the town hall to the police station was arranged for the following Saturday. The march attracted 500 people who observed a two minute silence outside the police station. The stewards’ calls for a peaceful demonstration were ignored by a part of the crowd. ‘Scuffles’ broke out as the demonstration dispersed. Perhaps coincidentally a jeweller’s shop window was smashed nearby and several thousand pounds worth of stock taken. A large group of youths ran down Stoke Newington High Street breaking windows. In the subsequent fighting two police were injured and 22 people arrested.


The different levels of response throughout this affair indicate the reality behind the current debate about ‘police accountability’. At one level a sizeable section of the community’s automatic response was to assume the police had murdered him. In this police/community relations in Stoke Newington are exceptional only in degree, and in the fact that a series of incidents of ‘insensitive’ policing have brought matters to boiling point.

Above this discontent exists the layer of voluntary, welfare and community groups who make it their business to ‘represent the community’. In this case they have been united in attempting to focus discontent into an official inquiry of some sort. (As opposed, for example, to investigating and publicising the facts for themselves.) Beyond this their activities are restricted to issuing press releases and being present when any opportunity presents itself to ask ‘searching’ questions in public. This situation isn’t necessarily improved by the formation of a support committee. All too often in the past similar committees have become nothing more than scenes of faction fighting between competing politicos for whom such committees offer another public ‘forum’ for them to perform in.


The death of Colin Roach occurred as the ‘debate’ over the Metropolitan Police reached a new stage. After a succession of scandals – corruption, royal security, handling of the riots etc – calls for reform had turned into actual blueprints. The week before Colin’s death the ‘red’ GLC published its own proposals for reform. The report expressed their concern that ‘policing by consent had come under strain’ and that ‘in many areas of London people have withdrawn their cooperation from police activity’. Also that the crime clear-up rate in London was the lowest in the country.

They argued that control of the Met (to be merged with the City of London force), should be transferred from the Home Secretary to an elected police authority, consisting of the GLC police committee (controlling finance), and police committees in each borough deciding on policy and operations in consultation with local police commanders. This control would be strictly limited, however. National policing functions (royal and diplomatic security and computer and intelligence services, including Special Branch) would be hived off and placed under the control of an elected national authority. And most policing decisions ‘would continue to be made by the professional on the ground’. ‘However, those decisions would be made under authority from the police authority, a delegated authority which could be recalled, limited or extended at any time’.

This string of left cliches was expanded on by Paul Boateng chairman of the GLC police committee. The new police authority might have to be consulted about ‘controversial’ policing operations (SWAMP style operations, mass evictions etc). But it would ignore the local police commander’s advice at its peril and would be answerable in court for any failure to uphold the law. The aim was to ‘provide the framework for a new improved relationship between the police and the public’. For Boateng the problem isn’t so much corruption and brutality as ‘inefficiency and poor management’. too little communication and discipline in the force and overconcentration on ‘reactive’ policing. The GLC’s plan, on the contrary, is seen as a move towards preventive policing.


What it boils down to, in fact, is an-other layer of local government patronage, with more highly paid ‘jobs for the per-sons’. The new committees would assist the police in those areas of policing where community relations are likely to be a problem. The illusion of public control would be created, and having helped pre-vent ‘abuses’ and ‘insensitivity’, the police would be left better able to deal with the real problems of law and order. While quite happy to use oppositional rhetoric and the discontents of minorities (amongst whom they are pursuing votes) this is the real concern underlying Labour Party calls for police reform. This is an election year, law and order is runner up to unem-ployment as a concern of the electorate, and as an article in the New Stateman put it: ‘Any Labour government will come to power in very difficult economic and political circumstances. If it intends to im-plement a socialist programme, it will require the cooperation and not the enmity of the police’.


The week after Colin Roach’s death the Met produced its response to its critics, in the form of a report by Kenneth Newman on the first stage of internal reform. As an example of its attitude to accountability the report itself hasn’t been published, only a ten page resume. This is gauged at the level of public concerns. Extra police are to be moved from the specialist crime squads to deal with street crime and burglaries – seen by Newman as a priority. Close reading reveals that these officers have been released from their existing duties by computerisation and more efficient management. In other words the change is little more than taking advantage of the existing situation.

Similar buckets of whitewash are poured into the announcement that the SPG will from now to concentrate on anti-burglary patrols, together with the local instant response units. Just a new way of saying they will be carrying on with more road-blocks and more stop and searching of ‘suspicious’ people. In a gesture towards accountability each of the 24 police district commanders will liase with police-community consultative committees (the watered down version of Scarman’s proposals as set up in the Police Bill going through parliament), using them as a ‘vehicle for directing over-all strategy’. In other words, the police will ‘take the temperature’ of the local community through such committees without being bound by them.


Newman also gestures towards ‘community policing’ though his vision is of a corporate management strategy involving the community policing itself. So Neighbourhood Watch Committees based in single streets or estates are to be encouraged. ‘I would hope a block leader or street leader would come forward and be a useful contact for the police’. Tied to this are closer links between the police, welfare agencies (teachers, social workers etc) and wider computerisation of information.

Despite all the gestures made to areas of concern this is the heart of the changes. Put plainly, the increased militarisation of the police and the extension of their surveillance of the community is dressed up in the language of ‘community policing’ and ‘accountability’. Right wing critics are met with promises of greater efficiency and managerial control. Left wing critics are met with promises of ‘community liason’ and greater sensitivity. The hope is that like Robert Marks’ new broom’ trick in the early seventies this will deflect criticism for a few years more. Police committees, whether the Met’s kind or the GLC’s, are only a way of extending police control over us by settling the differences between police and our political masters. Like Orwell’s animals in Animal Farm, we’ll find ourselves looking in at them – and looking from pig to man and man to pig unable to tell the difference.


The choice between a ‘socialist perspective on crime’ and a ‘corporate strategy’ is only a choice of what language we use to describe the same reality. The surveillance and repression of working class people, the occasional ‘execution’ of `dangerous criminals’, the harassment of blacks and asians, of youth, of ‘deviants’, the breaking up of sit-ins and pickets. It’s a choice between wasting time complaining to the police or wasting time complaining to the police committee. The truth is that we have even less interest in seeing the Met reformed than the entrenched interests inside it. And the Met is on a loser fighting reform the outside. Sooner or later we will see a bill of ‘reform’ put before Parliament. When that occurs there can only be one sensible response. Against a background of practical direct action, as wide as possible a unity must be built around the demand ‘Kill the Bill’. The task of fighting for a better society – one without police or politicians must begin in earnest.