Did anarchists torch Tories’ Hackney HQ in 1987?

1. What Happened?

The building in question was 27 Stamford Hill, which is now a posh nursery. It caught fire in the early hours of Wednesday 3rd June 1987, eight days before the general election.

The blaze severely damaged the three storey building used by Hackney North and Stoke Newington Conservative Association.

The fire started at at about 3 o’clock this morning and completely wrecked the second floor and the roof. Scotland Yard say traces of petrol were found on an internal staircase leading to the basement. Fire investigation officers are now sifting through the debris for more clues.

The Conservatives say valuable computer equipment was lost as well as 45,000 letters containing election literature that was being sent out to voters. They say they have received threats before.

Thames News – transcript of clip above. Reporter Christopher Rainbow

Chairman of the Conservative Party, Norman Tebbit arrived later that day for a press conference outside the building. He remarked on the wider context of anti-Tory violence during the campaign:

Not far from the gutted building in Stoke Newington is a billboard poster which someone has tried to burn down – and four vans displaying Tory posters were set alight near Vauxhall bridge four days ago.

Inspector Peter Turner went on:

A mob of youths damaged cars bearing Conservative stickers outside Stoke Newington Assembly Hall in nearby Church Street earlier in the evening. But we are not linking the two attacks at the moment.

The Gazette also noted that the Fire Brigade had evacuated women and children from the council-run hostel for single mothers next door.

2. Who was Oliver Letwin and how did he end up in Hackney?

Thatcher with Letwin (right, front)

Letwin was born in London in 1956. His parents were conservative academics. He went to Eton and then Cambridge University. After a few years of academia, he joined Margaret Thatcher’s Policy Unit in 1983.

It was Letwin who recommended that the hated Poll Tax be road-tested on Scotland before being inflicted on the rest of the population. (Hackney had its own Poll Tax Riot in 1990 and was number one for non-payment at one point.)

In 1985 he stated (in private correspondence only recently released under the 30 year rule) that the Broadwater Farm riot happened, not because of endemic police racism and poverty, but because of “individual… bad moral attitudes” – and that this was the reason black people were apparently more likely to riot than white people. Therefore these areas should not be invested in as this would “subsidise Rastafarian arts and crafts workshops” and black “entrepreneurs will set up in the disco and drug trade.”. He has since apologised for this.

Letwin is a career Conservative who more recently worked as an advisor to David Cameron, where he distinguished himself by being photographed throwing away more than 100 secret government documents in public bins in St. James’s Park.

I’ve not been able to find out how Oliver Letwin came to be selected as a Conservative Party candidate in 1987. He mentions in his autobiography that he left Downing Street the day he was selected, but he doesn’t say how that happened. What had Letwin done to piss people off so much that he was given one of the unsafest constituencies in England? Journalist Terry Coleman followed him around on the campaign trail: “In the streets a few people yelled at Mr Letwin to fuck off”. The Independent mentions that “he was chased down the street by a knifeman“.

3. What about the election?

Terry Coleman’s book Thatchers Britain is a travelogue covering the 1987 election. The chapter on Hackney is interesting for a number of reasons, but one of them is that Letwin’s voting base featured two distinct demographics. The first were orthodox Jews in Stamford Hill (where Hackney’s sole Conservative councillors are today). The second were people who would usually vote Labour but weren’t going to this time because of the party’s new candidate – Diane Abbott: “‘You see the colour of my face?’, said one elderly white man. ‘That’s where I’ll be voting'”.

Abbott and the SDP-Liberal Alliance candidate both condemned the arson attack in the Hackney Gazette. These two clips show that a few days after the fire there was also vandalism against the Labour Party HQ and that of… Red Front.

The upper clip includes a classic Letwin gaffe: “I’m afraid it’s a very unpleasant place” [awkward pause] “to be campaigning”.

(Lefty trainspotter aside – Red Front was a brief electoral alliance between the middle class academics of the Revolutionary Communist Party and ultra-workerist anti-fascists Red Action. There is an excellent piece about Red Front at New Historical Express. Red Action have cropped up here previously because one of their members who lived in Stoke Newington was convicted for the 1993 IRA bomb attack on Harrods.)

Photo by Chris Dorley Brown on Flickr

The outcome of the 1987 election in Hackney North and Stoke Newington was definitive. Diane Abbott won with a 7,678 majority. She therefore became the first black woman to be elected to House of Commons and has remained in post ever since. Red Front got 228 votes.

4. So Whodunnit? (aka Wild Speculation)

As far as I’m aware nobody was ever charged with setting the fire, which has lead to some imaginative theories about the identity and motivation of the culprit.

Norman Tebbit was first out of the starting blocks at the press conference in front of the smouldering ruins:

One can only assume if it is arson it was an outrage perpetrated by the extreme Left. I don’t know whether by members of the Labour Party, or the SWP (Socialist Workers Party), or anything else. But what I do know is that all of us in democratic parties would deplore this sort of thing. I’m sure Mr Kinnock would deplore this extremely vigorously. I recollect his vigorous denunciation of violence during the coal strike.

Terry Coleman – Thatcher’s Britain: a journey through the promised lands (Bantam, 1987)

But there were much more dramatic suspects to point the finger at:

There was no real evidence of who did it. But just down the road, Anarchist posters were pasted on the walls. One said “Never Trust A Politician. They Always Lie”. Another, which showed a Rolls Royce being bashed in, said “Let’s Kick Out The Tories? Let’s Kick Them In”.

Terry Coleman – Thatcher’s Britain: A Journey through the Promised Lands (Bantam, 1987)

It’s undeniable that there was a huge counterculture of squatting and anarchist and animal liberation activism in Hackney throughout the 1980s. The account of the fly-posters seems real and people I have met reminisce fondly of consistent low level acts of violent subversion against Barclays Bank (hated for its investment in Apartheid South Africa), butchers’ shops etc. But glueing locks and a bit of fly-posting is several notches down from an arson attack on a major political party during an election, you’d think?

Letwin himself doesn’t hold back from speculating about the culprits in his autobiography:

As I came the next morning to the point on the road outside the headquarters, I could see that there was something wrong. Gradually, I focused on the fact that what was wrong was the headquarters building itself. Not to put too fine a point on it, the building wasn’t there any more. It- and all the hand-addressed election manifestoes within – had been burned to the ground.

It was considered to be a case of arson, and it seemed at least possible that whoever had done it might have been associated with, or perhaps inspired by, a now defunct organisation known as Class War. Class War (though not directly participating in the election on the grounds that elections were bourgeois conspiracies) had been campaigning actively under the perspicuous slogan “We will bomb, blast and burn every bourgeois out of Hackney”.

Oliver Letwin – Hearts and Minds: The Battle for the Conservative Party from Thatcher to the Present (Biteback Publishing, 2017)

It’s also undeniable that Class War were all over Hackney in 1987. Indeed, the edition of the Hackney Gazette which has the fire as its cover story also features, coincidentally, a full page article on Class War and its anti-yuppie campaign. Which itself raises an interesting issue with Letwin’s accusations above.

The language in Letwin’s quoted Class War slogan is a bit off – and I have not been able to find a source for it other than his book. Class War was infamous for its “tabloid” approach to propaganda and its unlikely that they would have used the word “bourgeois” – directing their bile instead at yuppies, cops and the rich. Similarly “bomb, blast and burn” seems like an incitement to individual terror that was out of step with the organisation’s fetishism for collective working class violence (like rioting) – and their understandable desire not to get nicked for incitement.

Also, oddly for anarchists, Class War did actually stand a candidate in the 1988 Kensington by-election – and more recently put up seven candidates in the 2015 general election.

I remain unconvinced that “people associated with” Class War in particular, or non-specific anarchists in general, burned down the Hackney Tory HQ in 1987. I think that’s a bit of neat scapegoating and misjudges the often wide gap between insurrectionary propaganda and actual anarchist deeds. Mind you, I doubt there were many anarchists who were upset by it at the time.

Just as plausible non-anarchist options:

  • Far right? Letwin is Jewish and as we have seen, ten years earlier fascists were trying to burn down Centerprise.
  • Disgruntled party activist? Being a Hackney Tory must bring its own tensions and internal disputes and who I am to discount an “inside job”?
  • Criminal/insurance? The front cover headline of the Hackney Gazette the week after was “Man Dies In Shop Blaze” which the paper feels could have been part of “a string of arson attacks” on empty shop properties in Dalston.
  • One of the countless victims of eight years of Thatcherism? The circle of suspicion would be quite wide in an increasingly impoverished borough, where Tories are told to fuck off in street or chased by knife-wielding assailants.
  • Spycop? Now, hear me out on this one! We know that Hackney was infested with Spycops in the 1980s and 1990s. Just six weeks after this fire, Spycop Bob Lambert was involved with an arson attack on a Debenhams store in Harrow as part of his infiltration of animal rights groups.

Short of a deathbed confession, it is unlikely we will ever find out…

With thanks to the lovely staff at Hackney Archives.

Hackney Heckler issue 12, January 1993

This is the last issue of the Heckler from this era that I have – can anyone confirm it was the last one produced?


CRACKPOT
By Dee Campbell

The venerable Guild of Fine Powder Purveyors has been rocked to its core by corruption allegations concerning some of its members in a north London branch. As many as 25 dealers in Stoke Newington are alleged to have been involved in policing.

“DEALER X”

Suggestions that dealers have given information to police officers are nothing new, but the Guild is currently investigating allegations that go much further – one dealer is alleged to have been earning as much as £2,000 a month as a police officer. The dealer, who can only be referred to as “Dealer X” for life insurance reasons, was named in the confession of self-styled “honest cop” PC Dick Sonofdockgreen.

The self-confessed “woodentop” claimed he saw Dealer X:

– Arresting people
– Giving evidence
– Drinking with known “officers”
– Wearing a brown leather jacket, blue jeans, and new white trainers.

Mr. Bigg, the Guild’s president told us that an investigation, code-named “Operation Crackpot”, has been ongoing for 18 months. However, Roy Nark, head of Stoke Newington’s Guild Branch denied there was any truth in the story: “These allegations have been made by self-confessed police officers – they are absolute rubbish”. Admitting the investigation had lowered morale amongst the area’s dealers, he said, “How can my men provide a service to the public with this hanging over them, knowing every time they make a sale they may be accused of being police officers”.



COVER-UP

Hugh Sless, the civilian member of the Pushers Complaints Authority (P.C.A.) overseeing the investigation, said: “I am absholutely determined there musht be a cover-up, the truth musht not come out. Theshe are sheriously allegationsh and if we find anyone ish guilty of being a witnesssh to them, we musht put them
away for a long time.”

A World Inaction investigation into the scandal will also throw light on the role of a young mother from Stoke Newington, Diane Abbott, who has allegedly been operating as an MP for 5 years. Shocked neighbours told them, “We had no idea, she seemed so nice. We got a bit suspicious when she paid her Poll-Tax, and there were a lot of foreign trips – but we thought she was just running drugs”.

Speaking through a solicitor Ms. Abbott told them: “Politicians are scum; as a local woman with a young child I know only to well how concerned parents are about the menace posed by MPs. I shall certainly sue, I have never represented Stoke Newington at Westminster and I never would.”

NEWS

IN THEIR WORDS

A recent confidential report from Mike ‘Cassanova’ Craig made clear the council’s priorities for the next year. In it is the bland statement: “There will be some scope for reducing the staffing establishment in Payroll as a result of staffing reduction which all directorates are likely to be making next year”.

So it looks like compulsory redundancies all around – and the services that we need further down the drain. But there is one area of growth (apart from Mike’s salary). In his words: “I consider that the Audit Inspectorate is the one area within my budget where growth is required“. So lots more investigating so-called ‘fraud’ while services collapse. But the Town Hall bosses can boast of their “drive against fraud” to draw our attention from their continual series of cock-ups.

COMRADES

In the Prince George recently, after a few beers, Councillor Jon Burnell was holding forth about Tommy ‘The Vamp’ Shepherd: “The trouble with Tommy is that he’s go no political ideas beyond furthering of his own career“. Now if Hackney’s labour councillors hate each other so much is it any wonder we hate them too?

OVERDUE

We’ve been informed that Chair of the Leisure Services Committee, Andy Buttress has not been returning his library books. And not from one but three different libraries! We think that it’s about time that Andy returned his books, especially as he has just issued a memo to the hard pressed library workers that stops them from taking out too many library books. One rule for them and one rule for us perhaps? And while we’re on the subject of Andy, he should pay up his poll tax before the bailiffs come knocking again. After all, it’s Andy and the rest his Labour mates constantly ordering us to pay ours.

YES SIR…

Talk about getting down on your belly! Council leader John McCafferty has now had the guts to invite Tory Housing Minister, Sir George Young, to come and speak in the Town Hall at 6pm on January 21st. This upper class toff is best known for his reference to the homeless as, “the sort of people you step on when you come out of the opera”, to which he added, “the Government’ s efforts to help the rough sleeper are a widely acknowledged success.”

The snob will speak for up to 2 hours on the ‘Government’s Urban Policy.’ What policy? Chaos, cuts in road repairs, cuts in housebuilding, cuts in jobs… It’s the equivalent of a butcher speaking on vegetarianism. Knowing full well that local people might like to ask some difficult questions John ‘always-the-democrat’ McCafferty has made the event ticket only.

So, Sir George Young won’t have to answer why the Tories have halved the councils capital spending programme from £79 million to 1989/90 to just £38 million in 1992/3, thus producing more urban decay! And he won’t have to talk about the cockroaches, the failure to build any new houses… and nor will McCafferty. McCafferty is now a great pal of Sir George, having drunk champagne together celebrating the granting of a mere £7.5 million a year, for 5 years, to Hackney under the City Challenge bid. But as we know, what the Tories give with one hand they take back with the other. So in December they announced massive cuts in Section 11 Funding, threatening 300 local jobs, and causing McCafferty to whimper about “the dire impact on jobs and service delivery.” The Tories also told the Council they were cutting the Inner City Partnership programme by £3.7 million in 1993/4, leaving less money for street lighting, cycle routes, making buildings accessible for people with disabilities, etc, and destroying almost all the local summer playschemes.

McCafferty and Co joined in, announcing their very own cuts of £1,150,000 in the voluntary sector, ending the funding of Hackney Under-5’s and Under-8’s, the Pakistan Welfare Association, the Roots Pool and the Trade Union Support Unit, plus imposing massive cuts on Centerprise, the Claudia Jones Womens’ Project, and many others. Sir George Young should be made aware we don’t need his pompous lectures, so this beano will be picketed. And, if you’d have liked to ask Sir George a question, or just want to know why you weren’t invited, you can phone Shan Nicholas on 071 490 1600 ext2262.


NO SIR NO WAY!

An unemployed poll-tax non-payer was recently fed false information when summonsed to Thames Magistrates Court. He’d wanted to challenge his arrears with the magistrate, but in the court building he was directed to Hackney Council Community Charge staff. They said that he could pay £5 per week, making out it was the least anyone could pay. They also used threats that he could be imprisoned.

The non-payer refused, and only then did it turn out that the maximum they can legally take from people on income support is £2.10 per week with a liability order. This wasn’t mentioned in any literature, nor said by any staff, and quite a few people at the court were tricked into agreeing to losing £5, deducted weekly from their dole. Hackney Council again show themselves to be spineless cheats, taking money off the poor. If you are on income support, the most they can take out is £2.10 per week. If you do go to court, make it clear you know this, and stick to your guns.

LESSONS FROM OUR HISTORY
COLIN ROACH

Colin Roach was shot dead in the foyer of Stoke Newington police station on the night of Wednesday January 12th 1983. The police immediately spread false stories that a young black man with a “history of mental instability” had shot himself. Members of Colin’s family were treated with contempt undeserving of grieving relatives. The community responded with two spontaneous demonstrations and a highly effective campaign against police racism and injustice.

Among the Roach Family Support Committee’s achievements:

• organised four demonstrations
• Hackney Council voted against paying the police precept
• trade unions backed a ‘break links’ policy and community organisations refused to co-operate with the police
• exposed the inquest system as a rubber stamp for police explanations for deaths in custody
• commissioned an authoritative report into Colin’s death and policing in Hackney.

The police tried to beat the campaign off the streets. 80 people, including Colin’s father, James Roach, were arrested on five demonstrations within two months of his death. Ten years on the importance of the campaign is clear. The police’s official cover up failed. The community believes somebody shot Colin Roach and the police have to answer for it. It is fitting that on the tenth anniversary of Colin Roach’s death that a centre is opened in his name. It is in tribute to his family and a campaign which represented an important step forward in the struggle against oppression.

INNOCENT

Another worker, sacked in the council’s so-called “crackdown on fraud” has had his name cleared. This time, the council didn’t even dare to go in front of an Industrial Tribunal: They settled out of court, giving the man £5,000 and good references. John Mac-Cafferty, declared “the paying of compensation should not be seen as the council throwing in the towel”. It all shows that the council have (yet again) completely cocked-up and wasted more of our money. More cases are coming up soon, and we expect the workers involved to be totally cleared. Of course, this caring council won’t give them their jobs back. Solid workers’ action could achieve that. And recent strike action has shown people won’t take much more, so there’s hope.

OFF THE BACK OF A LARRY?

We all know corruption is rife in Hackney. The triumvirate running Hackney – cops, local businessmen and Labour councillors – grin at us from the pages of the Hackney Gazette, the non-campaigning paper which doesn’t care. Several people have recently contacted the Heckler with lurid tales about corruption in the council.So, our team of investigators is about to delve into the murky past If you know anything about golden handshakes to Labour Party members,dodgy contracts, employees sacked to be silenced, keys for cash (yawn!), or especially about Larry Lobjoie, get in touch with the Heckler and help stick the boot into the Hackney Council Mafiosi.

Hackney Heckler
NEW YEAR’S HONOURS

Special Team Awards

For Services To Anarchism: STOKE NEWINGTON POLICE “CRACK” SQUAD for their selfless contribution to the breakdown of law and order.

For Services To Capitalism: HACKNEY COUNCIL LABOUR GROUP for their unflinching support for developing enterprise combined with their spectacular destruction of local services.

For Services To Ignorance: To the three stooges of the HACKNEY GAZETTE PRODUCTION TEAM, seeing nothing, hearing nothing and saying nothing, and charging us 28p for the privilege.

International Solidarity Award:  HACKNEY TRADES UNION COUNCIL for sending two delegates to Turkey who met the Mayor of Kartal only weeks after he had sent the police to break up a council workers’ strike, leaving 20 wounded when the police opened fire on them.

Industrial Harmony Award:  HACKNEY JOINT SHOP STEWARDS COMMITTEE for having jointly done nothing at all together to upset anyone, least of all the Council bosses.

For Services To The Anti Poll-Tax Movement:  STOKE NEWINGTON COMMUNITY CHARGE OFFICE for mistakenly giving out the phone number of a squat in Stamford Hill as their office number.

Individual Honours

Services To The Media: DIANE ABBOTT for only ever doing anything if the papers and TV are there to see.

For Long Suffering: BRIAN SEDGEMORE. In over five years he has not once spoken out against Ms Abbott, some say his parliamentary colleague, and also for cycling around every pothole in Hackney.

The Family Values Award: LINDA HIBBERD, Chair of Housing, for rescuing her son and other family members from the bottom of the Waiting List, and installing them and herself in very nice homes.

Unprincipled Trade Unionism: JOHN McCAFFERTY for not letting his membership of the National Union of Teachers hinder the council in sacking teachers.

The Free Enterprise Award:  LINDA BELLOS for taking the redundancy money, and going back to work for the council, doing the same job as a consultant earning 4 times as much as before.

Bloodsucking Chameleon Award:  TOMMY SHEPHERD for keeping his mouth shut when the Stokey Cokey scandal broke, despite having embarked on his political career in the Community Alliance For Police Accountability.

Headbanger Of The Year Award:  CHIEF SUPT ROY CLARK for repeatedly insisting that nothing was wrong at Stokey Coke-shop, and then quitting for criminal intelligence.

Police Flexibility Award:  D.C. ROY LEWANDOWSKI wins for being bent enough to be convicted of theft, charged with V.A.T. fraud, and for supplying hard drugs.

Justice Award:  SGT. GERRARD CARROLL for getting the right man. When he shot himself (if in fact it was he) many people felt safe to leave their homes again.

Milk Tray Award: CHIEF SUPT BERNARD TAFFS for giving chocolates and flowers to a family mistakenly raided by armed police.

Professionals In Publicity- Grabbing Award: MARTIN SHAW for actually speaking to Stokey Cokey about his noisy neighbours, and posing menacingly on the front page of the Gazette.

Extreme Loyalty Award: CLLR. MEDLIN LEWIS for spending a whole year in the same party.

Even-Less-Caring-Than-McCafferty Award:  LORD TOMLINSON for deciding we don’t need Barts any-more.

Three-Bags-Full Award:  SIR GEORGE YOUNG for getting the maximum from the Council with the minimum of resistance.

Brown Trousers Award:  JOHN McCAFFERTY for what he does every time he hears the name Larry Lobjoie.

Hackney Poll Tax Riot, March 1990

Did you know that Hackney had its own Poll Tax Riot, a few weeks before the Trafalgar Square one?

Early Day Motion from Diane Abbott in Parliament:

“That this House notes the urban disorder that took place in Hackney on Thursday 8th March, that at least 38 people were arrested and there was violence and looting and that the people of Hackney are united in condemning the disorder and looting; but further notes that the blame for this disorder ultimately lies with the Government and its unjust poll tax; notes that very large numbers of Hackney residents will not be able to pay this tax; and further notes that in the matter of the poll tax the people of Hackney know who the real Urban Terrorist is.”

Another view:

(was Ian Bone discussing the riot)

Prime Minsiter Margaret Thatcher was asked about the riot the next day when visiting Glasgow:

Questioner

Prime Minister, ITN. Can I just ask you, if I may, your reaction to the events last night in Hackney?

MT

[Pauses]

I’m afraid it’s one of a series which we know are being organised by Militant, as you know. And it is not the way to conduct affairs at all. In a democracy the way is to debate in Parliament, the legislation has been through Parliament, and anything that is intimidatory or violent is absolutely flatly contradictory to democracy. People can demonstrate, of course they can. They should do so peacefully. But they are of course tending to go for some of the councils that are setting very high community charges, as a result of Labour Councils, and some of them … [inaudible] … very very high charges indeed. So they have got something to grouse about, but the way to do it is complain quietly.

Hackney Community Defence Association published A People’s Account of the Hackney Anti-Poll Tax Demonstration on March 8th 1990. This is one of the many things I don’t have that I would like to add to the site.