Tory culture wars are helping to fuel the kind of societal divisions that powered the 2011 London riots, Labour’s communities secretary Steve Reed has warned.
Speaking at the launch of a report to mark the 10th anniversary of the street disturbances, Reed said a “very large proportion” of the young people that got involved in the riots were from marginalised groups who have felt “pushed further away” by the government’s rhetoric.
“If you are yourself more marginalised in society, you will have a lower level of trust and confidence in politicians, in politics, in the police and in public services, and a very large proportion of the young people that got involved in the rioting would have been from marginalised communities,” he told HuffPost UK.
“So building bridges and building trust is key.”
He pointed to the government’s response to Black Lives Matter and England footballers’ decision to take the knee to signal their opposition to racism as examples of where the government has stoked division between communities.
“They [the footballers] deserved the support of the country and of the government, but instead of that, the government implied that they had some sympathy with the people that were booing them,” he said.
“The government got on the wrong side of that, because of the points and the comments that they made publicly, and those communities that are already marginalised would have felt pushed further away.
“If we want to build a resilient and cohesive society, that everyone feels that they have a place, everyone has the same access to opportunity and success as everybody else, but that is not how our country is at the moment.”
He added: “The culture wars the Conservative party has been pursuing are about dividing British people from each other, whether that’s on age, whether it’s on ethnicity, whether it’s on where you live, whether it’s on wealth.
“It’s about putting the country apart, and they do it for the same reason that Donald Trump is doing in the United States, because they perceive some electoral benefit.”
The 2011 riots started when peaceful protests against the police shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, north London, turned violent.
The street disturbances quickly spread across the UK to cities including Manchester, Bristol and Merseyside.
Shops were looted and homes were set on fire in scenes that claimed the lives of five people over five days in August 2011.
A report authored by Reed - whose Croydon constituency was badly affected by the riots - found that 10 years on, the risk of similar unrest has never been greater due to increased cuts to youth services, police and local authority budgets caused by austerity.
It found that the 500,000 “forgotten families” the rioters were drawn from could have now doubled to 1million and that young people still felt a sense of “hopelessness” about their future.
Speaking at an event to mark the report’s launch, Darra Singh, who led the riots, communities and victims panel set up by David Cameron in the aftermath of the disorder, warned that although some progress had been made, the pace of public reform had been slow.
He warned there was now less capacity in the system for “effective action” and early intervention, while a lack of trust between the public and the police remained, partly fuelled by the stop and search of young adults.
Fears have mounted that relations between the police and the public - and particularly black communities - could deteriorate further following Boris Johnson’s decision to make some blanket stop and search powers permanent.
Singh also warned that the coronavirus pandemic put those who were already vulnerable in a more perilous position.
“As we emerge from the pandemic, we should be deeply concerned about those who are not equipped to deal with the impact of covid on their wellbeing and on their prospects,” he said.
“We need to prioritise funding to improve the life chances of young people, to ensure that the cohort...that we were focused on receive the support they require to build the personal resilience and to develop a stake in society.”
A government spokesperson said: “The events of August 2011 shocked the country, and the police and courts took commendably swift action to bring perpetrators to justice.
“We’re supporting families and building stronger communities by investing £500 million in safe spaces through our youth investment fund and championing family hubs to offer earlier help and support to families in need.
“We’re also introducing new measures to protect vulnerable young people at risk of being exploited – including £45 million in specialist support in schools to re-engage them in their education.”