The Riots: One Year On

12/08/2012 14:24 BST | Updated 12/10/2012 10:12 BST

Chair of the Cambridge Universities Labour Club, Martha Morey, writes retrospectively on the riots that started blazing across England a year ago.

Years ago I read a description of an old political cartoon showing a ladder standing in water, with the rich on the top, the middle class in the middle, and the working class near the bottom. Recession hits and the top says (in a very David Cameron 'we're all in this together' way) 'everyone can step down a couple of rungs to weather this storm'. Obviously it's fine for the wealthy at the top who remain well above water, and even the middle class who maybe get their feet wet, but for the working class there is nowhere to go. In my opinion, the riots occurred when some of the working class (largely young males) not only got off the societal ladder but also started trying to break it down. If you're not on the ladder anymore, if you're already completely under water, it means nothing to you if it breaks; it's no longer a life support providing any benefit to you whatsoever, so you may as well try to tear it down, chop it up and build a raft.

Mark Duggan's death last year triggered events that would fill front pages around the world with images of Britain's biggest cities overrun by fighting, flames and 'feral' youths. However there were more causes than Duggan's death: poor community relations with the police, poverty, unemployment and our materialistic culture, among others. All these causes are symptomatic of one underlying phenomenon--neo-liberalism, the political ideology embarked on by Margaret Thatcher and pursued by each successive government in Britain, especially Cameron's Coalition. The result is an increasingly individualized, marketized, privatized and unequal society rife with social exclusion and alienation, a society where those at the bottom have very little and equally little to lose. Not only that, those same people are also blamed and demonized for their 'failure'--because, after all, 'we're all middle class now', eh?!

The slippery slope that led to such a sorry state of affairs began with Thatcher's political rhetoric of individualism and the economic theories of privatization and market-rule. Since then, our society has increasingly bought into the ideals of individual responsibility--completely and utterly for yourself, and no one else. This ideology serves two functions: it legitimizes the withdrawal of the state from public life and it encourages the demonization of those at the bottom--who are then swiftly locked up because they 'had it coming' by not working hard at school, becoming a single teenage mum or being a 'chav'. The 'they're only hurting themselves' attitude is quintessential of this ideology, and the riots last summer showed why it is fundamentally flawed--clearly they are not only hurting themselves when unquestioningly thrown on the scrap heap. Society gains instability and anger and loses the great potential of swathes of the population who would contribute greatly to the economy and community were they actually given a chance.

The all-pervasive injustice of neo-liberalism for the working class is exacerbated by unemployment, the closing down of youth centres, cuts to healthcare, benefits and disability regulation. The increasing withdrawal of the state from public life and the economy affects everybody but it disproportionately affects those at the bottom, and tries to convince them it is their fault. Neo-liberalism not only individualises but it responsibilises - a toxic mix for those predestined to 'fail' by the state's disastrous 'hand-off' approach.

In a society that puts more effort into criminalising and demonising the working class than supporting it, it is unsurprising that riots like 2011's happen. We are left with two options: fix the cause of the actions or suppress them. The Coalition government has been overwhelmingly in favour of the latter, and any response that aims for this rather than fixing the root cause is doomed to failure: it depends on harsher sentences, greater penalization and thus the creation of greater anger, resentment and hopelessness, all of which breed the capacity and willingness to riots again.

It is particularly frightening not because of the violence or destruction (which, while concerning, is unfortunately not too unusual or particular to this event or time) but because it wasn't an attempt to remedy the ills of inequality, materialism or individualism by those who are disadvantaged by them. It was not an attempt to equalize. Countless accounts from rioters highlighted the desire to out-smart and outnumber the police, and the satisfaction they felt in finally ruling the streets, turning the tables on the people who stopped and searched, harassed, disrespected and insulted them. They did not simply want the police to stop pursuing them, they wanted to pursue the police themselves - it was their turn to be the 'haves' instead of the 'have-nots' in society.

There has been some excellent research into the causes of the riots, but it has been ignored by a neo-liberal government blindly pursuing further liberalisation and criminalisation. Evidence which implies there is a social and remediable cause has been discarded by Cameron, surely to his future regret and certainly to ours. More general evidence, such as that showing the inadequacy of prison in reforming and rehabilitating people, was also clearly ignored in the heavy-handed sentences given to countless young rioters.

There needs to be an effective response to these riots, because otherwise they will happen again. Such a response must be three-fold. The first seems basic but has unfortunately so far been overlooked (by all except for perhaps Ken Clarke): recognising that there was a structural cause. In order to even have the chance of remedying the alienation that led to the riots the Coalition must stop conflating 'explaining' and 'excusing'. With 'soft on crime' being one of the biggest political kryptonite's of the 21st Century, the Coalition must stop pretending that attempts at explanation from many Labour MPs and shadow cabinet ministers are 'soft on crime' excuses for the rioters' actions. The second point must be to see the riots as resulting from culture - not the celebrity or 'gangster' culture as some tried to suggest (most abhorrently David Starkey) but the responsibilised neo-liberal culture of dog-eat-dog individualism. The third and final necessity is a new political ideology and rhetoric based on solidarity, community and groups with policies that correspond in order to support and deliver this.

It is surely clear that the Tories cannot deliver this. They will have read the same evidence as the rest of us (and hopefully more!) indicating the existence of a structural cause and it has been ignored for a year now. This has contributed to their failure to recognise the cause as neo-liberal culture, but even if this was realised, I sincerely doubt it would make a difference considering that they long ago wedded themselves to the ideology. For these reasons they will continue to fail to form a new political rhetoric or any policies with the capacity to mend the damage of three decades of neoliberal governments. They will not remedy it because they do not want to separate from the ideology they wedded themselves to many years ago so will instead continue to pursue the dangerous and destructive path of suppressing such actions, not addressing their causes.

As a result, it is one year on from the riots and I feel no more reassured about the state of Britain than I was then, because the riots showed three things: that the young men and women who rioted were willing to behave in that way and do those things; that the rest of society is happy to punish them with excessive and counter-productive sentences; and that the government is willing and able to ignore research and brush whole sections of the population under the carpet. Young people are still unemployed, funding is still being withdrawn from the poorest and most vulnerable communities in society; those at the bottom of our society are still made to feel worthless and hopeless, so the incentive and willingness to riot remains. We need a government that recognizes and invests in the potential of all young people, that realizes the damage done through the media's demonisation of the working class and that celebrates and supports the central role community and collectivity have to play in a successful society. These are values that the Labour Party will deliver under Ed Miliband's leadership.

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