By Jane West
The Tories have spent the days after the inner city riots tore through London and other cities desperately trying to ward off any responsibility that might attach to their government’s policies for these uprisings. Their mantra to the media has been simple: any attempt to consider the reasons for the riots is in and of itself an excuse for criminality and constitutes a refusal to wholeheartedly condemn the violence.
In particular any suggestion that their policies – cuts, driving down welfare payments, attacks on wages, abolishing the EMA, tripling university fees, unemployment, under-investment in public infrastructure – might be creating the massive discontent that exploded on the streets leads to a frenzy of denunciation.
The Tories are absolutely insistent on this argument for straightforward political reasons. If the situation on the streets can be got under control rapidly, and portrayed as a purely ‘law and order’ issue, then the political damage to the Cameron government may be contained.
But if the violence of this summer becomes attached in the public’s mind to the results of this government’s policies, then the political price for Cameron will be hard to shake off.
The Tories know that the population has still to feel full negative impact of their economic policies, and already the government is falling in popularity. If the public come to believe that not only are the Tories making them worse off, but this will be accompanied by rising civil disorder, crime and violence, then Tory support will crash further.
The very considerable potential political damage to the Tories is therefore why there is an air of frenzy in their media appearances. This was in evidence very clearly in Michael Gove’s debate with Harriet Harman on Newsnight on 9th August. Despite Harman’s repeated and unequivocal statements condemning the violence and criminality involved in the riots, every time she even began to suggest there needed to be a discussion as to what had led young people to behave in this fashion, and whether the cuts might be contributing to social exclusion, Gove nearly jumped out of his chair in agitation and couldn’t let her finish a sentence.
Similarly the Tories refused to back down from an attack on Diane Abbott. In an article in the Independent on 8th August Abbott argued: ‘Haringey Council has lost £41m from its budget and has cut youth services by 75 per cent. The abolition of the education maintenance allowance hit Haringey hard, and thousands of young people at college depended on it. Again none of these things are reasons for rioting and looting. But with these and other cuts in jobs and services, it is difficult to see how areas like Tottenham can become less flammable soon’.
On the basis of this the Conservative Party issued a statement accusing her of using ‘cuts as an excuse’ for criminality. Despite a considerable media furore, the Tories refused to withdraw it arguing that any suggestion that the underlying economic situation might have a role in the riots is tantamount to excusing criminality.
The reality is actually simple. If you treat people as expendable, deprive them of any social hope, unleash police brutality on them, insult large sections of them through a racist media, then eventually they will hit back. And not all the forms and methods of that hitting back will correspond to the nice ordered mass protests the left for example would consider best. This is because the fundamental nature of human being is that they don’t like being kicked around.
The Tories are just too arrogant to understand this as they truly believe that not all human beings are equal, that some are born to rule – like themselves – and others just don’t really count. They think that if you advocate a society driven solely by self-interest, and glorify getting pointlessly rich, then that will be great for champagne swilling bankers, while the rest of society will applaud them from the sidelines and not draw lessons about why a few have got so much and so many have so little.
It was Thatcher who above all created a ‘sick society’, by claiming there ‘is no such thing as society’, urging rampant individualism, and withdrawing the state from supporting social improvement through welfare, job creation, housing and public infrastructure development. But naturally that is not a lesson they can allow to be drawn. So we are condemned to see further social disintegration until such policies are reversed. And no amount of ‘police action’ will succeed in preventing it. Only a more just society will.
But while the Tories and their allies in the media may be able to intimidate some into silence through these methods – especially initially when the public is mainly concerned that the disturbances are stopped and perpetrators caught – in the end the issue of cause and effect is unavoidable.
In reality the cause and effect is totally clear and simple. In the early 1980s, the Thatcher Tory government carried out policies attacking the poor, privatising or reducing government investment in public services, driving down wages and allowing unemployment to rise. The result was a wave of uprisings in the inner cities, driven by the poorest and most excluded sections of society.
Similar policies today are already leading to similar results.
Not only are there clear common causes between the impact of the Thatcher Tory government policies in the early 1980s and the incidence of inner city riots in Tottenham, Brixton and Toxteth and the developments today, but the Thatcher Tory narrative in response was exactly the same then. From great moral high ground all discussion of inner city social deprivation, racist policing or failed government policy was ruled out – to even consider the ‘causes’ of the riots was supposed to be to shamefully capitulate to or excuse criminality.
Then as now, what took place were widespread looting, attacks on cars and other property, and running battles with the police – not tidy demonstrations with clear demands or grievances. Then as now, the greatest damage was done to the facilities in the communities themselves. And then as now, the disorganised, chaotic character of the disorder was used to attempt to delegitimise or ridicule any discussion of the fundamental causes.
But those events are now far more clearly understood as part of the legacy of Thatcherism. The relentless drive to destroy the welfare state, privatise, allow the rich to get richer while the poor went to the wall, and using racist policing to intimidate and criminalise the poorest sections of the population who were primarily black, led to riots, rising crime, flight from the inner cities, crumbling urban infrastructure, and the creation of areas of the country where unemployment became endemic and in some cases still is.
What we have seen in the last week is the beginning of the same process in response to similar policies from this Tory government. The Tories can try to rule out any discussion of cause and effect, but it will be unavoidable.
For example, the same approach was taken to the Irish issue. The 1980s were the time of the hunger strikes and IRA bombing campaign in the UK. Any attempt to suggest that injustice in Ireland might be contributing to this situation, or that dialogue with Sinn Fein might produce progress, was ruled out as an ‘apology for terrorism’. So desperate were the Tories to prevent any discussion of Ireland that Thatcher banned Sinn Fein from speaking on the British media – which led to the ludicrous period when TV footage of Gerry Adams would appear with someone else dubbing his voice (usually someone with an Irish accent – so most viewers didn’t realize it wasn’t really him).
But for all this effort – and the demonising of those like Ken Livingstone who argued for dialogue and reform in Ireland – in the end the reality asserted itself and it was John Major, a Tory Prime Minister, who eventually opened secret talks with Sinn Fein and began the ‘peace process’.
Bipartisanship on anything deemed ‘criminal’ – which is what the Tories are demanding today in response to the riots – was extended from the inner city uprisings, to Ireland, the miners’ strike, encompassing almost any militant protest against the Tory government or even the relationship between social deprivation and crime in general.
This was Gove’s demand of Harriet Harman in their Newsnight spat, attacking her for ‘out of one side of your mouth saying that you are going to show solidarity with the government and with the legitimate forces of order and on the other side try to make partisan points.’
Harman refused to express such ‘solidarity’ with the Tory government, but Gove’s elision is clear: opposing criminality means supporting the government. Examining cause and effect has to be portrayed as supporting criminality.
Tony Blair famously coined the phrase ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ in 1993 describing his approach to Labour policy as shadow Home Secretary. It was a clear riposte to the Tories who claimed to be ‘tough on crime’ with an agenda that was simply about law and order.
Although Blair inflecting the meaning of this away from the socio-economic causes of crime and towards values and up-bringing, and despite the overall political character of Blair, it is nevertheless a formulation of an acceptable approach for Labour.
Labour should refuse to give up this ground in response to the riots and insist that the Tories’ anti-poor, pro-rich policies that are already destroying the stability of our inner cities are placed in the spotlight. It will not take long before this is accepted wisdom. Any survey of the international media will show that this already the case beyond Britain’s shores, where the political stakes are not disrupting an objective assessment.
The events that took place in the last few days – following the student protests of last Autumn and the size of the TUC demonstration in March – are signs of the deepening impact of austerity and cuts on different sections of society. Labour needs to deploy all these as evidence of how the Tories not only are making people worse off, but are destroying the stability and integration of society as sections are excluded and robbed of any hope for the future.