Tuesday, 16 August 2011

What SHOULD be the political response to recent disturbances?

Last week’s riots in a few English towns require a political response. That political response should be considered, sober-minded and far-sighted. Unfortunately, as we have seen in recent days that response, especially from the Conservative Party, has been blinkered, populist and irresponsible.

In place of a measured reaction from the Tories we have had the usual mixture of right-wing and foolishly populist suggestions, including turning Wembley Stadium into an open-air cell, cracking down on social media, removing benefits and council tenancies from those found guilty of certain (often unspecified) crimes, reintroducing National Service and effectively enforcing martial law. The Prime Minister and Home Secretary Theresa May have come across as slightly more sober-minded but, undoubtedly keen to put being seen to be tough ahead of social responsibility, are guilty of perhaps not fully thinking through their ideas.

First, I will deal with Mrs May. Only today she has championed increasing the powers of the police, but seems quite short on the specifics of how such powers can be introduced while cutting frontline police officers. Such a lack of detail, picked on by Labour, is symptomatic of the absence of thought given to the issue. Aside from her failure to address the operational questions, May also appeared ignorant of the issues at the heart of the matter instead using the rioting as a justification for her policing reforms and, bizarrely, budgetary cuts. She made some positive but vague noises about increasing police accountability to the public and providing more in the way of riot training, but her only apparent “solutions” were to expand gang injunctions, make it easier to impose curfews (which have limited effect) and give police more powers to remove masks. The mention of curfews is bound to respond in favourable headlines from the right-wing press, but given that this is in response to the worst rioting for decades it seems remarkably limited in scope.

Furthermore, May seems to have succumbed to the Daily Mail’s “name them and shame them” lynch-mob attitude and announced that she hopes courts will follow “guidance” allowing them to lift anonymity in the case of children. All in all, it was a speech thin on substance other than making overtures to the Tory right on policing powers. Coming from a Home Secretary in the aftermath of a crisis it was appallingly lightweight and even the case for curfews was inadequately made.

I now turn to the Prime Minister. Yesterday, giving a speech at a youth centre in his constituency, he pledged the government would "turn around the lives of the 120,000 most troubled families” within the next four years. Like Ed Miliband, he did well to draw a link between the riots and a deeper malaise - including the conduct of parliamentarians, bankers and journalists, while reinforcing that the riots themselves were not primarily politically motivated. He also recognised that the social conditions in which young people are raised need to be improved if the threat of future such disturbances is to be avoided. “Social problems that have been festering for decades have exploded in our face," he said. "Our security fightback must be matched by a social fightback. We must fight back against the attitudes and assumptions that have brought parts of our society to this shocking state."

So far, so good. But it’s Mr Cameron’s own attitudes and assumptions, expressed elsewhere in his speech, that give me cause for concern. He remains determined to see our nation as “broken” and allows this to frame his outlook and remedies. He spoke of a nation in which “people show indifference to right and wrong” – in spite of the public outrage and the response of many within the affected communities. He talked of a “moral collapse”, which he believes is central to the root cause of the violence, and of his determination to “confront” it. Cameron identified “irresponsibility”, “selfishness”, and “behaving as if your choices have no consequences” as evidence of Britain’s moral decline. He also turned on “children without fathers”, “communities without control” and “reward without effort”(although what he plans to do about the X-factor culture is anyone’s guess).

Cameron believes that the riots are the product of "criminality - plain and simple". Actually, the matter is neither plain nor simple. What the Prime Minister fails to see is that criminality, and the gang culture in key British cities that fuels it, is itself a product a number of social, economic and political factors. He also fails to appreciate that the rioting by a minority of individuals in a small number of English cities – while serious – actually highlighted how determined the moral majority are to rid their communities of this type of behaviour. In Liverpool and Birmingham we saw communities that, far from being “without control”, stood up to the rioters and helped with the efforts to restore order. We witnessed widespread disgust at the actions of the rioters and the scale of greed which appeared to motivate some of them. Here is not a Britain on the brink of “moral collapse”, whatever Cameron wishes to believe for political reasons, but a country that is united in being appalled by recent events.

It’s also blatantly mistaken to present the problem in moral terms, rather than as a product of complex and multiple factors including socio-economic deprivation. Unfortunately in the course of his speech the Prime Minister was dismissive of any link with poverty. Admittedly, it is glib and simplistic to suggest that poverty is the sole reason the riots occurred – but it is no coincidence that rioting took place in areas that appear to have historic predisposition to such expressions of violence; areas which also have more than their fair share of inequality and social problems. Yes, this orgy of destruction was motivated by greed rather than by anger – but that alone is not the whole story. I can not take seriously any Prime Minister – or even an MP – who does not wish to more fully understand the causes of these disturbances. To dismiss out of hand the link with poverty, before the commission has even been established, is both careless and arrogant. Caricaturing the nation as morally bankrupt in a way that would make even the most rampant of Presbyterian ministers cringe is plainly negligent.

To suggest, as Ken Livingstone and Harriet Harman did last week, that the rioting was politically motivated is symptomatic of blindness. To claim issues of social inequality and deprivation, fuelled by decades of government underinvestment, are irrelevant is equally blind.

While I have expressed disapproval at some Labour figures’ cynical and misguided attempts to attach political significance to the rioting, I am broadly in agreement with Labour leader Ed Miliband who drew attention to the differences between his own position and the Prime Minister’s moralising. It is, insists Miliband, irresponsible to play up the “culture of depravity” that Cameron believes led to rioting; issues of social deprivation needed to be considered at the very least as a context. This is a perspective largely shared by the Liberal Democrats, many of whom have used the last few days not only to distance themselves from the Conservatives, but to articulate well-formulated and socially responsible alternatives to the kind of rhetoric being recklessly promoted by our coalition partners.

Firstly, a number of Liberal Democrat bloggers have responded; Lisa Harding expresses disappointment at the consideration to clamp down on social media while the non-aligned Better Nation argues (as do many charities) that proposals to axe benefits and evict those involved in rioting would prove counterproductive and would simply reinforce social exclusion. Chris Sams wrote to Tim Farron and Nick Clegg urging them not to allow further attacks on liberty. I agree with my fellow Lib Dems. What is needed are not knee-jerk reactions, empty populism and easy headlines, but a responsible, sober-minded and socially just new approach towards crime and its root causes. Such sentiments were expressed by Simon Hughes MP who, writing in the Observer, opined that “we should be careful not to rush into kneejerk solutions including over-hasty moves to change the social contract and approaches to sentences which may have the reverse effect to that intended.” Jenny Willott, the Lib Dems’ welfare spokesperson, considered that moves to axe benefits “would turn more to acquisitive crime. I completely understand people’s desire to stamp out the problem, but it is important that we do not make things worse.” Like her, I can not see how making people homeless will reduce levels of violent crime. Enforced homlessness and destitution is hardly a recipe for empowerment. It is a shame there are those in government who refuse to accept such common sense.

More positively is the good sense that Nick Clegg has espoused in recent days. Even the Daily Telegraph’s Mary Riddell, hardly a natural ally of the Lib Dem leader, was supportive of his emphasis on restorative justice (something which featured highly in our election manifesto); in particular, his suggestion that rioters not receiving custodial sentences should take responsibility for their actions and help clean up their communities:

"At last, someone talks sense on crime. Nick's Clegg's announcement that rioters spared prison must clean up their neighbourhoods is the best suggestion so far. Research has established beyond doubt that restorative justice – under which victims and offenders come face to face – works even for serious crimes. I've seen it in action, inside Pentonville prison, in a meeting between a frightened widow and the man who broke into her home and was subsequently jailed. He was sorry; she realised that the monster of her imagining was an inadequate and drug-addicted failure. Her long nightmare ended with that encounter. "

Clegg’s announcement that there will be a commission - essentially amounting to an inquiry - is also positive and will hopefully, if allowed in the scope of its remit, go some way to uncovering the complex problems at the heart of the matter. This is quite a victory for the Lib Dem leader as only last week the Prime Minister personally ruled out an inquiry. This represents a multi-party, non-partisan approach that will allow communities to be listened to as well as bring about greater understanding of the reasons for the scale of the disturbances. Clegg, while clearly promoting restorative justice, was keen to play up the importance of listening to victims and promised funding to allow them to confront offenders who attacked them while ensuring victims are themselves represented on the commission. He also opted for an approach that is actually tougher in practice than anything espoused by the Conservative Party in hailing community payback schemes as the way forward. And while he doesn’t necessarily rule out benefit sanctions he agrees that the government must be careful not “to create unintended consequences where actually the taxpayer ends up giving more, or [where] we create more social problems or problems of law and order.”

The Guardian has, fairly, deduced that “the Clegg liberalism was a bit more meaty than the May authoritarianism.” How right that is.

There must be a political reaction to the rioting, but decisions must not be made hastily and not in response to the prejudices of Conservative back-benchers. Neither should they be made to appease the right-wing media. Instead, Clegg’s commission must be allowed to run its course free from government interference and with a sufficiently wide scope of remit to make recommendations into how the government should proceed in regards its social policies, on welfare and on penal and policing reform. The findings of the commission should not be pre-empted if this is to be a genuine listening exercise.

So what SHOULD the political response be? Clearly, it is in a multi-party, non-tribal approach that allows itself to be informed by the findings of the commission, whatever they may be. There must also be a united commitment to acting on any recommendations to deal with the numerous and complex issues at the heart of the matter. But more importantly it is vital that at this time politicians do more listening than they do talking - and that those dedicated to ensuring the events of the last week are not repeated do not behave rashly or pre-empt the commission in order to justify current policy or provide a populist headline.

The riots have told us little new about British society. We know about the effects of gang culture, social exclusion and material deprivation, as have previous governments. These are long-standing, rather than new, problems. What is now required is for a less piecemeal and target-driven approach to that favoured by the previous Labour government in particular and to adopt longer-term, more holistic solutions while giving them time to work. Talk of an expansion of anti-gang operations and revitalisation of inner city communities should be welcomed as a part of such a longer-term view. On the other hand, reckless discussion about attacking social media and the creation of a virtual police state is both ridiculously facile and unworkable in practice. The harsh "remedies" being promoted by some Conservatives may capture the nation's mood for vengeance and retribution but are unworkable both practically and legally and would potentially jeopardise the coalition.

Clegg emerges with signifcant credit from his performance today, while Cameron and May (particularly the latter) have come across as authoritarian and intellectually lacking. While it is shameful that the riots brought out the worst in a number of British people, it is a tragedy that they have also brought out the very worst in some of our politicians.


Stuart said...

I agree with the idea of restorative justice so long as victims are NEVER FORCED into facing offenders. For many people I'm sure this helps but obviously there will be others who do not want to go down that route.

Andrew said...

Sturat - I would go along with this. I am sure Nick Clegg would not want to see people forced into reliving their past in sometimes very painful ways. It has to be optional.

The below link (from the Guardian website) outlines a number of Lib Dem MPs' views of the Tory reaction: