Friday, September 02, 2011

Guest Blog: The political response to the riots

Jayant Chavda

The year is 1985, and a teenager of Indian origin pesters his parents for over six months to allow him to buy a pair of the latest Adidas trainers with money earned from a paper round to maintain street credibility amongst his classmates at Alperton High School in North West London. Fast forward to 2011, and the person in question eagerly looks forward to receiving a new smartphone even though in technological terms he has only just left the eighties by recently discarding his use of the Sony Walkman. And the moral of this introduction ? Even pretentious, "educated" gits such as yours truly, who affect to rise above the depredations of capitalism, cannot escape the allure of materialism.

So it is any wonder that a minority of the public, who for years have been led to believe by the political and media establishment that the sole purpose in life is to earn and own, took advantage of the opportunities during the urban riots last month to help themselves to a flat screen LCD television or two ? The Prime Minister had no truck with any reflection and analysis of the events. For him, it was "criminality, pure and simple." And this coming from a man who was a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club at Oxford, which regularly trashed restaurants in the city.

Leaving aside Dave's utter hypocrisy, it is easy to see why he wanted to avoid any detailed examination of why people would wish to riot and loot knowing full well that they were highly likely to be caught on camera and subsequently prosecuted. For he would have to account for the disastrous consequences of his economic strategy with severe cuts in public spending affecting youth services and educational maintenance allowances.

He would have to account for why his government has no jobs programme for young people when there are nearly a million of them out of work (20 per cent of the labour force). And he would have to account for the fact that net economic growth in the last nine months has been a pathetic 0.2 per cent despite George Osborne's absurd belief that austerity measures have restored confidence in the UK economy.

Instead of serious thought, Mr Cameron has given us soundbites ("some parts of society are not just broken, but frankly sick"), gimmicks (taking away benefits from those involved in the riots), and red herrings (health and safety laws and the Human Rights Act were to blame for the riots). I am ashamed to share the same alma mater as this balsa wood of a politician.

Thankfully, the Leader of the Opposition took a much more calm and considered approach in his response to the events, and went beyond the easy, populist condemnation of the Prime Minister. In a speech at his old school, Haverstock Comprehensive, on 15th August, Ed Miliband said:

"The politician's instinct, reach for new legislation, appoint a new adviser, wheel out your old prejudices, will not meet the public's demand for real answers and deep rooted, lasting solutions.

"… Why are there people who think it's okay to loot, vandalise and terrorise their own neighbourhoods ? Who seem to owe no loyalty to their communities ? Who think they have everything to gain and nothing to lose from doing this ? The small minority who did this are not one race, one community, one age group. They are British people from Brixton to Gloucester, Croydon to Manchester.

"And to answer what has happened, we have to state the most inconvenient truth of all: yes, people are responsible for their actions. But we all bear a share of responsibility for the society we create. Governments, Labour and Conservative. Powerful elites in politics, business and the media. And all of us - me and you as well."

Mr Miliband was right to call for a public inquiry on the riots in his speech (which the Government eventually agreed to undertake), and he was especially right in re-iterating his call for greater responsibility at the top of society, reminding everyone of the "greedy, selfish and immoral" behaviour of bankers, MPs, and newspapers which hacked phones – "We hear lots of talk now about role models for communities, but what role model has been provided by the elites of our society ?"

The Leader of the Opposition also acknowledged New Labour's failures but did not mention the biggest, which was its inability to reduce the gap between the rich and poor, the fundamental reason Britain remains a deeply divided and unfair society. The likes of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson were only to happy to suck up to the wealthy and powerful, whilst their colleagues (particularly David Blunkett and Dr John Reid) were only too happy to suck up to the right-wing press with "tough" rhetoric on law and order. It was a ghastly era, which Ed Miliband firmly wants to leave behind.

The riots exposed a number of things: the savagely unequal nature of Britain, which has led to widespread alienation; the lack of job opportunities for young people across the country; the rottenness of our political and media establishment with their lazy calls for water cannons and punitive sanctions against the rioters; and the utter inadequacy of our beloved prime minister.

The Leader of the Opposition may not have yet resonated with the public and he may have not have found the correct solutions to the current crisis, which is at its heart a crisis of capitalism, but he is at least asking the right questions. He needs to continue challenging the conventional wisdom in a constructive way, and develop a genuine alternative to neo-liberalism which is now a well and truly busted political model.

Jayant Chavda is a freelance political consultant and a former Labour Party researcher.


  1. Ah yes, RIP New Labour and it's abiding affection for wealth and power. But Mr Chavda has forgotten his role in the big con and his fervent, uncritical support for its main players. What would David Hill say?

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