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Demonising the young won’t heal our cities, writes Laurie Penny

It's vital that we resist the easy story of "us" and "them".

The resilience of Londoners approaches cultural cliché. Just up from Camden Lock, on the morning after the worst night of civil unrest in living memory, people were going back and forth with brooms and bin bags, looking for something left to clean. The glass, debris and burning bins from the previous night's riots had already been swept away by the first eager Londoners to arrive. Five women, some white, some Asian, were holding large pink signs reading "free hugs". They had already been to Brixton.

I accepted a cuddle. It was that sort of morning.Across London, an enormous clean-up campaign swept through the shattered boroughs, organised over the same social networks that rioters had used to co-ordinate looting and arson. It quickly became clear that social media, contrary to initial panicked reports, was morally neutral in this crisis. In Clapham Junction, hundreds of people stood together and raised their brooms. Some had come from across the city to show support. The website that had been set up only hours earlier to bring together cleaning campaigns crashed due to a surge of traffic from volunteers.

Elsewhere, stories of solidarity were filtering through over the feeds: of local Jewish and Muslim youths banding together to protect a Stamford Hill synagogue from rioters, of anarchist groups in Hackney putting out fires where the emergency services were stretched. People called their friends to check that they were safe and opened their homes to strangers who had no way of crossing town. This, commentators began to assure each other, was the "real Britain". As I write, no member of the beleaguered cabinet has yet dared to use the term "Big Society".

The narrative being encouraged by most politicians is one of social division: of "us" and "them", of "real" British citizens mopping up after the "mindless" young hooligans.

Party leaders vow to punish looters who, they insist, are engaging in a “pure criminality" with no social precedent. Right-wing commentators pointed the finger at multiculturalism, single parents - anything except austerityand unemployment. Twitter was alight with racist indignation on Tuesday morning, and some people discussing the clean-up urged volunteers to "sweep away the scum". News outlets trying to explain the chaos focused on social media rather than social breakdown.

New broom needed

A clean-up operation is one thing, but vigilantism on the streets is quite another. The impulse to defend one's community is absolutely understandable, and citizens cannot be faulted for organising to patrol their neighbourhoods against arson attacks, but reports of gangs of EDL members yelling racist slogans at young black men in Eltham are extremely worrying. So are the professed liberals calling for water cannon and rubber bullets to be deployed.

Those using the various manifestations of this "fightback" to confirm their own prejudices would do well to remember how the Clapham broom brigade reacted when Boris Johnson arrived to congratulate them on their hard work. Shouts of "this is your fault" and "how was your holiday, Boris?" greeted the mayor, who had only just returned after three days of rioting to "take charge".

He did so by making helpers clear the area and pause their clean-up operation while he posed, broom in hand, for press photos. He then put down the broom and made a hasty exit from a crowd murmuring about closed community centres.

As panicked politicians with little understanding of social disorder fight to reclaim the narrative, it is vital that we resist the easy story of "us"
and "them".Because the truth is that it's all "us". The disorder will continue until we acknowledge that the young people who rampaged through Manchester, Liverpool, Brixton, Tottenham and 50 boroughs of London are as much a part of the "real Britain" as those who nobly came out the next morning to clear the debris from their trashed high streets. The language of "true Brits" defending themselves against a feral underclass is precisely the language of social division that predicated these riots.

Civil unrest is a frightening thing, but more racism, more violence and more young people being demonised will not heal our cities.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 15 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The coming anarchy

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Brawl MP Eric Joyce: Don’t blame me for Brexit just because I headbutted a Tory

The former Labour politician described Corbyn's politics as "quite literally bonkers".

Disgraced former MP Eric Joyce has insisted he’s not to blame for, well, everything that’s happened in British politics since he started a brawl in a House of Commons bar.

The butterfly effect theory runs that if Joyce had not kicked off in Stranger’s Bar one night in 2012, then the nation would look very different indeed.

The fracas, in which Joyce headbutted Tory Stuart Andrew and lamped his own party whip Phil Wilson, led to him giving up his Falkirk seat and quitting the Labour party.

That led to the infamous Falkirk selection fight which saw accusations that the contest was rigged by the unions and the Labour left.

As a result Ed Miliband drew up new rules for Labour membership, which included the option of paying just a few pounds to join and vote in leadership elections.

That allowed thousands to get involved in the 2015 leadership election and make Jeremy Corbyn leader. Corbyn’s ineffective campaigning and failure to deliver the Labour vote at the Brexit referendum is blamed by some for the Leave victory. And as a result of that Nicola Sturgeon is champing at the bit for another independence referendum and this week Theresa May called an early general election to essentially set up a five-year Brexit parliament.

“It’s quite a nice theory,” admits Joyce. “And on one level it’s factually true. But much as I like to self-aggrandise myself, if it hadn’t been Falkirk it would have been somewhere else.

“People were saying to me that the left were making a big push in Paisley to get rid of Douglas Alexander, then my thing came along and they made their stand in Falkirk rather than Paisley.

“Until that point I’d had running battles with the left, but I battered them down every year.”

After Joyce left Labour, Karie Murphy, now a key figure in Corbyn’s office and inner circle and close to Unite boss Len McCluskey, tried to win the nomination to replace him. But questions were raised about the role of Unite in the process and it was claimed that locals had been signed up to the party without their consent. As the scandal grew, then-Labour leader Miliband announced his fateful reforms to party membership in an effort to draw a line under it. (Labour later cleared Unite of any wrongdoing). 

Joyce told me: “Ed was very weak with the left and he had this terrible gullibility. If it hadn’t had been Falkirk the same issues would have surfaced somewhere else.”

He has largely kept his head down since stepping down from Parliament two years ago, other than the occasional blog on the state of the Labour party or the issue of Scottish independence – which he now supports. He’s canned plans for an autobiography but claims he’s adapted some episodes from his life for a thriller instead.

However, in this rare intervention he’s scathing about Corbyn and also about the moderate Labour MPs who oppose him.

He said: “Jeremy Corbyn’s politics are quite literally bonkers.

“When I was an MP I took a lot of interest in Africa. I used to do quite a lot of stuff with Jeremy, he was really engaged and he just stayed behind the scenes focusing on his constituency and his issues. Then occasionally he’d make these bonkers speeches and I’d stay away.”

But he claims the current crop of MPs don’t have the skills to deal with the Corbynista tide.

The former soldier explained: “When I got selected I treated it like a campaign, I located in the constituency, contacted everyone, eventually I got selected, and when the left put their head above the parapet I knocked them down.

“A lot of current MPs got where they are by patronage, they’ve not had to fight battles, they’ve been special advisers. And when it came to Corbyn they weren’t able to carry their local party.

“Politics is all about numbers and organising. And while the Blairite bits of Labour write articles for Progress and tweet, the left just go and get the numbers.”

No longer a member, but describing himself as a Labour supporter, Joyce, an MP for 15 years from 2000, is gloomy about his former party’s prospects.

“It’s hard to see Labour in power before 2025, if ever," he said. "There was no coup, Labour had a nervous breakdown.”

James Millar is a political journalist and founder of the Political Yeti's Politics Podcast.

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