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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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.