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Memo to left and right: please stop generalising about the looters

The debate about the riots is being hijacked by those who want to push partisan agendas and narratives.

Some on the left -- including Ken Livingstone, Harriet Harman and Seumas Milne -- have been accused of resorting to knee-jerk, ideological, socio-economic explanations for the recent outburst of violence and vandalism in our cities and towns. It's too simplistic to blame the "cuts" or "poverty" or "racism", say their critics on the right. Indeed it is.

But what of the right's own knee-jerk and ideological explanations for the riots? In today's Daily Mail, for example, Melanie Phillips -- who else? -- rails against Britain's "liberal intelligentsia" and fumes about the "feral children" behind this week's riots. The standfirst (not available in the online version) sums her argument (if you can call it that!):

"Breakdown of the family. Single mothers. Soft justice. Drugs. Multiculturalism. Welfare. Educational failure . . . We're now paying the price."

Simple, eh? But as the Times's crime editor, Sean O'Neill, tweeted earlier this afternoon: "The stories coming out of the magistrates courts say very clearly that this is not all about 'feral youth'."

The fact is that not all of the accused rioters and looters are members of the so-called underclass. The Sun says on its front page, under the headline, "Riots: meet the accused":

"Lifeguard, postman, hairdresser, teacher, millionaire's daughter, chef and schoolboy, 11."

The "millionaire's daughter" is Laura Johnson, who is alleged to have helped loot a branch of Curry's. According to the Telegraph:

The 19-year-old is a high-flying pupil who attended St Olave's Grammar School -- the fourth best-performing state school in the country.

She is now reading English and Italian at the University of Exeter.

. . . She achieved four A*s and nine A grades after taking her GCSE exams at St Olave's sister school, Newstead Wood.

She went on to take A-levels in English literature, classical civilisation, geography and French.

While studying she offered her services as a tutor.

Her parents, Robert and Lindsay Johnson, live in a large detached farmhouse in Orpington in Kent. They bought the house, which has extensive grounds and a tennis court, in 2006."

Hmm. Not very "feral", is she? And I'm not sure how she fits into Mel's welfarism/multiculturalism/liberalism narrative? She's been raised by two parents, in a wealthy environment, went to a fantastic school and is now at university.

So can we stop generalising please? On the left AND on the right?

Indeed, as Aditya Chakrabortty writes in today's Guardian, we should have anticipated . . .

. . . how this week's mayhem would be used by the political classes: as a kind of grand Rorschach test in which members of right and left would peer into smouldering suburbs and shopping streets -- and see precisely what they wanted to see.

If you're a left-winger, the causes of the violence and looting are straightforward: they're the result of monstrous inequality and historic spending cuts; while the youth running amok through branches of JD Sports are what happens when you offer a generation plastic consumerism rather than meaningful jobs.

For the right, explaining the violence is even simpler -- because any attempt at understanding is tantamount to condoning it. Better by far to talk of a society with a sense of over-entitlement; or to do what the Prime Minister did and simply dismiss "pockets of our society that are not just broken but, frankly, sick". You can expect to hear more of the same rhetoric in today's debate in parliament, especially from backbenchers on either side.

And then there are the think-tankers and policy entrepreneurs who must scan the daily headlines for hobby horses. At a conference on Wednesday on well-being, in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, Lord Richard Layard opined that the British rioters were "unhappy". In case you didn't know, Layard is the author of a book called Happiness (a new edition is just out).

Offering up a single explanation for the violence and looting that began in one London borough on Saturday and has since spread as far as Birmingham and Salford must be a nonsense.

Hear, hear!

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.