A tale of two legacies – rioters and Olympians

We need to invest in the future of this marginalised generation.

Each morning on the start of my commute to work , I pass the burnt out shell of buildings that were torched in last summer’s riots in Peckham. A year on, nothing has been done to fill the gap left behind and local residents have become used to the sorry sight of these boarded up shops on our high street. This is in stark contrast to the experience at the other end of my journey to Barnardo’s headquarters near Stratford, where famously billions of pounds of investment have transformed the area into a glittering Olympic Park. 

The anniversary of the riots gives us cause to question what difference a year has made, especially to young people growing in communities like ours across the country today. Of course, sport and the bad weather has dominated news coverage this summer, a marked difference from last August when it was all about whether young people were to blame for widespread rioting. Barnardo’s emphasised at the time that the vast majority of children in the UK are well behaved and credit to themselves and their families.  We now know that only around a fifth of those arrested for participating in the riots were aged 10 to 17. 

Ministry of Justice figures subsequently revealed that many of those children who appeared in court for their involvement were from impoverished backgrounds. Nationally, 64% of juveniles appearing before the courts lived in one of 20% most deprived areas in the UK, and in London 40% were in receipt of free school meals compared to 26% of all London pupils in secondary schools. A report by the Cabinet Office found that feeling like a "lost cause" within their communities was also a factor for young people who rioted.  A further report by the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel talked about “500,000” forgotten families in the England and argued that a lack of support and opportunity for young people contributed to the outbreak of riots. 

With such strong indications that poverty and social exclusion loomed large in the backgrounds of those who rioted, one would have expected that efforts would have been focused in turning around their life chances. Indeed, the rhetoric from government around this has been strong.  The Prime Minister pledged to turn around the 120,000 most troubled families by 2015 and the Deputy Prime Minister’s £1bn youth contract aims to provide subsidised work and training placements for young people. This is encouraging.  However, the continued recession and austerity measures mean the reality is that this a tough time to be a young person. 

Deprivation remains a perennial problem, with a shocking 3.8 million children currently growing up in poverty in the UK.  And it’s not just workless households that are affected - sixty per cent of children living below the breadline live in households where at least one parent goes to work. Unintended consequences of reforms to the benefits system, such as introducing charges to child maintenance payments and changes to the Working Tax credit risk penalising the poorest, hard working families at a time when they are least equipped to handle it.  No decent society should allow children to go without to the extent that it affects their future life chances.

Education has the power to transform lives, so it was disastrous news when recent Department for Education statistics showed that for the first time in a decade the proportion of 16-year-olds in full-time education has dropped. Barnardo’s research has found that since the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance some of the most disadvantaged students were being forced to skip meals just to afford the bus to college. With the number of young people unemployed at its highest for twenty years, we need fast action to prevent even more young people from becoming an unemployment statistic.  That means investing more money so that students from the poorest backgrounds can actually afford to stay on in education and training, and taking seriously the provision and delivery of high quality, tailored support to help the most vulnerable who are furthest from the labour market.

All of which made David Cameron’s outrageous proposals earlier this summer to remove housing benefit from the under 25s particularly shocking.  This would risk leaving many vulnerable young people stranded and discounted the fact that their personal circumstances often mean that they cannot turn to their families for help. It is easy to slip back into the same tired anti-youth rhetoric as we heard last summer.  But we need to mind the message that we are sending to young people by failing to support them out of poverty, or failing to regenerate their communities after the events of last summer. 

Rather than taking the easy option and blaming young people we need persistent and concerted action by government, employers and the voluntary sector.  It means investing in the future of this marginalised generation to raise them up and create a legacy of which we can all be proud.

man looks at notes posted on a 'Peace Wall' on a boarded up window of a discount store in Peckham. Photograph: Getty Images.

Zoe Abrams is a Deputy Director at Barnardo’s.

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.