Will Cameron attempt to understand the riots?

In 2006, he said: "Understanding the background, the reasons, the causes. It doesn't mean excusing c

Harriet Harman is normally one of Labour's best media performers but she was badly outclassed by Michael Gove on last night's Newsnight. Her first mistake was to claim that Ed Miliband had been "well received" in Peckham because of his opposition to "the trebling of tuition fees, the taking away of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, the cuts". Her words appeared to imply that the riots could, at least in part, be explained by anger over these policies.

Scenting blood, Gove replied: "Harriet, do you think there are people breaking into Currys to steal plasma TV screens and breaking into Foot Locker to steal box fresh trainers who are protesting against tuition fees or EMAs?" To which Harman rather limply responded: "No. Don't put me in that position", ignoring the fact that she'd done that all by herself. From that point onwards, Labour's deputy leader was constantly on the defensive as Gove demanded repeated condemnations of the violence from her ("Michael. Did you hear that? Did you hear that? I totally condemn it," she said, appearing to protest too much).

Harman's confused performance contrasted with an earlier BBC interview in which she robustly condemned the violence and emphasised that "most young people, whatever their circumstances, do not resort to criminality." But her mistake was not to suggest that we must examine the underlying causes of the violence, rather it was to fail to identify the correct ones. It is absurd to claim that the riots were triggered by the tuition fees rise and by the abolition (or, rather, replacement) of the EMA, policy changes that many of those rioting are not affected by and have no awareness of. But they were a symptom of a profoundly unequal society in which many feel they have no stake. As The Spirit Level pointed out, the most violent countries in the west are also the most unequal ones. Thus, Harman was right to declare: "I don't agree wth Cameron when he says it is simple. It is not. It is very complex. But unpicking those strands is for another day." (If only she had taken her own advice.)

In his short statement outside No. 10 yesterday, Cameron argued: "This is criminality, pure and simple". But while the Prime Ministers' desire not to be seen to explain away the riots was understandable, he must eventually offer the thoughtful, analytical response of which he is capable. In 2006, in what was dubbed his "hug a hoodie" speech (though he never used that phrase himself), Cameron argued: "The first thing is to recognise that we'll never get the answers right unless we understand what's gone wrong. Understanding the background, the reasons, the causes. It doesn't mean excusing crime but it will help us tackle it." Without this, he warned, "we'll forever be dealing with the short-term symptoms instead of the long-term causes." Cameron was talking about youth crime but he could have been talking about this week's riots.

That speech was delivered during Cameron's "detoxifying" phase, before the hiring of Andy Coulson and his swerve to the right. But if he still believes in tackling the causes of crime, rather than merely the symptoms, he must revisit these early insights. His statement to Parliament tomorrow will be the first test of whether he is prepared to create the intellectual space for a more thoughtful debate to begin.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

If the left leaves it to David Cameron, we'll have Brexit for sure

Only an upbeat, leftwing case can keep Britain in the European Union.

After months flapping and hesitation, and with much of the reporting and detail so dull that it has barely penetrated the consciousness of even those who speak the language of ‘directives’ and treaty provisions, the EU referendum is upon us. With David Cameron signalling concrete outcomes for negotiations, we seem to be set for June, whatever the protests from opposition parties about the date being too close to local and national elections.  

Cameron’s deal, whose most substantive element consists of denying in-work benefits to European citizens, exemplifies the kind of debate that Conservative strategists want to create: a tedious, labyrinthine parochialism, blending the EU’s procedural dullness with an unquestioned mythology of the little Englander. Try actually reading the various letters, let alone the draft decisions, that Cameron extracted from Donald Tusk, and the agreement turns to putty in your head. But in summary, what Cameron is negotiating is designed to keep the EU debate as an in-house affair within the right, to continue and formalise the framing of the debate as between two strains of anti-migrant sentiment, both of them backed by big business.

The deal may be reactionary, but it is also mediocre in its scope and impact. The worries that many of us had in the leftwing pro-In camp, that Cameron’s deal would push back freedom of movement and working and environmental protections so far that we would be unable to mobilise for continued membership of the EU, can now be put to bed. Quite the opposite of allowing Cameron's narrative to demoralise us, the left must now seize an opportunity to put imagination and ideas back at the heart of the referendum debate.

The British political landscape in which that debate will play out is a deceptively volatile environment. Party allegiance is at a nearly all time low. Inequality is growing, and so is the gap between attitudes. The backbone of the UKIP vote – and much of the Out vote – will come from a demographic that, sometimes impoverished by the legacy of Thatcherite economic policy, sees itself as left behind by migration and change. On top of the class war, there is a kind of culture war underway in today’s Britain: on one side those who see LGBT rights, open borders and internationalism as the future; on the other side, those who are scared of the future. About the only thing these groups have in common with one another is their anti-establishment instincts, their total disdain and mistrust of politics as usual.

The only political movement to have broken through the fog of cynicism and disillusionment in British politics has come from the left. Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour has unleashed something new - and while large parts of the press, and some Labour backbenchers, have portrayed this rise as a crusade of the “croissant eating” metropolitan elite, the reality is very different. The rise of the new Labour left has given voice to a renewed socialist and working class politics; its explicitly radical, outsider approach has given it traction across the social divides – among the young looking for a future, and among Labour’s old base. 

A politics of hope – however vague that term might sound – is the only real answer to the populist Euroscepticism that the Out campaign will seek to embody. Radical politics, that proposes an alternative narrative to the scapegoating of migrants, has to find voice in the course of this referendum campaign: put simply, we need to persuade a minimum wage worker that they have more in common with a fellow Polish migrant worker than they do with their employer; we need to persuade someone on a social housing waiting list should blame the privatisation of the housing market, not other homeless families. Fundamentally, the real debate to be had is about who the public blames for social injustice: that is a question which only the left can satisfactorily answer.

The outsider-led volatility of British politics gives the EU referendum a special kind of unpredictability. For voters who have lost faith in the political establishment – and who often have little materially to lose from Brexit – the opportunity to deliver a blow to David Cameron this summer will be tempting. The almost consciously boring, business-dominated Britain Stronger In Europe campaign makes a perfect target for disenfranchised public sentiment, its campaigning style less informed by a metropolitan elite than by the landed gentry. Its main weapons – fear, danger and uncertainty – will work on some parts of the electorate, but will backfire on others, much as the Better Together campaign did in the Scottish referendum.

Last night, Another Europe is Possible held a launch meeting of about a hundred people in central London - with the backing of dozens of MPs, campaigners and academics across the country. It will aim to provide a radical, left wing voice to keep Britain in the EU.

If Britain votes to leave the EU in June, it will give the Right a mandate for a renewed set of attacks on workers’ rights, environmental protections, migrants and freedom of movement. But without an injection of idealism and radicalism,  an In vote will be a mandate for the status quo - at home and in Brussels. In order to seize the real potential of the referendum, the left has to approach the campaign with big ideas and demands. And we have to mobilise.