Cameron returns to London after a night of nihilism

Scenes of destruction in London as riots spread to Birmingham and Liverpool.

When Nick Clegg warned of "Greek-style unrest" if a government with only a slim mandate brought in fierce spending cuts, he was widely derided. Not in conservative Britain, they said. But after last night's events, his words now look like an understatement.

In truth, however, it is spurious to draw any connection between the cuts (most of which have not been made) and the nihilistic destruction (as Ken Livingstone rather unwisely did last night) witnessed in London and other cities. In Croydon, a 144-year-old furniture shop was destroyed by fire, with nearby homes also engulfed. Marc Reeves, the owner of the store, later tweeted: "That shop in Croydon is on a street that bears its name: Reeves Corner. Established by my gt gt grandfather in 1867. Now gone." In Enfield, a Sony distribution centre was set on fire, triggering a huge blaze that, six hours on, is still raging.

But amid the destruction there were some heartening scenes. In Hackney, the location of much of the worst rioting, Kurds (some of them former Peshmerga fighters) and Turks bravely defended their shops and restaurants with bats and sticks. A true English Defence League, as one friend put it to me. In a clip that has already gone viral, a West Indian matriarch from the same borough confronted the rioters and ordered them to stop.

By the early evening, however, the rioting had spread to Birmingham, with widespread looting around the Bull Ring shopping centre, and an empty police station set on fire. In Liverpool, cars were set alight as police officers were pelted with weapons, with similar acts later witnessed in Bristol and Nottingham.

As he will know, David Cameron now faces the biggest test of his leadership to date. Like Boris Johnson and Theresa May, he wisely cut short his holiday and returned to London this morning. For Labour, Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman did the same as several MPs called for Parliament to be recalled. In the short-term, we can expect the debate to focus on the police, who, by their own admission were overwhelmed last night. As the destruction mounted, there were calls, including from liberals, for the police to use water cannon (which would have to be imported from Northern Ireland) and rubber bullets, even for the army to be called in. But speaking this morning, May has already ruled out the use of cannon: "The way we police in Britain is not with water cannon. The way we police in Britain is on the streets and with the communities."

For now, an odd sort of calm reigns as the great clean up begins. But whether or not the rioting continues tonight, the country demands leadership. Will our politicians provide it?

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Our trade unions are doing more for women than ever before

You don’t have to look far to find examples of unions not just “noisily fighting for”, but actually winning better pay, terms and conditions for women.

Reading Carole Easton’s article on women and unions was puzzling and disappointing in equal measure. Puzzling because it paints a picture of trade unions which bears little resemblance to the movement I know and love. Disappointing because it presents a false image of trade unions to women readers just at a time when women need strong trade unions more than ever.

While it is right to say that too little progress has been made in closing the gender pay gap or tackling the scourge of zero hour contracts, it is wrong to suggest that trade unions have been twiddling their thumbs.

Like our friends at the Young Women’s Trust, equality is at the heart of what unions do. This work isn’t measured in the number of high-profile women we have at the forefront of our movement – although we’re not doing too badly there, as anyone will attest who has seen Frances O’Grady, the first female general secretary of the TUC, speaking out for ordinary women workers.  

Trade unions contribute to equality for our 3 million women members every day. For us, that’s about the thousands of workplace reps supporting individual women facing discrimination or harassment. It’s about health and safety reps negotiating for protective clothing and better workplace policies on the menopause, terminal illness and many more issues. Our work is unions taking employment tribunal cases on behalf of women who could never afford the tribunal fees without us. And always, at the heart of everything, our work is about the collective power of workers joining together to bargain for fair pay and decent work.

You don’t have to look far to find examples of unions not just “noisily fighting for”, but actually winning better pay, terms and conditions for women. Several unions have successfully organised cleaners, supported them to take strike action for better pay, and won. The RMT is just one example of many. Unite is busy organising London’s low-paid and often exploited hotel workers. Unison organises teaching assistants, fights for better pay and conditions, and even runs a Skills for Schools project to help TAs develop in their careers. Unison and the National Union of Teachers – both unions with over 75% female membership – organise childcare workers and fight not just for better pay but also for training and development opportunities. Over in the retail sector, Usdaw and GMB are fighting the good fight for their women members in supermarkets and shops, not just on pay but on pensions, health and safety, carers’ leave and protection from violence at work.

Women have much to gain from trade union membership. Male union members are paid 7.8 per cent more than men who aren’t in a union – but women union members are paid 30 per cent more than non-members. A recent EHRC report on pregnancy discrimination found that employers who recognised unions were less likely to discriminate against their pregnant employees.

Yes, it’s true that too few young women are union members. This summer, the TUC and our member unions will launch a new organising and campaigning effort to spread the benefits of union membership and attract a new generation of women (and men).

But starting new women-only unions is no form of progress. That’s where we started out over 100 years ago. Now women workers are at the heart of all our unions, across all sectors. Women’s concerns at work are trade union concerns. And every day we make practical progress towards women’s equality at work through patient representation and negotiation and active campaigning to challenge bad bosses. Young Women’s Trust should work with us to get more women the benefit of union membership.  

Scarlet Harris is women's equality policy officer at the TUC