Poverty isn't an excuse for the riots. It's a reason

Why we must stop ignoring the bottom five per cent in society.

"A form of civil disorder, often characterised by disorganised groups lashing out in a sudden and intense rash of violence against authority." This is the definition of a riot. It's also an acceptable definition of what the country experienced just weeks ago.

On the evening of the riots, I was reviewing the newspapers on television and the language of the media was peppered with hyperbole. "London's burning" and "Britain's on fire", newspapers and broadcasters proclaimed. Politicians and thinkers were almost sports commentator-like in their take on what was happening. Words such as "gangs", "mindless", "punishments", "water cannons", and "rubber bullets" were all used within hours of the riots. This was quickly followed by a recall of parliament, which I attended, and a statesman-like speech by the Prime Minister which was roundly applauded.

I've always believed the future is decided by the "non-discussable", yet the comments following the riots now seem to define what can be said about them. We may live in a democracy where freedom of speech is favoured but, for some reason, it's considered taboo to point out those things that haven't been said very often during the analysis and reflection on what happened. But we must, otherwise any discussion is pointless.

One of the non-discussables is that any analysis of where the rioters came from showed a direct link between them and the poorest areas in the country. These are the same areas that have seen living standards decline over the past 14 years, and which will decline further as a direct result of public spending cuts.

It's become a defence to say that poverty shouldn't be an excuse for rioting. Poverty isn't an excuse. It's a reason -- the same reason that the same social and political pundits would give to explain riots in South Africa and Saudi Arabia.

The second non-discussable relates to punishment; that jailing somehow solves anti-social behaviour and ensures public safety. What, of course, hasn't been discussed is the evidence produced by the government and by previous governments (and endorsed by Kenneth Clarke) that prison simply doesn't work. Instead, it will provide many of those convicted with a masterclass in criminal activity and become a pressure cooker for their sense of injustice and alienation. Many will come out angrier and less educated than when they went in. Take the 11-year-old boy who was given an 18-month rehabilitation order after stealing a bin from Debenhams in Romford. The child already has previous convictions and his extreme desperation is illustrated by his decision to smash the window of a moving bus so he could jump off and escape detention. I'd argue this boy doesn't just need prison. He needs a psycho-social intervention.

The other non-discussable is the context in which the riots took place. This context has been ignored by pundits and politicians, save for those who have pointed out that it's virtually impossible to ignore the example set by the wealthy, including bankers, MPs and peers. Context is important: children need role models who they can look up to and who lead by example. At the moment, this isn't always what they're getting.

There's another non-discussable. It's a convenient and comforting presumption that the riots were simply down to organised gang activity. This presumption provides us, particularly in inner cities, with a ready enemy in the form of young (and let's face it) African-Caribbean men who the authorities can be given complete licence to rout out. The flaw in this theory is that 30,000 rioters couldn't have been organised that quickly by anyone and in that many places. And while it's no doubt true that "gangs" did take advantage of the general chaos to loot, this sort of behaviour is hardly surprising and largely defines any riot. However, the evidence is that these rioters were actually people who are unlikely ever to buy or even rent a house, have a meaningful disposable income, go to college with enough money to enjoy the experience, get a university degree without leaving with crippling debts, or get a job which might lead to a career. The overwhelming problem in engaging the staggering number of Neets (Not in Education, Employment or Training) in a meaningful way is that some local authorities have simply stopped funding any kind of infrastructure for young people.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying "hug-a-hoodie", and it's not that I don't fear social disorder. But the solutions are not beyond our reach, or even beyond our time frame. We must understand that this link with poverty is unacceptable; a link which is known about, tolerated and excused. We must also realise that the job of government in protecting its citizens doesn't just begin and end with creating a police state for the few. It's clear that an appropriate punishment for many of the rioters may instead be found in restorative justice, which confronts those who have broken the law with the consequences of their actions, and educates them at the same time. Housing, health, criminal justice policy, and education are the issues of social policy surrounding the events, and there are two ways to deal with these. Either we ignore them and comfort ourselves with rhetoric and the inevitable follows: water cannons and rubber bullets, and locking down those communities which we fear, whilst making excuses for poor leadership. Or there is another way. We accept that social infrastructure is important. We stop ignoring the fact that the bottom five per cent in society have as much impact on everyone else's lives as the top five, and that the two groups are connected by the same things: criminal justice policy, education, and health.

Of course the deficit is the one thing that we have all been told cannot be changed or managed without the poor. The question in this democracy must surely be: what kind of debt in society do we want to live with, and what kind of debt-free society do we want our children to live in? I have no doubt that solutions exist which mitigate against riot by engaging young people, the poor, the middle classes and the wealthy in new and better ways of building services for the public. I'm also in no doubt that the implementation of such solutions isn't without struggle and difficult discussions. But I don't want to live in a society which comforts itself with the discussible.

Lord Victor Adebowale is chief executive of Turning Point

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Celebrate Labour's electoral success - but don't forget the working class

The shutting down of genuine, constructive debate on the left is the great danger we face. 

In the moment when the exit poll was released on 8 June, after seven weeks of slogging up and down the streets of Britain, dealing with scepticism, doubt and sometimes downright hostility, we felt a combination of relief, optimism, even euphoria.
 
This election broke wide open some assumptions that have constrained us on the left for too long; that the young won’t vote, that any one individual or political party is “unelectable”, that perceptions of both individuals, parties and even policies cannot change suddenly and dramatically. It reminded us that courage, ambition and hope are what’s needed and what have been missing from our politics, too often, for too long.
 
We have learnt to tread carefully and wear our values lightly. But in recent weeks we have remembered that our convictions can, as Jonathan Freedland once wrote, “bring hope flickering back to life” and meet the growing appetite for a politics that doesn’t simply rail against what is but aspires to build a world that is better.
 
In this election at least, it seems the final, anticipated fracture of Labour from its working-class base after Brexit did not materialise. Shortly before the snap election was called I wrote that while Brexit appeared to be Labour’s greatest weakness, it could just be our biggest strength, because: “consider what remain voting Tottenham and leave voting Wigan have in common: Labour… We will succeed if we seek the common ground shared by the decent, sensible majority, and more importantly, so will Britain.”
 
But consider this too. The Tories ran a terrible campaign. It was, without any doubt,the most inept, counter-productive campaign I’ve ever seen in British politics. The day their manifesto hit the headlines, even in our toughest neighbourhoods, we could feel change in the air. Arrogance is never rewarded by the British people and Theresa May has paid a price for it. Yet, despite a Tory manifesto that was a full, square attack on older people, the majority of over 65s still came out for the Tories.
 
And despite the growing relevance of freedom, internationalism and tolerance in an era characterised by Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the Liberal Democrats managed to become bystanders in the political debate. They stood on a platform that aimed to capture the support of those remain voters for whom Brexit is the major question, but neglected the rest. And they quite spectacularly failed to foresee that those who were intensely angered by May’s conversion to a little England, hard Brexit stance would vote tactically against the Tories. Over those seven weeks, they all but disappeared as a political force.
 
As Bob Dylan once said, "the times, they are a-changin" – and they will change again. The recent past has moved at extraordinary speed. The Brexit Referendum, the rise and retreat of nationalism, the election of Trump and his crushing unpopularity just a few months later, the reversal in fortunes for May and Jeremy Corbyn, the astonishing phenomenon of Emmanuel Macron and pro-European centrism, and the dramatic rise and sudden collapse of Ukip. Politics, as John Harris wrote last week, is now more fluid than ever. So now is the time, for hope yes, and for conviction too, but not for jubilation. We need some serious thinking. 
 
We should be cautious to rush to judgment. It is only two weeks since the exit poll sent shockwaves across the country. There is no comprehensive explanation for the multitude of motivations that delivered this election result and will not be for some time. But there are some early indictors that must make us think. 
 
After seven years of austerity, as John Curtice observes, the Tories made some of their biggest gains in some of the poorest areas of Britain. It is something I felt in all of the eight constituencies I campaigned in during the election. While the Labour vote rose significantly in towns like Wigan, so too did the Tory vote, despite little or no campaigning activity on the ground. As Rob Ford puts it, “Labour, founded as the party of the working class, and focused on redistributing resources from the rich to the poor, gained the most ground in 2017 in seats with the largest concentrations of middle-class professionals and the rich. The Conservatives, long the party of capital and the middle class, made their largest gains in the poorest seats of England and Wales… Britain’s class politics has been turned completely upside down in 2017”.
 
To acknowledge the growing, longstanding scepticism of many working-class men, and women, towards Labour in towns across England is not to take away from the hard work and drive of the activists, advisers and politicians that helped to fuel such a dramatic turnaround for Labour during the short campaign. To have won considerable gains in wealthier suburbs is no small achievement. 
 
But if the future of Labour lies in a coalition between middle-class young professionals and the working class, what is the glue that binds? While there is shared agreement about investment in public services, how are those interests to be squared on areas like national security and immigration? I believe it can and must be done, but – as I said to conference when I was first elected seven years ago - it will demand that we begin with the difficult questions, not the easy ones.  
 
Just a few days before the election, statistics were released that pointed to a collapse in trade union membership. What does the decline of an organised Labour movement mean for who we are and what we can achieve? These are not new questions. They were posed by Eric Hobsbawm in his brilliant lecture, "The Forward March of Labour Halted" in 1979 - a challenge laid down in the year I was born. Now, 37 years on, we are no further down the road to answering it. 
 
The most dramatic finding from this election was the support Corbyn’s Labour party appears to have won from middle-class, young professionals. They said he couldn’t do it and quite stunningly it seems they were wrong. But a ComRes poll last week caught my eye – by a large margin those 30-44 year olds would favour a new centre-ground political party over the current political settlement. In an election where we returned strongly to two-party politics, it appears they moved to us. But what would a dynamic and renewed Liberal Democrat Party, or a British En Marche do to our support base?
 
After a hellish two years we have learnt in Labour, I hope, that unity matters. The public and private anger directed towards each other, whether the Labour leadership, the parliamentary Labour party or elected councillors, is desperately damaging and its (relative) absence in the campaign was important.
 
But unity is not the same as uniformity, and while two weeks ago I felt there was a real danger of historic fracture, now I believe the shutting down of genuine, constructive debate on the left is the great danger we face, and must avoid. No one person, faction or party has ever had the monopoly on wisdom. The breadth of the Labour movement was and remains our greatest strength. 
 
Consider the Labour manifesto, which drew on every tradition across our movement and demanded that every part of the party had to compromise. Those broad traditions still matter and are still relevant because they hear and are attuned to different parts of Britain. Our country is changing and politics must catch up. The future will be negotiated, not imposed.
 
As we witness the age of "strong man" politics across the world, here in Britain our political culture has become angrier and more illiberal than at any time I can remember. The Brexit debate was characterised by rage, misinformation and a macho political culture that demanded that we abandon nuance and complexity, an understanding of one another and tolerance of different points of view.
 
But this is not where the future of Britain lies: it lies in pluralism. It lies in a politics that is nimbler, more fleet of foot, less constrained; a return to the great tradition of debate, evidence, experience and argument as a way to build broad coalitions and convince people; not shouting one another down, nor believing any of us are always right; an arena in which we listen as much as we speak; a political culture in which we are capable of forming alliances within and across party lines to achieve real, lasting change.
 
And ultimately that’s the prize: not just seek power but, to paraphrase a philosopher whose work inspired millions, in the end “the point is to change it”. We could sit tight in Labour and hope to see the current government fall apart. We might even inherit power, we could temporarily reverse some of the worst of the last seven years, but what then? If we have learnt anything from 13 years of Labour government it should be this: that to build lasting change is the hardest political task of all, and it requires now that we do not turn to the political culture, the tools or even the ideas of the past, but that we think hard about where the future of our movement and our country really lies. Now is not the time to sit back and celebrate. Now is the time to think.

 

Lisa Nandy is the MP for Wigan. She was formerly Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

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