The riots: local leaders are the answer

It's rather hard to attack people that are so obviously a part of your community.

The riots were a game-changer. The sheer scale of the criminality tells a story in itself - 15,000 participants, 5,000 crimes and a cost of £0.5bn. Until now, crime has rarely impacted on most of us - if you live in the category of neighbourhood most affected by it, you suffer twice the rate of property crime and four times the personal crime than those in the next worst. Crime rates have remained relatively steady over the years, but distribution has become increasingly concentrated.

The social changes that lead to the events of August 2011 didn't happen overnight. They took years of neglect, of declining educational standards for the poor, of poverty, mental illness and drug addiction festering in depleted social housing stock, of bad parenting passed down from one generation to another.

Many of the comments below will say we need to be tougher, that we can police the problem away. And there's plenty to be said for getting the most damaging members of society out of circulation, and showing that law-breaking comes with consequences.

But even if you ignore the fact that reconviction rates within two years continue to hover around the two thirds mark, there's a bigger problem: it's what we've been trying to do for years. When New Labour said they were tough on crime, they meant it: they needed an independent commission to decide on sentences due to overcrowding and three new super-prisons housing 2,500 prisoners had to be built. When you consider that it costs nearly £40,000 a year to keep someone in prison, you have to ask: how much further can we afford to go?

Can we bang up the children of the 500,000 "forgotten families" cited in today's Communities and Victims Panel report the moment they step out of line? When writers like me talk about the importance of preventative work, we don't do so because we're hand-wringing lefties: we do it because shutting the door before the horse has bolted makes good economic sense.

Now the shroud has been peeled away, everyone's looking for answers. Today's report leads with materialism and poor school attainment. The headline factor from the Guardian's research was the poor relationship between communities and the police. No doubt commentators will again talk about parenting, unemployment and all sorts of other reasons over coming days.

All of these arguments carry weight, and they are all things which, little-by-little, we need to work on. But the fact that the riots were so widespread has obscured an important point. At heart, this is a local issue. When I researched street gangs, it wasn't hard to know on which estates to look. Riots and gangs are born of many of the same factors, and as it happens the location of the riots almost mirrored my book chapter-by-chapter.

Within these places, there are more criminals than average, but there are many more people who want to make their neighbourhoods better. Community empowerment and organisation are the answer to many of these problems. When the situation in August exploded, we cried out for the return of Boris and Dave, not for the leaders of our local council.

The market traders of Maida Hill held their market on the Tuesday of the riots - they were, in their words, willing to fight anyone who'd come steaming down the Harrow Road. The Sikhs of Southall who decided to defend their temple were untroubled. Perhaps the show of strength was off-putting; more likely, they were untroubled because it's rather hard to attack people and things that are so very obviously a part of your community.

Crime doesn't happen in a bubble. What we need to look at are ways of increasing - and it's a horrible, wishy-washy phrase - community empowerment: to take advantage of the dormant goodness that lies inside most of us. There were many who didn't know, or care, what their sons and brothers were up to during the riots. There were many more who did, but felt powerless.

The "big society" has quietly died a death. But there are plenty of examples of it around our cities and always have been - mostly in the voluntary sector, where local organisations fill in the gaps in state provision at short notice and with sporadic, unreliable funding. They need people to get involved and help out - people like you and me. The gnashing of teeth over the riots will continue for some time yet. No doubt it'll resolve itself into an old-fashioned political point-scoring match, fuel for a thousand twitterspats and occasional barbs in the House of Commons. And it'll be the greatest tragedy of all, because the answer to most of these problems is right under our noses.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, the Times, Private Eye, The National & TLS. He lives in London and tweets as @aljwhite. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture, republished this year.

A British riot policemen walks past a burning furniture store in Croydon. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.