Out of the Ashes: Britain After the Riots

Out of the Ashes: Britain After the Riots
David Lammy
Guardian Books, 266pp, £9.99

David Lammy's book is about more than the English riots; it is about the future of Labour in this country. Both Lammy and Duncan O'Leary, whom he generously credits as a writing partner, took part in the Oxford-London seminars that produced the ebook The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox. But Out of the Ashes tells a story for a readership beyond the political and intellectual classes. It is the first significant attempt to frame a popular politics and language for Labour in the coming period of austerity.

For five days in August, starting with unrest on the streets of Tottenham, the young and the workless poor held a mirror up to England, and so also to Labour, which, in government, had played a role in shaping 13 years of their lives. Here was the market and its transactional culture gone berserk in looting and here was the state, in the form of the police, hated by many of the rioters, failing to maintain social order.

The riots were a carnival of nihilism and hedonism, but targeting the shops had its own political logic. For every opportunist looter grabbing something free because they could, there were ten who knew the humiliation of being second-class in a culture of conspicuous consumption. Foot Locker isn't just a shop that sells trainers, it's a source of positional goods. Our consumer culture teaches the young that you must own in order to achieve status, and in order to own, you need money.

The economy that drives this culture deprives millions of the financial means to achieve this end. Money is not just about acquiring things; it is the means to acquiring recognition and respect through status-enhancing goods. To be invisible to those above, or to be culturally out of sync with one's peer group, is a source of shame and mortification. This is the way class domination operates in a society of consumers. Invidious comparisons between oneself and others and between one group and another create feelings of inferiority.

Lammy criticises his own repeated public assertions that the rioters were "mindless". With hindsight, he writes, he thinks they were "cruel and calculating". But what shocked him most was that many were enjoying themselves. The police were attacked and chased off. High streets, department stores and shops became lawless spaces that were thoroughly ransacked. For a short period, the law of exchange value was transgressed; those who took part in the looting were participants, probably for the first time in their lives, in something larger than themselves. The looting was terroristic, but many of those involved felt empowered and free. For them, it was a joyful experience.

Three popular voices emerged out of the events. The first was the insurrectionary Darcus Howe, interviewed and patronised by the BBC. The second was Pauline Pearce, giving rioters in Hackney a piece of her mind and a sharp lesson in politics. And the third was Tariq Jahan, whose son was killed but who deflected the threat of inter-ethnic conflict by asking young Muslims in Birmingham to go home and reflect on their lives, rather than "march in the name of our sons". For millions, the moral lesson of the riots came courtesy of YouTube and the clip of youngsters "helping" and then robbing the injured Malaysian student Ashraf Haziq.

Who spoke for England? Politics was silent. The overwhelming message that the riots delivered to Labour was that no one was interested in what it had to say. Its history in the national life as a representative of the working class, its moral traditions, its recent period in office, all counted for little. More than the other recent scandals marking Britain's decline (bankers' bonuses, MPs' expenses), the August riots exposed Labour's disconnection from the country.

Order has been restored. The English penal system, historically brutal in the face of mass proletarian disorder, has locked away the looters. Conservatives and Labour alike have reverted to the pretence of business as usual, but both function in a state of suspended animation, disorientated and picking their way through the detritus of old orthodoxies.

The riots were a warning from a future of falling incomes and unprecedented public spending cuts. Never before have we experienced this kind of economic contraction. The welfare state is under huge pressure and political attack, threatening millions with being cast outside the norms and structures of society. What will austerity mean for social order and our relationships with one another? What role can the state play under conditions of fiscal conservatism? What kind of political economy and pro-social politics can we create to counter the further fragmentation of society?

This is an extraordinarily dangerous moment for the left. Labour faces the biggest crisis in its history, yet it has not begun to ask itself these questions. Lammy's book offers a start. He says it was a long time in gestation, but that the riots were the catalyst for two impulses that spurred him into action. The first was personal: Tottenham is Lammy's home and where he feels he belongs. The second is recollection of the past. He returns to a time before he became an MP, before his days as a lawyer, to a time growing up in the area's streets and to the loss of his father. What Lammy believes in springs from a love of home, a sense of belonging, his relationships and his life experience. It is a good allegory for Labour's renewal.

If the right has recognised the significance of Lammy's message, the left veers away from its implications. What remains of Labour's purpose when the state runs out of money? The things that matter to Lammy and, he argues, to the people he represents are, on the whole, socially conservative values. The liberal freedoms of the market have brought the freedom to be poor and insecure. What holds the line against social disintegration and cultural despair is a sense of duty born of personal dignity, common decency and a willingness to work hard for a fair reward.

At the heart of Lammy's story is the flight of men from family life. The fate of his own father is multiplied countless times in communities wrecked by poverty and worklessness. The deindustrial revolution in England has brought a significant decline in men's contribution to the family income as their wages have fallen. Women have made up the shortfall - but now they, too, are losing their jobs and an already inadequate system of childcare is being cut back. In areas of deprivation, the model of dependable family men and masculine virtues of responsibility are scarce.

Lammy offers thoughtful arguments about immigration, work, masculinity and crime and punishment. One doesn't have to agree with everything he says to know that he is well placed to ask the right questions of his fellow countrymen and women.

Labour wins when it is patriotic. It needs to confront its crisis of purpose and embark on a politics of nation-building: to make a society worth living in, an economy that works for all its citizens and a country to be proud of.

Jon Cruddas is MP for Dagenham (Labour)

Jonathan Rutherford is professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...