Family breakdown and the riots: Marc Stears

Blaming everything on inequality is a cop-out

David Lammy's call for the left to grapple with questions of family and fatherhood in the aftermath of the Tottenham riots presents both a wonderful opportunity and a grave danger.

The opportunity should be clear. For far too long, many of us on the British left have spoken to the country like washed-out tutors of Marxist social science. All questions of family breakdown, domestic abuse and personal ethics have been rendered as issues of material distribution. Problems have been presented as the all but inevitable outcomes of inequalities in income, wealth or opportunity and their solutions said to lie almost exclusively with the redistributive power of the state. Not only has such a perspective failed to grasp the full range of the difficulties that families in the UK face, but it has been received by a disbelieving public as the sign of a deeply troubling, academic exclusion from the realities of everyday life.

It has sometimes even seemed as if we on the left are too disdainful of those we claim to care about to respond directly to their concerns. We have been told, again and again, that family matters - yet we have turned away. The call to re-engage with the family presents the perfect moment for us to put this oversight right.

As we do so, however, we must be alert to the danger. Invitations to enter the bedroom and kitchen in order to investigate the difficulties that we face as a nation always threaten to frame as private what must be seen as social, rather than personal, problems. Family breakdown is important, the collapse of male role models in some of our communities is important and domestic abuse is certainly important. Yet they are best understood as manifestations of something that goes far deeper and stretches much wider than our private lives. The riots that shocked us all revealed not just an absence of stable family life but an absence of love for our buildings and streets, for the shops that serve us and, most of all, for the whole cast of people with whom we live our daily lives. The riots were an utterly dismaying display of a lack of concern for anything beyond immediate, personal pleasure.

How can a spirit of mutual responsibility be generated across all of our society? That is the question that should haunt every one of us on the left in the coming years. We won't get to an answer by ignoring life within our families, but we won't get to it by focusing narrowly and exclusively on it, either.

Marc Stears is the editor, with Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Rutherford and Stuart White, of "The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox" (ebook:

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This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?