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Leader: It is too simplistic to blame the coalition’s cuts for these riots

The terrifying speed with which the violence spread suggests a complex and profound sense of social

Thirty years on from the Brixton and Toxteth riots of 1981, England's inner cities are once again disfigured by violence. There are some remarkable similarities to that momentous year: a lavish royal wedding, an austerity budget and high youth unemployment. This time, as then, the trigger for the unrest was an allegation of police brutality. The Metropolitan Police has improved significantly since the 1980s but its response to the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham by its Operation Trident team was inept. It was wrong that Mr Duggan's family had to wait 36 hours to see his body and that confusion over whether the suspect had fired at police was allowed to spread.

There are important differences from the events of 1981. In the words of Lord Scarman's report into the upheavals in Brixton, those riots were "an outburst of anger and resentment by young black people against the police". The terrifying speed with which the violence spread from London to other big cities this time was suggestive of a far more complex and profound sense of social alienation.

Some of these discrepancies reflect a technological shift. The growth of social networks such as Twitter and mobile platforms such as BlackBerry Messenger has allowed riots to be co-ordinated at a speed that has left the police, by their own admission, "stretched beyond belief". Yet the medium should not be confused with the motive.

Returning from his holiday, David Cameron described the behaviour of the youths as "criminality, pure and simple". The analytical moment seems to have been postponed indefinitely. While the Prime Minister's desire not to be seen to "explain away" the riots was understandable, he must eventually offer the sort of thoughtful response of which he is capable. In 2006, in what became known as his "hug a hoodie" speech, the then leader of the opposition declared: "The first thing is to recognise that we'll never get the answers right unless we understand what's gone wrong. Understanding the background, the reasons, the causes. It doesn't mean excusing crime but it will help us tackle it." He was talking about antisocial behaviour but he could have been talking about this month's riots.

If the left is to create the intellectual space for such a debate, it must be far clearer about what those causes were. The riots were not, as some have claimed, an uprising or insurrection against the coalition's spending cuts. Many of the cuts deemed responsible for the violence have not even taken effect. This is not to say that the cuts will not make matters worse. Rather, it is to say that placing an undue and politically convenient emphasis on their role risks masking the social and economic deformities that lie beneath the violence.

Britain's disturbed and profoundly unequal society is one in which many feel they have no stake. Youth crime is a problem for all developed countries but, as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett point out in their survey of inequality, The Spirit Level, the problem is worst in those societies in which the gap between rich and poor is greatest.

The looting was, on one level, pure nihilism; on another, it was a crude attempt by rioters to mimic the conspicuous consumption exercised by the affluent and credit-rich. It was an expression of the values of a society in which we have been taught that, in the words of the former Labour minister Alan Milburn, to lead a good life is to "earn and to own".

Labour and the wider left must pay greater attention to those cultural factors - most notably family breakdown - that they have too often downplayed. All of our politicians need to think deeply about how the urban poor have been disenfranchised by globalisation; how our culture has been coarsened and debased by life­style libertarianism.

If the Prime Minister still believes in tackling the causes of youth disorder, and not just the symptoms, he must now lead the thoughtful debate that the recent disturbances demand.

This article first appeared in the 15 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The coming anarchy

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Labour break the Osborne supremacy?

The Conservative hegemony is deeply embedded - but it can be broken, says Ken Spours.

The Conservative Party commands a majority not just in the House of Commons, but also in the wider political landscape. It holds the political loyalty of expanding and powerful voting constituencies, such as the retired population and private sector businesses and their workers. It is dominant in English politics outside the largest urban centres, and it has ambitions to consolidate its position in the South West and to move into the “Northern Powerhouse”. Most ambitiously, it aims to detach irreversibly the skilled working classes from allegiance to the Labour Party, something that was attempted by Thatcher in the 1980s. Its goal is the building of new political hegemonic bloc that might be termed the Osborne supremacy, after its chief strategist.

The new Conservative hegemony is not simply based on stealing Labour’s political clothes or co-opting the odd political figure, such as Andrew Adonis; it runs much deeper and has been more than a decade the making. While leading conservative thinkers have not seriously engaged with the work of Antonio Gramsci, they act as if they have done. They do this instinctively, although they also work hard at enacting political domination.

 Adaptiveness through a conservative ‘double shuffle’

A major source of the new Conservative hegemony has been its fundamental intellectual political thinking and its adaptive nature. The intellectual foundations were laid in the decades of Keysianism when free market thinkers, notably Hayak and Friedman, pioneered neo-liberal thinking that would burst onto the political scene in Reagan/Thatcher era.  Despite setbacks, following the exhaustion of the Thatcherite political project in the 1990s, it has sprung back to life again in a more malleable form. Its strengths lie not only in its roots in a neo-liberal economy and state, but in a conservative ‘double shuffle’: the combining of neo-Thatcherite economics and social and civil liberalism, represented by a highly flexible and cordial relationship between Osborne and Cameron.  

 Right intellectual and political resources

The Conservative Party has also mobilised an integrated set of highly effective political and intellectual resources that are constantly seeking new avenues of economic, technological, political and social development, able to appropriate the language of the Left and to summon and frame popular common sense. These include well-resourced Right think tanks such as Policy Exchange; campaigning attack organisations, notably, the Taxpayers Alliance; a stratum of websites (e.g. ConservativeHome) and bloggers linked to the more established rightwing press that provide easy outlets for key ideas and stories. Moreover, a modernized Conservative Parliamentary Party provides essential political leadership and is highly receptive to new ideas.

 Very Machiavellian - conservative coercion and consensus

No longer restrained by the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives have also opted for a strategy of coercion to erode the remaining political bastions of the Left with proposed legislation against trade unions, attacks on charities with social missions, reform of the Human Rights Act, and measures to make it more difficult for trade unionists to affiliate to the Labour Party. Coupled with proposed boundary changes and English Votes for English Laws (Evel) in the House of Commons, these are aimed at crippling the organisational capacity of Labour and the wider Left.  It is these twin strategies of consensus and coercion that they anticipate will cohere and expand the Conservative political bloc – a set of economic, political and social alliances underpinned by new institutional ‘facts on the ground’ that aims to irrevocably shift the centre of political gravity.

The strengths and limits of the Conservative political bloc

In 2015 the conservative political bloc constitutes an extensive and well-organised array of ‘ramparts and earthworks’ geared to fighting successful political and ideological ‘wars of position’ and occasional “wars of manoeuvre”. This contrasts sharply with the ramshackle political and ideological trenches of Labour and the Left, which could be characterised as fragmented and in a state of serious disrepair.

The terrain of the Conservative bloc is not impregnable, however, having potential fault lines and weaknesses that might be exploited by a committed and skillful adversary. These include an ideological approach to austerity and shrinking the state that will hit their voting blocs; Europe; a social ‘holding pattern’ and dependence on the older voter that fails to tap into the dynamism of a younger and increasingly estranged generation and, crucially, vulnerability to a new economic crisis because the underlying systemic issues remain unresolved.

 Is the Left capable of building an alternative political bloc?

The answer is not straightforward.  On the one hand, Corbynism is focused on building and energizing a committed core and historically may be recognized as having saved the Labour Party from collapse after a catastrophic defeat in May. The Core may be the foundation of an effective counter bloc, but cannot represent it.  A counter-hegemony will need to be built by reaching out around new vision of a productive economy; a more democratic state that balances national leadership and local discretion (a more democratic version of the Northern Powerhouse); a new social alliance that really articulates the idea of ‘one nation’ and an ability to represent these ideas and visions in everyday, common-sense language. 

 If the Conservatives instinctively understand political hegemony Labour politicians, with one or two notable exceptions, behave as though they have little or no understanding of what is actually going on.  If they hope to win in future this has to change and a good start would be a collective sober analysis of the Conservative’s political and ideological achievements.

This is an extract from The Osborne Supremacy, a new pamphlet by Compass.

Ken Spours is a Professor at the IoE and was Convener of the Compass Education Inquiry. The final report of the Compass Education Inquiry, Big Education can be downloaded here.