Harriet Harman is normally one of Labour’s best media performers but she was badly outclassed by Michael Gove on last night’s Newsnight. Her first mistake was to claim that Ed Miliband had been “well received” in Peckham because of his opposition to “the trebling of tuition fees, the taking away of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, the cuts”. Her words appeared to imply that the riots could, at least in part, be explained by anger over these policies.
Scenting blood, Gove replied: “Harriet, do you think there are people breaking into Currys to steal plasma TV screens and breaking into Foot Locker to steal box fresh trainers who are protesting against tuition fees or EMAs?” To which Harman rather limply responded: “No. Don’t put me in that position”, ignoring the fact that she’d done that all by herself. From that point onwards, Labour’s deputy leader was constantly on the defensive as Gove demanded repeated condemnations of the violence from her (“Michael. Did you hear that? Did you hear that? I totally condemn it,” she said, appearing to protest too much).
Harman’s confused performance contrasted with an earlier BBC interview in which she robustly condemned the violence and emphasised that “most young people, whatever their circumstances, do not resort to criminality.” But her mistake was not to suggest that we must examine the underlying causes of the violence, rather it was to fail to identify the correct ones. It is absurd to claim that the riots were triggered by the tuition fees rise and by the abolition (or, rather, replacement) of the EMA, policy changes that many of those rioting are not affected by and have no awareness of. But they were a symptom of a profoundly unequal society in which many feel they have no stake. As The Spirit Level pointed out, the most violent countries in the west are also the most unequal ones. Thus, Harman was right to declare: “I don’t agree wth Cameron when he says it is simple. It is not. It is very complex. But unpicking those strands is for another day.” (If only she had taken her own advice.)
In his short statement outside No. 10 yesterday, Cameron argued: “This is criminality, pure and simple”. But while the Prime Ministers’ desire not to be seen to explain away the riots was understandable, he must eventually offer the thoughtful, analytical response of which he is capable. In 2006, in what was dubbed his “hug a hoodie” speech (though he never used that phrase himself), Cameron argued: “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.” Without this, he warned, “we’ll forever be dealing with the short-term symptoms instead of the long-term causes.” Cameron was talking about youth crime but he could have been talking about this week’s riots.
That speech was delivered during Cameron’s “detoxifying” phase, before the hiring of Andy Coulson and his swerve to the right. But if he still believes in tackling the causes of crime, rather than merely the symptoms, he must revisit these early insights. His statement to Parliament tomorrow will be the first test of whether he is prepared to create the intellectual space for a more thoughtful debate to begin.