Leader: After the riots, David Cameron has retreated into pessimism

"Zero-tolerance" policing is neither possible nor desirable.

When David Cameron entered office, he pledged he would abandon the "headline-grabbing initiatives" beloved of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The Prime Minister's response to this month's riots, however, was characteristic of the posturing that he once denounced. He promised an "all-out war on gangs" and "zero-tolerance" policing, vowing to heal a society that is not just "broken" but "sick".

Mr Cameron's conservative pessimism is at odds with his earlier, Reaganesque call to "let sunshine win the day" and his faltering response to the riots reflects the intellectual contradictions inherent in his political project. It is hard to know, for instance, whether he believes that zero-tolerance policing is either possible or desirable, not least at a time when the coalition plans to cut more than 2,500 prison places. Bill Bratton, the former New York police commissioner whom Mr Cameron has appointed as an adviser on crime, told parliament in November 2010: "I would not advocate attempting zero tolerance anywhere in any city, in any country in the world. It's not achievable. Zero tolerance, which is often attributed to me and my time in New York City, is not something we practised, engaged in, supported or endorsed."

In the absence of any new spending commitments, Mr Cameron's pledge to "turn around" the lives of the 120,000 most troubled families in the country by 2015 is similarly naive. Who are these families and what does he have planned for them? Initial estimates suggest that the government's pledge will require at least £100m each year but the early intervention grant, which includes funding for programmes related to teenage pregnancy, mental health and youth crime, has been cut by £270m - or 11 per cent - in real terms.

In addition, as we revealed in July, Mr Cameron has broken his pledge to protect Sure Start, a lifeline for low-income families, and 20 centres have already been closed.

In his speech on 15 August, the Prime Minister spoke of a new "family test" that would be applied to all domestic policy. Yet a large number of the coalition's benefit cuts - from the abolition of baby bonds and the Health in Pregnancy Grant to the three-year freeze in child benefit - hit families hardest.

If the past week has underscored the flaws of Mr Cameron, conversely, it has also reaffirmed the emerging strengths of Ed Miliband. The Labour leader has been conspicuously deft in his response to the riots. He led calls for a commission of inquiry, a demand to which Mr Cameron has now acceded. He wisely avoided blaming the coalition's spending cuts for the riots and reiterated his call for greater responsibility at both the top and bottom of society. The Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, and Mr Cameron have since repeated his analysis. As in the case of phone-hacking, when he called for the resignation of News International's then chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, the establishment of a public inquiry and the abandonment of the BSkyB deal, Mr Mili­band has led, while Mr Cameron has followed.

In his response to the riots, the Labour leader has rediscovered some of the moral force that led the New Statesman to support his leadership bid last year. He has spoken persuasively of how New Labour was "better at rebuilding the fabric of our country than the ethic of our country" and of his "deep regret" that the last government failed to reduce inequality in Britain.

Mr Miliband must now do more to address family breakdown, a subject that we invite leading left-wing thinkers to discuss on page 23 of this week's magazine. Instead of simply calling for greater state intervention and redistributive taxation, Labour must think more deeply about how it can foster what the Blue Labour thinker Marc Stears calls a "spirit of mutual responsibility".

If Mr Cameron remains unable to provide the national leadership that the recent events demand, it will fall to Mr Miliband to do so. This is too important an opportunity to squander.

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