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These riots are heartbreaking for London but we must learn lessons

The first priority of any London mayor faced with the riots that started in Tottenham after the fatal shooting by police of Mark Duggan, and spread through many other parts of the capital, must be to restore calm and establish security. What has happened is heartbreaking. People's lives have been turned upside down. They have lost homes and livelihoods, and been threatened and attacked, for which there can be no justification or excuse. It must be the immediate priority of the police and everyone else, particularly community leaders, to deal with this by whatever means are required to restore calm.

As David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, pointed out, justice also requires calm, including investigating the circumstances of Duggan's death. While the first thing is to restore peace, we have to understand why the riots happened. Attempts to limit discussion of them only to issues of policing and criminality merely make it more likely that such events will happen again. Cause and effect have to be addressed - and that includes the politics. There will never be enough police to swamp every street with officers. To safeguard Londoners, it's necessary to draw all lessons.

Three-year rot

In 2008, London was widely ranked as the number one city in the world, ahead even of New York. It has taken only three years to bring it to a situation where pictures of London in flames and rioting are being broadcast around the world. Boris Johnson projects the mayor's role as one obsessed with trivia, a ribbon-cutting celeb-fest - which is why he took so long to return from holiday to London when the riots started. Yet, on his watch, we have seen ordinary Londoners worst hit by soaring public-transport fares, falling police numbers and a rising threat of crime.

The policies of the present Conservative government were also pursued by the party in the 1980s, and produced the same result. The toxic combination, then and now, is a Tory-led government imposing unnecessarily deep cuts, worsening the recession, coupled with reduced resources to the police and for social dialogue and engagement. Experts in crime and public security have been warning of the rising threats for months.
Police officers talk about the connection, even if Tories will not. Brian Paddick, former Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner, told the Financial Times: "In difficult economic circumstances the lower paid and the unemployed are feeling the effects more than the better off. Perhaps [the rioters] have a feeling of helplessness that wouldn't be there if the financial situation wasn't so difficult."

In London after the riots of the early 1980s we put resources into building calm and cohesion. The Greater London Council (GLC) invested in the worst affected areas. Abolition of the GLC, in 1986, made that more difficult, though London's boroughs - themselves squeezed by the government - did excellent work. The overall position, however, was that London's quality of life, public transport and infrastructure, were steadily run down.
Devolution in 2000 presented us with an opportunity to start a new phase. We increased police numbers, improved infrastructure and pursued engagement with London's communities to ensure we were aware of problems before they exploded. The Met was a crucial component of this progress.

The present government, and the Conservative Mayor, Boris Johnson, have taken that into reverse. The Met is under huge pressure from the cuts and from the Mayor's political interference. The priority of working with particular communities is attacked as divisive.

Crime rises during recessions. Before the events of the last week, crime was up in many boroughs and some serious crimes are rising overall. Burglaries are up substantially. The Met confirms the assessment by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) that there will be 1,907 fewer police officers over the next three to four years. The Metropolitan Police Federation's Paul Deller said on 7 August that: "Morale among the police officers dealing with this incident, and within the police service as a whole, is at its lowest level ever due to the constant attacks on them by the Home Secretary and the government."

More investment

Earlier this year, the acting Met commissioner Tim Godwin described the "Met having to tighten its belt as a result of reduced budgets and focus even more on its core responsibilities", adding that the role of charitable organisations "becomes even more critical to ensuring some of the diversion programmes we have been able to support in the past are able to continue". But, at the same time, those very voluntary-sector organisations are being hit with cuts to funding, imposed by central government.

To ensure that the police can deliver in such difficult times we need more, not less, investment in the service, particularly the strengthening of neighbourhood policing - precisely the opposite of what has happened under Boris Johnson.

The right fall back on knee-jerk statements about criminality - and indeed criminals have been given greater scope to carry out criminal acts - coupling this with demands for support for the police. But the Tories are cutting the police and making their job harder.

One clear answer we need, from the Tories in Whitehall and City Hall, is to tell us when they will call off and reverse their police cuts. The lesson is clear. Three decades after the riots of 1981, the same results are being produced by those who are choosing once again to pursue the policies of Margaret Thatcher.

Ken Livingstone is the former Mayor of London.

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