"How to avoid a repeat of the UK riots" - an article for the G2 review of 2011

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Below is an article originally published in the Guardian's G2 section for their review of 2011 on 27th December 2011 [link]. David argues that the riots showed the shortcomings of David Cameron's Big Soceity agenda.

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Each footstep along the High Road I had been walking down since I was a child was met by the crunch of broken glass. The post office had been gutted by fire. The homes adjacent to it had been sliced in half like a doll's house. Further up the road, 26 families had been chased from their burning homes by violent rioters. In one night of hedonism and nihilism, a section of Tottenham turned on itself. For all the talk of police resentment, it was their neighbours who were the victims. This scene was repackaged and regurgitated in Enfield that evening and across England and Wales in the three nights that followed.

For the optimists, there were green shoots already emerging from the rubble. Residents were out with their brooms long before the first council cleaners arrived. Tottenham leisure centre was filled with donations from people who felt a duty to assist the newly homeless families. At the extremes, volunteer vigilante groups were formed to replace absent police in Enfield, Dalston and Hounslow. Even in this hyper-individualistic age, people demonstrated they believed in something bigger than themselves.

This was a crisis, but it was one David Cameron felt comfortable with. The two themes of his leadership forged into one: broken society was the diagnosis; "big society" was the cure. To an extent he was right. Fathers, parenting, discipline in schools and a sense of community can shield people from poverty, gangs and rap culture. However, his remedy fails on its most fundamental premise: the state is to blame. It is said that "big government" had crowded out our sense of responsibility to one another. Yet the location of the riots told a different story. Society hadn't been crowded out by big government; it had been abandoned by the big economy.

In Tottenham, thousands are out of work. Children grow up in workless households on workless estates. They come of age in a dole queue. Those lucky enough to have a job fare little better. They navigate the part of the "knowledge economy" that no ministerial pamphlet will talk about. Their roles are insecure, unsociable and monotonous. They arrive home exhausted, bled of energy. They live in hutches, not houses. Plywood walls divide rooms in homes that were designed for families of three that are now being occupied by six.

Meanwhile the same companies that overwork and underpay pollute our culture without any accountability. The average 10-year-old can recognise more than 400 brands because big retail has no qualms about targeting children. Big food is given free rein to sell us repackaged cholesterol. Big drink sells booze at prices cheaper than mineral water. All the while the state is left to pick up the pieces through bypass operations, stomach pumpings and arresting looters.

What does the big society have to say about the responsibility companies owe to their employees and their society? How do we forge a society based on mutual respect if we allow workers to be treated like machine parts? How do we forge a society based on mutual trust when government allows big business to exploit us at every turn? The riots may well have represented the "slow-motion moral collapse", but does big business have no responsibility? David Cameron is prepared to be a radical reformer only within the strict confines of public services. The rest of the economy is considered beyond the remit of politics.

That the Tories have no intention of meddling in business comes as no surprise. But the reluctance of the Labour party to engage in the big society is worrying. Our party, built on the back of the co-operative movement, still lurks in the shadow cast by its time in government. Then, faced with an increasingly individualistic country, we turned to government to make society more fair, safe and virtuous. The result was a blizzard of rules, targets and initiatives. We passed more crime legislation in 13 years than in the previous century. At one point the Treasury was monitoring more than 600 performance indicators. A new rule or initiative was the answer to every problem.

On many of the official measures, life got better. But too often it felt as if we were nationalising society rather than reinforcing it. We appeared to be interested only in what the state could deliver on its own. We revered public services but spoke too little of public spirit. With that, our politics lost a language of care, neighbourliness and cooperation. We have yet to recover. The age of austerity has flummoxed the centre-left: in a discourse dominated by deficit reduction, Labour lacks definition and imagination.

How do we fill the chasm between Cameron's big society and big business? Two simple changes – sharing power and sharing profits – could bring about a fundamental shift in the working day without spending a penny. If all companies shared power by having workers represented on their boards, then there is a greater chance that employees would be listened to. If companies shared profits with their workers, employers and employees would have a greater mutual interest in each other's success. These aren't utopian dreams. These are realities in Germany and France.

The riots signposted the failure of successive governments to deal with two liberal revolutions: a 1960s social revolution and a 1980s economic revolution. Together they made Britain a wealthier and more tolerant place. But these two revolutions, built around notions of personal freedom, sell Britain short unless they are moderated by other forces. The riots were a reminder that, whether we like it or not, we are heavily dependent on one another. A good life depends on the strength of our relationships with family, friends, neighbours, colleagues and strangers.

A good society is characterised not just by liberty but by mutual respect and responsibility. When this breaks down it takes a lot more than police officers to put things right. Labour's vision has to be brave, but also shameless. The big society may be a Cameroon vignette but that only means our society has to be even bigger.

In the inner-cities, lighting does strike twice – ask Brixton, Toxteth and Tottenham. Last summer's riots have been swept under a very big, eurozone-shaped carpet. All the while, the fundamentals of the disorder remain unchanged. Hopelessness still permeates the estates of concentrated poverty and worklessness. People who have no stake in society are the least likely to have respect for it. And those with the least to lose are invariably the first to throw the brick. There is a very real chance the riots will repeat themselves in 2012. Whitehall has always had a carpet big enough to sweep the problems of the inner-city under. Will Labour let them get away with it again in 2012?

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