Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past week, there have been riots around England in the past few days. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve felt myself drifting towards the left in the past few months; while I was, I admit, a little skeptical of public sector worker marches over the winter and spring, I’m rather sympathetic towards the original set of rioters in Tottenham and several other areas. There are obvious parallels to the eighties; a Conservative government, economic troubles, racial tensions, public sector strikes, even a royal wedding. The only thing that needs to happen now, comedians have opined, is for Liverpool to win the league. Sadly, though, it appears that people seem unwilling to learn the lessons from the eighties.
Riots, after all, are caused by a catalyst. People do not riot because they want a new 42″ TV, whatever the tabloids say. Yes, there are oppurtunists buying baseball bats and balaclavas, looking for a fight or a looting oppurtunity, as the EDL did in Eltham today, but there is always a catalyst. The 1981 riots were caused by racial tensions, as were the 2001 riots. The 1992 L.A. riot was caused by police brutality against Rodney King, and the perpetrators being acquitted of said brutality. The 2008 Greek riots were caused by the country’s mounting debt. Even the riots after all the anti-cuts protest were caused by anti-state sentiment. And these riots were caused by the death of Mark Duggan during a standoff with the police, in which there is evidence that Duggan didn’t even fire his gun, let alone first.
The sus laws were repealed in 1981, but its effects linger still. An inquiry into the Metropolitan police in 2003 after the murder of Stephen Lawrence found a large degree of institutional racism still in the force. And if it wasn’t for its age, its patronage, the Met would be deemed unfit for purpose, after the way it dealt with the News of the World phone-hackings, its actions during anti-cuts and anti-tutition fees protests over the past year, Ian Tomlinson, Jean Charles de Menezes… and, with the exception of Lawrence, this all happened in the past six years. Reforming the Met is a key priority to ease racial tensions between communities and the police.
There is another major reason for these riots, however. If you look at the places where rioting started, an obvious pattern emerges: Tottenham, Enfield, Brixton, Wood Green, Islington, Streatham, Croydon, and, outisde London, Chapeltown, Handsworth, and Toxteth. These areas have a large minority population and a large degree of relative poverty; systemic poverty over the past thirty or forty years. Indeed, Brixton, Chapeltown, Handsworth, and Toxteth are all famous for major riots in the past. This pattern appears as a prelude to riots in cities: first it’s in the poor districts, and then town centres, and then, leafy boroughs. It’s telling that the leafy boroughs of Bromley, Kingston, and Bexley have been relatively violence free. The Guardian, for its faults, have picked up this, and produced a pretty map that shows this correlation.
All three parties have lessons to learn on poverty, and most notably Labour and the Lib Dems. While the Tories will probably never change, as there’s no votes in it for them, the other two parties need to change. Deprived areas are often Labour-voting areas, and they’ve been Labour for a long time. A cynic might say that they don’t do anything about poverty because they’ll lose a voting base. But Labour, at their heart, are sympathetic to those trodden under, the working class and the underclass. It’s their reason for existence, and the party need to return to their roots and work in communties. But change must also come to the Liberal Democrats. For stable governance and a bit of power, we’ve allowed the Conservatives to enact policies that hurt the poor. The cuts may be defensible, but we have to remember that cuts to these poor councils have an effect on its residents. Luckily, Conference seems to be aware of this, and will debate drug reform and ESA assessment reform, two areas where we are concerned about the effects on the poor.
But even so, the reaction of the party, both in Parliament and the grassroots, has been nothing short of despicable. It’s not liberal at all to advocate that convicted rioters lose their council homes. And while it’s politically prudent to duck the tricky issue of the causes to attack “professional looters” or “professional anarchists”, it’s not liberal either, and is kowtowing to the press: one thing we were recently proud of avoiding. There have even been calls from 33% of the population for the use of live ammunition, and calls from more for the reintroduction of the Riot Act 1715 and other heavy-handed measures, even from the Lib Dem grassroots. But you cannot, and do not, solve poverty with more poverty, or respond to anger at police brutality with more police brutality.
And finally, there’s an air of hypocrisy in the air. People who have glorified rioting in Arab Nations or Greece have blanched when it came to London. They’re scrambling to blame looters, to make everyone in Tottenham and Hackey people just after a 42″ TV. Yes, there are a lot of opportunists, but we must not ignore the genuinely downtrodden in these times. Everyone, including opportunistic looters, the angry dispossessed, the angrier tabloid readers, and the politicians looking down and tutting needs to stop the escalation, otherwise the latter two will try to eradicate the former two, and this mustn’t happen at all, and we mustn’t let it happen.