Thoughts on the politics of the riots

Riots are not common in mainland GB. Every time one occurs there is handwringing by the media who seem torn between denouncing it all as “mindless violence” and trying to understand why it has happened. The same occurs in Northern Ireland of course though previously during the Troubles there seemed more emphasis on understanding and nowadays there is more emphasis on condemning.

Politicians are similar to the media in their reactions with the exception that any politician who attempts to analyse the issue must start by condemnation lest they are accused by the opponents of excusing the rioters: even when they do this they are still excused of the latter; though the more shrill that accusation frequently the more uncomfortable the accuser has become.

Currently Labour’s narrative on the riots seems more convincing and more in touch with the public mood than either coalition partners’ attempt. Boris Johnston was booed in Central London and Nick Clegg had to be advised by his police protection officers to leave Birmingham when local people heckled him: the hecklers in question were not supporting the rioting but complaining about the inadequate response to it. In contrast Ed Milliband was well received on his walkabouts.

The Prime Minister is now talking about fighting back and there is little doubt that the UK is not going to descend into anarchy. However, the political problems which this episode is presenting for the coalition show up a major problem at the heart of the government philosophy.

The government is obsessed with tackling the deficit and one can debate the economic benefits of their policies ad infinitium. However, at its core the current government is proposing an economically conservative and socially liberal political agenda and it is highly debateable whether the UK is sufficiently socially liberal or economically conservative to support the coalition’s policies. The laisse-faire approach seems to be identified with an increasing gap between the small number of the extremely wealthy and the rest; it will also almost certainly worsen still further the position of the most marginalised in society. In addition social mobility has been decreasing in the UK for years and the current government seems likely to accelerate this tendency (apart from for a tiny fraction of the extremely talented and extraordinarily lucky).

Over the last thirty years most of the middle and upper working class have tolerated and even supported the increasing gap between the richest and the rest and also the decrease in social mobility. This is because they personally have become much wealthier over the past thirty years and also because they could at least hope to aspire to becoming even wealthier.

Now, however, there are a series of problems: the prospect of real terms decreases in personal wealth at least for the medium term; the reduction in social mobility, nowhere better illustrated than in the vast rise in university tuition fees. Added to this is the perception of the overwhelming poshness of the current government (with William Hague being almost the sole high profile exception) drawn as it is from the same social mould as those of the Edwardian era. With all these issues the majority of people may feel that the current contract under the current government is not to their liking.

Whilst middle or even below middle Britain is overwhelmingly unlikely to man the barricades or overthrow the government; the offerings of the Labour Party, even if it were to move to the left, may become more enticing. The new ideas of Blue Labour have an increasing resonance. It is no accident that Harriet Harmon who represents a largely working class constituency has been prominent in the recent events. The Labour deputy leader comprehensively demolished the Tories’ Michael Gove on Newsnight last night.

The idea of a no nonsense, socially conservative, relatively authoritarian policing response to the riots is popular with local people in the areas affected and also in the country at large. Adding to that criticism of the coalition’s strategy of cutting the police and pointing up the perceived (and probably real differences) between the government and the police over the current crisis is a recipe to defend Labour against any accusations of going soft on the rioters.

Then Blue Labour suggests that the neoliberal economic model the UK has followed for most of the last thirty years has major problems and has left a sub working class with little hope, few expectations and little stake in society. To point out that this demographic has less incentive to take part in society is not justifying criminality from that quarter. Indeed since the major victims of crimes committed by the small minority of the poorest sections of society are other poor people; such comments avoid accusing the poor of being “undeserving” or predisposed to criminality.

Added to this is the fear of the rest of the working and the lower middle class that far from being able to aspire to upwards social mobility, their lot is at best to remain static and most likely for their living standards to fall. Blue Labour can tap into all these strands of public thinking and attempt to reform Blair’s winning coalition of the working and much of the middle class. Whilst it may not be as aspirational or as socially liberal as Blair’s New Labour: Blue Labour could become a powerful force offering a grim determination to fight criminality; get people back to work and improve the lot of the vast majority of the population, worrying less about the needs of the super rich or the pet causes of the politically correct.

In many ways some of this is a harking back to the folk memories of the UK immediately after the Second World War when everyone worked hard, society was moving forward and there was respect and the possibility of self advancement for all. In a recession people often look back to imagined golden times of the past. This sort of politics failed badly for Major with his warm beer and cricket proposals. However, if Labour can offer such a vision but with an up to the minute twist of progress and hard headed modernity they may be able to reap significant political benefit. Unfortunately for Labour it is still more than three years until the next general election and the economy may well improve, the riots be forgotten and the celebrity culture and worship of excessive wealth and consumerism may well reassert itself.

However, the fall from grace of the Murdock empire may knock some of the celebrity obsession of the public, mainly by reducing the number of such stories easily obtainable by a chastened tabloid press. Furthermore the economic recovery looks extremely shaky and a double dip recession is a realistic possibility. Finally in economic good times people seem not to mind being ruled by their social betters but in economically straightened times the claim that “We are all in this together” can look extremely crass and the coalitions claims that there can be no plan B may sound like Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake”.

Britain has not done revolutions for three hundred years and is hardly likely to start. However, sometimes one can see when a definite change is occurring: one occurred to bring Clement Attlee to power in the aftermath of the Second World War; another to bring Margaret Thatcher to power. If the times they are a changing then with retrospect one might suggest that now was a beginning. Then again it may all just be some summer criminality with no long term political relevance at all.

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