Sunday, 14 August 2011

Dealing with the symptoms and causes of unrest

In the face of public fear, anger and retribution, the left faces an uphill struggle to articulate the way forward from the unrest in our cities. The demonising of young people in general has led to a fear of groups of them at the best of times, let alone when things get out of control. The fact that many of those involved appear not to have been so young barely gets a mention.

It is hard to get a hearing for the causes of what is happening when people are so caught up in the symptoms. It is even harder when anger is fuelled by the political right in a populist diversion of attention from the policies that led so predictably to some kind of explosion.

But if we are to turn the focus on to the real causes of the unrest we also have to reflect the reality of the here and now and the experience of working class communities on the ground.

In recent days the disorder hit the high streets in spectacular form. But it festers away at a lower level in many communities day in, night out, - disproportionately affecting the majority of young people as the victims of crime.

Crime and anti-social behaviour makes life a misery for many of Labour’s core supporters – far more than it affects the more affluent - and they often feel no-one is speaking up for them. In that vacuum the right-wing authoritarian response is seductive to many, even though it plays into the hands of economic and social repression.

It is a vacuum Blair spotted as shadow home secretary and he briefly caught the mood. It is sad that so much that was promised either never materialised or is now being destroyed.

If the left arguments are to engage people, they have to tackle the reality of the current assault, theft and destruction, and reflect the genuine concerns and fears of communities. Of course that has to involve a public order response in the short term. But it is not the solution.

The problem with only a ‘public order’ response is that it stereotypes communities and people. Everyone is treated as a potential criminal and anger and mistrust builds, especially in young people. Worse than just treating the symptoms, it adds to the causes. Overnight kangaroo courts and ‘exemplary’ – or perhaps better described as ‘political’ - sentences (six months for stealing a bottle of water?) may deter some but they also build resentment and anger and a sense of unfairness.

If riots broke out in our communities tonight, the first thing we would want is that it stopped. The second would be that it didn’t come back. That’s where the real challenge lies.

For that there’s a need to tackle what causes disengagement. Generations who see no stake in this society for them. And not just the ‘usual suspects’ that most communities could identify. More and more are on the fringes of the unrest who – employed and unemployed - are lured into a consumer greed culture that says worth is only achieved through possession and then denies you access. The disaffection is expanding.

A need to tackle a system that overtly rewards the thieves who steal billions through avoiding tax, speculating, exploiting and profiteering while demonising a child who steals a bottle of wine.

A need to fight the cuts that cause the breakdown in the essential local services our UNISON members deliver. A need to fight policies that create a housing crisis, destroy community building and, most of all savage the dignity and social cohesion of good employment.  

Those creating mayhem on the streets were not protesting about these political policies. But they are one of the symptoms of them.

Getting that message across is not easy in the immediate aftermath where those debating the causes are vilified and accused of being ‘soft on crime’. It is not an either/or. We need to deal with the symptoms now - but that will be no good if we don’t keep plugging away at the causes.

See all posts in this debate here

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