11 Aug 11

Why vote if I can riot? – government’s difficult task to balance multiple accountability demands

By Michael Hammer

Over the past few days people affected by the destructive criminal violence in the flashpoints of disorder in London and other cities in the UK have rightly taken the government to task over its failure to protect their shops, homes, cars and physical integrity against attacks by out of control mobs, apparently mainly composed of young people from deprived backgrounds. The debate has started not only about who is to blame for the consecutive nights of initially seemingly unchecked violence, but also why this happens, and how to best respond. The current government tactics seem to be as usual: denounce the criminality, announce forceful retributive justice, and produce some money in the shape of a possible £100million rebuilding fund, the purpose of which is not yet clear. One can only hope that it will not simply be there to fill the holes left by reluctant insurance companies in the compensation of those damaged.

Both the rioting and response however sound all too familiar to disguise a continuing helplessness of successive government to come to grips with some problematic social and political realities which blight the UK maybe more than any other country in western Europe. Comments that liken the problems to an issue of disease control, thrown in for instance by Matthew d’Ancona who in the Evening Standard speaks of a “[…] disorderly virus [which] is both mobile and fast […]”show as much depth of penetration of the matter as the rejection by Michael Gove on BBC Newsnight on 9/8/2011 of a connection (which is not to say a linear consequence) between economic deprivation, government policy and destructive behaviours. As an inner city MP who knows her problematic neighbourhoods Harriet Harman is right to make this case, and especially an Education Secretary should be cautious about rejecting views that, while not fitting into his policy perspective, may just about be relevant when it comes to the education of and securing a future for young people: very much HIS job.

The tragedy of the riots may eventually be that the approach to solving the underlying problems will be just the same as seen in Oldham and Bradford a decade ago in 2001: faced with an alternative proposal for how to make yourself heard and manifest a desire for greater participation and ownership to the way preferred and prescribed by formal democracy (‘why vote if I can riot’ as expressed by one of the mob leaders at the time), government will punish (a little, to placate law abiding citizens’ grievances), compensate (a little, enough to have to avoid pushing insurers too hard on their duty to pay out, after all they are part of the these days oh so much battered financial services sector), and pay (a little, just enough to ensure that looting is just a fraction less attractive than hanging around a reopened youth centre). Then it will sit, wait, and hope that the next riots will happen when the next government is in place.

So far, this has largely worked: Labour faced the crowd over broke state finances in the early 70s, the Conservatives over the impact of economic structural adjustment on people’s livelihoods during the miners’ strike, and over policing practices in Brixton and Tottenham in the 80s, Labour was challenged by ethnic conflict in Oldham and Bradford in 2001. And now it is the blue/yellow coalition that faces the challenge of arguing that significant cuts in welfare and support for those on the margins (and who find themselves there for a range of not always individually defendable reasons), are in material or psychological terms not connected with the recent events. Just because the rioters choose to manifest their anger through the illicit acquisition of consumer goods (showing also the limitations of the ‘consumer democracy’ model for defining social and political priorities), their situation does not become less relevant for a government.

After each blow-out of social conflict and, with the exception of the miners’ strike, its appeasement, government and most citizens want to move on quickly and get back to their normality (“[after the attacks the previous night] Ledbury’s could be open for lunch”). This is understandable, but it also means that none of the problems that come with what that other normality, which is the reality of many of those who are currently running riot, are ever solved, and arguably become deeper.

The difference between accountable government and what we have seen over decades as the pattern of response to social unrest is not to try to gloss over, and fob off different stakeholder groups with quick fixes, especially those on the margins. Independently of whether a government wants to appeal to individual enterprise as the driver for change in society, or use collective solidarity, both those who face their destroyed property and personal insecurity in the face of anonymous aggression, AND those who currently look at a life in which they cannot imagine opportunity, must be treated as equal stakeholders of the social model for prosperity. Maybe this is where government and society need to be really BIG.


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