Memo from Croydon to Westminster

by Atul Hatwal

Walking down, past Reeves Corner in Croydon on Thursday evening, one thing was crystal clear.

The government doesn’t get it.

Cameron’s proposals in the parliamentary statement didn’t come near addressing the reality of what has happened.

And while Labour did slightly better, particularly on police numbers, the response didn’t give a clear sense of an alternative.

When David Cameron talks of a sick section of society and the need for a moral fightback, he sounds like an opposition politician.

‘Broken Britain’ was a decent routine two years ago, but he’s in power now. Government’s job in this situation is to identify what failed and fix it – not opine impotently on social morality.

Instead, the prime minister’s parliamentary statement gave us some irrelevant commentary, a pointless inquiry on gang culture and a re-heat of existing plans.

There’s nothing new in the police being able to force people to remove facemasks or in social landlords evicting tenants found guilty of looting. Councils across the country are already pushing ahead on this front.

Ed Miliband was cautious in his response. He asked pertinent questions, but didn’t frame a narrative for how Labour would make a difference. The net result is a political vacuum from our leaders.

It shouldn’t be this difficult. All our leaders need do is to listen to their constituents.

Speaking to people in the old town, where the Reeves store used to be, as well as those in the more leafy suburbs, the Croydon public know what’s needed.

It’s a clarity repeated by folk from up and down the country on social media and in interviews and can be simply summarised – police, camera, action.

Passing through East Croydon station on Tuesday night, twenty-four hours after carnage, I counted fifteen policemen between the platform and the exit. Good. It made me a feel safe.

These levels of policing can’t be sustained indefinitely but regularly seeing police at the main stations and on the high streets will help convince a sceptical public that there will be enough boots on the ground going forward to prevent a repeat of Monday night.

Yvette Cooper has been one of the shadow cabinet’s successes in defining the Tories as slashing frontline policing and she excoriated Theresa May in the public order debate for her futile defence of police cuts.

Boris Johnson could have been reading from her script when he cut the ground from beneath Number ten on the Today programme on Wednesday.

There’s only so long the government can keep taking this type of punishment. In the end, Cameron will be driven to protect frontline police numbers by the weight of public opinion.

At the moment, rather than lead, he’s being dragged, just like on hacking. More fool him. Labour has an opportunity now – not just to call for a moratorium on the police cuts but to press the advantage and make a commitment to increase the numbers of frontline police.

Across London, Birmingham and Manchester, everyone has seen the impact of a greater visible police presence in the past three nights.

For all the theories and policies on policing, it’s actually incredibly simple– more police on the streets equals less crime and safer citizens.

Naturally this will cost money and Labour can ill afford to ignore public suspicions on the party’s spending plans. But what better issue for a ring-fenced revenue measure such as a mansion tax, utilities’ windfall tax or bankers bonus tax, than more police officers on the beat.

If the party is going to talk about fairness and responsibility, there is a common thread that runs through looters taking what they want from the local shops and the vampire casino of the financial markets.

Second, people want cameras. Lots more cameras. CCTV has been one of those subjects where the Tories have tried to redefine themselves. Two years ago Cameron was talking about turning back surveillance Britain.

Here’s the truth, from Croydon at least: CCTV footage will be instrumental in securing convictions for hundreds of the rioters.

One example – in south Croydon there’s a cycle shop that was hit. It had a camera pointed directly at the front of the shop. As a result there are over forty cars caught on camera, pulling up over the course of Monday night to loot the shop.

Its’ cameras that have captured footage of the looters’ motorbike outriders, as they scouted up and down the Purley Way, picking which out of town outlet to raid. And it’s evidence from cameras that is already being used in court in the first trials of those who rifled their way through Richer Sounds.

Every councillor and MP in towns like Croydon can attest to the popularity of CCTV with residents. Cameras are not an affront to some abstract idea of personal liberty, they are a practical means of protection.

Third, people want to see direct police action to tackle the root causes of the riots.

Most rioters were not hard core criminals. But they live in a world where casual criminality is common-place. Vandalism, gang culture, drugs and petty theft are part of daily life.

What happened at the start of the week was that this world exploded out of the estate onto the high street. Yes, there were long term criminals leading the charge, but it was the massed ranks that followed behind that brought the riot.

In the past, policing has dealt with this culture of low-level criminality through containment. Keeping the problems boxed-in, away from the rest of society.

Well that’s not good enough now.

What is needed is high volume policing; an increase in the number of cameras, police patrols and above all else re-establish the basic rule of law.

A sustained police surge will achieve more than a hundred inquiries into gang culture or endless moralising on family breakdown.

If the kids don’t grow up in an environment permissive to criminality, this culture can’t periodically spill out into the wider community and the silent majority in those areas, who have to put up with this disorder every day, will be able to lead their lives without fear.

This is where Labour is currently at its weakest. Persistent references from the likes of Ken Livingstone and Harriet Harman to cuts in youth services and the education maintenance allowance totally miss the point.

Tackling the underlying driver of crime in this case – unlike Brixton and Toxteth thirty years ago – is not about deprivation or racism.

It’s about stamping out the culture of casual criminality that meant thousands of people thought it was acceptable to be fellow travellers in the riots. For the 2011 riots, tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime are both policing actions.

In July, Ed Miliband re-positioned the party skilfully on hacking, sensing the sea change in public mood. A similar pivot is now needed on law and order. In the past ten months, the party’s position has seen it swing between playing to the gallery at Liberty and meeting the demands of people who live on the estates.

Labour needs to come down on the side of the people.

The inertia and bureaucracy of government mean Cameron is floundering. The opportunity is there.

On this issue, as on expenses two years ago and hacking in July, politicians will either catch up and lead or be run-over by public opinion.

Police, camera, action. Simple.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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3 Responses to “Memo from Croydon to Westminster”

  1. David Ward says:

    “It’s about stamping out the culture of casual criminality that meant thousands of people thought it was acceptable to be fellow travellers in the riots.”

    I think that’s a problem with human nature. You see it when violence breaks out at football. People who would never have started the fight end up getting involved once order breaks down. And often people who are convicted at football are not criminals in their every day lives.

    Once law and order breaks down, there will always be people who pile in after. They are probably the ones who will get caught as well, as they’re less likely to have thought about putting on masks and taking other precautions. Just look at that lad who got sent down for 6 months for nicking £3.50 worth of water from lidl in brixton just because he was walking past.

  2. Henrik says:

    Good luck with the pivot, comrades – the Labour Party is not short of sensible, pragmatic, patriotic citizens who value the rule of law and understand that not every problem is addressable through 60s Sociology 101 psychobabble; unfortunately, there are sufficient Toynbees, Abbots, Livingstones and other similar notables deeply entrenched in the Party hierarchy, to say nothing of the rabidly partisan political opportunists who inhabit the Westminster bubble (did someone mention the names Balls and Cooper, there?), that any attempt at a pivot is doomed to failure. Sure as eggs are eggs, some imbecile will hijack any attempt to recast Labour into policies which reflect the public mood and the desires of the decent majority of the population and turn these into yet more partisan nonsense.

    I sense the single biggest impact of the looting orgy we’ve just seen is going to be a massive lurch to the right, at least in social matters – and the government, while still uncomfortably centrist for the popular taste at this moment, has nowhere near as far to go to catch up with that lurch.

    On the wider surveillance point, I suspect one reason why CCTV has shown its worth is that there were insufficient cops to respond to crimes in progress and we’re reduced to forensic investigation after the fact, rather than dealing with things as they happened.

    On the policing point, there’s a separate conversation which urgently needs to take place on the police services nationally – it seems to me, as to many, that they have rather lost their way and will require some steering into a role which is appropriate to the needs of society, rather than to the aspirations of the social-working, Guardian-reading, chattering classes.

  3. I have never really understood why civil libertarians object to CCTV. If it is a private CCTV camera protecting private property, I don’t see any issue at all, and if it’s a camera operating in public space (which includes all maintained highways), the residents on whose behalf that space is owned and administered also have the right to have it protected in whichever way their elected representatives see fit.

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