Labour’s riot response: wrong on tactics, wrong on strategy

by Rob Marchant

It was a mere few days ago that we were praising the willingness of a reinvigorated Ed Miliband to make hard decisions. The dumping of the shadow cabinet elections. The explicit non-backing of an unpopular strike. And most striking of all, two occasions on which he had gone out on a limb against powerful interests, his sure-footed handling of the parliamentary debate on phone-hacking, which finally had Cameron on the back foot, and his determination to adjust the representation of unions in party decision-making. Though the endgame of both is still uncertain.

It seemed like Labour had things all sewn up for the summer recess. We could look forward to a renewing summer break and a gentle trot into conference season, enjoying the first truly glad, confident morning of the Miliband leadership. How quickly events can intervene.

Labour’s political response to the riots has shifted from a neutral position of non-partisan solidarity, to one which is tactically wrong. And, worse, it is strategically wrong.

The challenge of last week was to carefully carve out a political position which was distinct from the Tories’, whilst not launching into full-frontal attacks, which would look like opportunism at a time when statesmanship was being called for. It was never going to be easy to navigate that fine line, but Miliband gave a decent Commons performance, backing Cameron himself while still managing to line up persistent backbench criticisms on the cuts in police budgets. On the whole; creditable.

And then it all came apart. Somehow, Ed was seemingly kidnapped and tortured on Thursday night, so that by Friday’s Today programme, the refined message started to come out as, “whilst we can’t condone the rioting, I have to say that…”. And the tactical errors began.

Tactical error one: an inconsistent argument. The point is, no-one saw this coming. The best thing would be to say, “we don’t know”, and leave it at that. Because we don’t. Our response instead was “it’s complex”, so let’s not prejudge. And then to do precisely that. In other words, it may be complex. Or it may be darned simple. You just don’t know which. Best advice: hold your counsel.

Tactical error two: bashing the rich. Peter Oborne’s awful piece exemplifies the self-flagellating zeitgeist of the middle classes over the riots. And it is careless to allow the Guardian to paraphrase your words as “I can’t excuse looting, but the rich must share the blame” (to be fair, they later changed the headline, because it wasn’t what he actually said. But what he did say was asking for trouble). The usual suspects were wheeled out, most of which were patently unconnected, like phone-hacking, MPs’ expenses and the banking crisis. Reasonable people don’t think, “a journalist hacked someone’s phone, so I’ll smash up next door’s shop”.

Tactical error three: calling for a public inquiry: that last refuge of a politician in the face of a crisis. But it also contravenes the first law of opposition: never call for the PM to do something specific unless you know they will have to do it anyway. It makes you look ineffectual when they don’t, and can even have the opposite effect (Ken Clarke, let’s not forget, is still in post). At time of writing, a rumoured deal on a commission, short of an inquiry and probably more of a PR exercise for the Lib Dems than anything else, may save Labour’s blushes as a half-way house. It may not.

Tactical error four: suggesting that Labour will do its own inquiry if Cameron does not. This seems to have been a way of addressing tactical error three, but is clearly not thought through. Who will do it? How will it be funded (the party is broke, don’t forget)? How will it be seen as independent when it has the backing of only one party, and which heavyweight independent figure will want to be associated with it? Are there any precedents for such an idea that have worked? In other words, even if you get it off the ground, it can be easily dismissed by the other two parties.

Tactical error five: blaming the last Labour government. Again. While the Tories will inevitably turn their guns on us from time to time, we need to avoid the compulsion to load the shells for them.

But these are really tactical errors, which may shortly be forgotten. What is more worrying is the strategic error of the emphasis on underlying causes.

Part of the answer to these may indeed be that there is a small section of society who are not getting the help and support that they need in some way. But it may not be. It may equally be that a disturbance, stemming from a tiny criminal element, simply ended up snowballing into a big problem because of a serious police failure.

We don’t know.

The Economist put it best:

“The left is imploring the public to consider the underlying causes of the riots. They should be careful what they wish for. Voters might conclude that the deep-seated causes are not poverty, discrimination and austerity—the riots took place in a country whose government currently spends half of its national income – but welfare dependency, broken homes and moral nihilism”.

And if it turns out to be the case that this calls for solutions which are not traditionally left-wing ones, we will have come down on the wrong side of a very important argument. What’s more, initial evidence on public opinion indicates that, although people feel government cuts are not helping and there may be economic-related causes, they are looking for, as John Rentoul points out, “the most punitive response possible”.

So, since Friday, our position on the riots has wandered into being muddled and inconsistent. And which is strategically quite wrong. We have fallen into the trap of most of the British media: of making hasty assumptions about causes without actually knowing the answer. We have said everything, and nothing at all.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.

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15 Responses to “Labour’s riot response: wrong on tactics, wrong on strategy”

  1. paul barker says:

    The other problems with saying the example set by the Middle Class was partly to blame is a few months earlier some middle class types were Rioting themselves with a lot of backing from elements of the Left.

    If you blame corrupt MPs, its unfortunate that all the worst cases were Labour.

  2. Matty says:

    I think you completely misunderstood Oborne’s piece. He was not saying “the rich are as much to blame as the rioters for the riots”, he was saying that the moral rot that arguably caused the rioting exists at the top as well as the bottom. From Oborne’s article:

    “The last two decades have seen a terrifying decline in standards among the British governing elite. It has become acceptable for our politicians to lie and to cheat. An almost universal culture of selfishness and greed has grown up.”

    Okay, okay, so the later line “But the rioters have this defence: they are just following the example set by senior and respected figures in society. ” is pretty silly, but it’s not the crux of Oborne’s argument so much as a cheap stab. His point about Cameron’s “second chance” comments about Andy Coulson is far more in line with his main thrust: the idea that the approach to lawbreaking and wrongdoing is regarded differently depending on who does it.

    The expenses scandal is hardly distant history and, as we all know, it involved MPs helping themselves to the public purse because they could and they thought they would get away with it. It didn’t “cause” the looting, but there are obvious similarities. And despite a few MPs being taken to court over what happened, many were given the opportunity to “give back” what they had taken and avoid prosecution. Needless to say, there is no likelihood of a similar amnesty for people looting shops.

    It comes down to an age-old British problem: class and class presumptuousness. The idea some in the middle and upper classes often have that the law applies more to people under the social/economic ladder than it does to them. That when poor people break the law they’re criminals, but when the middle classes do it their just “bending” the law or “not really doing anything wrong”. Naturally, as with young people and those on benefits most of those in the middle/higher income bracket are not like this, but there are those who are and, as Parliament showed, if a culture of “take what you can get” emerges, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the situation, everyone seems to get stuck-in. It’s for this reason that high-minded talk of morality needs to apply across the board. That was the point Oborne was making.

  3. MJL says:

    Normally you’re on the money Rob but this time I have to disagree.

    “The usual suspects were wheeled out, most of which were patently unconnected, like phone-hacking, MPs’ expenses and the banking crisis. Reasonable people don’t think”

    I don’t think you realise what Ed is trying to do here. He is trying to point out that a culture of irresponsibility has taken over our society and that these riots are just the latest manifestation of it. He was not saying these scandals caused the riots but that they are all symptoms of the same disease. That disease being an total abdication of personal responsibility and make no mistake this theme will be big at the next general election. Even Cameron alluded to this in his speech. In fact, though I hate to admit it, Cameron probably did it better.

  4. Ralph Baldwin says:


    I’ve been waiting for someone to write something along these lines and I always enjoy it when we debate so here goes.

    I think in General Ed is looking neither better nor worse than Cameron whose “measures” are not all popular an in many circles seem to not have been thought through particularly on the issue to teaching young people self-discipline, self-value, team work and respect for others and property. However Ed has mentioned some home truths that many people will relate to. There are some fallacies in your article.

    Tactical error one; the political “elites” did not see this coming. For four years I have been warning them that it was coming. Hence my continual blabbing and ranting about the importance of strengthening “democracy” and the “Rule of Law” whereby it was absolutely essential that the Law must be seen to be on everyone’s side rather one set of rules for MPs, bankers, media tycoons, some police and then another for the rest of us. Remember justice is one thing and de-regulation and weak sentencing has created some very unjust and unequitable situations that will cause a great deal of suffering, in terms of violent criminals being seen to have “gotton away with it”, great news for those who want to steal and riot, and cost people their jobs as a result of the economic failure via de-regualtion and a move away from responsible behavior and responsible Leadership along with absensce of competance and judgement with the markets as MPs get jobs/had jobs in banking. The “elites” were warned there would be trouble this summer admittedly it was linked more to austerity than an attack on community after a “perceived” weakness to be taken advantage of by criminals of the police, the law etc.

    If Ed had said “we don’t know” it would have fueled the fire by Cameron to claim Ed has no polices and no ideas, the blank sheet of paper. Complex reasons marries well into the confusion of the situation as most of the public fail to understand (along with many media types and politicians) the real depths of emotive contempt towards the Rule of law by those in society inclined to commit criminal actions. Complex also gives Ed time as things devlop further to work around the situation and is incredibly difficult ot challenge because it is the case.
    So I am unsure “complex” damages Ed as a prejudged error. because it is an open expression.

    On the second tactical position, it would have been “wiser” to not try and explain something as subtle, emotive and powerful as a Constitutional principle of the Rule of Law that has been attacked continually (as i described above when justice is not seen to mean anything or to be done) in the way that Labour has. It would have been better for Ed to use a statement more along the lines of thanking the majority of people, despite their relaltive poverty or riches for abiding by and respecting the Law, and thanking them for their excellent conduct and great “Leadership” during a difficult time. Then condemn the rioters whilst making it clear our Laws are weak at the moment, that we have problems with morality and a sense of duty across the board and we have to find ways to give more people a say in our democracy. Do not underestimate, Rob how angry people will become as they lose their jobs “because of the bankers and MPs” later. I am thinking of groups like the 30,000 armed forces personel who will soon be on the dole. Everyone knows we have big problems with “strange” politicians on TV and Ed should used this as an opportunity to BEGIN to reach out.

    Blaming anyone in society at the moment is unwise so I sort of agree with you here, cameron is doing himself no favours as he “blames society” (as i said before that is the real BS and captures his cowardly methods well).

    Third I agree completely, people want decisive action and after the iraq enquiries this will impress nobody except for the od individual collecting paperclips in a dark room somehere. Its a geekish response and people want the guilty punished, they want the Rule of Law to mean something AT ALL levels and that includes the ultra rich. Because if it does not happen, people will believe less and less in the laws, have less faith in our law creation and enforcement as all politicans will be percieved to be incompetant or corrupt or both.

    Fourth I agree, I think Ed would have to be very careful with this. We do not want an inquisitorial squad telling us what we already know and playing the blame game. Justice is required. if such a platform is created on a whim, what does this say about the system? If Ed attaches this to himself, it had best come up with balanced, yet just proposals and I am unsure where this lead as it won’t have any muscle.

    Fifth, i do not think we has any choice here. The Rule of Law, balance on civil liberties, the “lets grab it and take and damn the consequences”, hazel blears waving a big fat cheque at the cameras without displaying any kind of substantive aknowledgement of what she had done, the contempt, blatent contempt dispalyed by our elected reps towards the public had done little to endear them to the public and certainly not convinced the public they were making laws with our intersst in mind.

    Remember the rioters saw a weakness, it was emotive and a result of a general lack of faith in the system, its not academic, its not an essay, its a potent feeling. “They are at it, I will to so xxxx ’em”. That was the attitude on display to all our disgust but as I said some time ago, tough times define people, i learnt that in the military, you find out what people are truly like.

    Ed and David Cameron must commit themselves to creating a platform that can begin to rebuild faith in the system, along with our economy. because the two are interlinked. We are dealing with potent constitutional forces here and they are subtle, until they are abused and then all hell breaks lose as people identify with groups of like mind. The great news is that I was expecting far worse (I find it amusing that those trying to shut me up are now saying how depressed they are lol) and am encouraged by the fact that so many, many people chose to the right thing and stay at home and show respect for a society that many others have not, the silent majorty to whom we elected reps owe our thanks and utmost respect.

    Rule of Law, Dicey was a very clever chap and we should not forget the powerful lessons on what holds a society together and the silent agreement we all adhere to that is taken for granted by far too many weak (thou a minority of) people, in politics, in the banks, in the media, the police and the rioters.

    Ed would be better off trying to raise the instututions and commit himself to finding ways to restore their reputation and celebrate the decent majority. Ed should balance looking into the causes and also into why so many who are not exactly wealthy chose to not riot after all the things we have seen over the past two years to prevent any deviations to the Right.

  5. David C says:

    An inquiry has in fact now been announced and it’s Cameron who is forced into the face-saving expedient of calling it a ‘panel’. So you called that one wrong and EM called it right.

    You are also out of touch with mainstream opinion if you think that making a connection with the selfish behaviour of the elites is a “middle class zeitgeist”. MPs’ expenses, bankers’ bonuses and phone hacking patently are connected to riots because they are examples of the same degraded ethic by which the only limit some people seem willing to accept is whatever they can get away with. The elites have set an appalling example and EM is in tune with the public in saying so. That’s one reason why he got the highest ratings on handling the crisis of all the main political leaders in Sunday’s YouGov poll.

    This article looks like example of Blairite old-think in that it belongs to an era in which criticising the wealthy and powerful was seen as “anti-aspirational”. You seem unable to adjust to an era in which it is in fact extremely popular.

    The real source of your antagonism seems to be the very necessary mea culpa about New Labour’s period in office. The first rule of opposition – as New Labour once understood – is to learn to see yourself as the public sees you. The failure to do so in this article is the difference between Blairism as a method and Blairsm as a cult.

  6. AmberStar says:

    There is going to be a inquiry. The LibDems are on-side.

    The public, certainly for now, believe the police did a good job & David Cameron didn’t. That’s supported by YouGov, ComRes & ICM polling on the subject.

    People are now looking at ‘the most punitive response possible’ & becoming rather upset that taking a bottle of water gets 4 months jail, accepting a gift of a pair of shorts gets 6 months for a young mother & larking about on Facebook gets 4 years.

    People at worst are asking where are the prison places going to come from & how much will it cost to jail all these people for relatively minor offences.

    Ed Miliband is doing fine; once again he’s ahead of the field & the voters are coming around to his view of things.

  7. Ralph Baldwin says:

    Incidently was it not Keith Vaz who was recently on our Television and in the press reporting the theft of Governmnet owned lapops (and not just a few), and they did not even bother to investigate the thefts….what “message” does this send?

  8. Ralph Baldwin says:

    Incidently was it not Keith Vaz who was recently on our Television and in the press reporting the theft of Government owned laptops (and not just a few), and they did not even bother to investigate the thefts….what “message” does this send?

  9. Richard says:

    The Economist did not put it best. All those reasons have been mentioned by Labour MPs. Marchant ought to be do a bit more research before contriving convenient theories.

  10. Rob Marchant says:

    @Matty: Don’t think this is about class at all. The “morality” of which you speak is more like that of Thomas Macauley: “We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality.” The age-old problem is this. We had it over MP’s expenses, and about every other scandal we have had over many years, to a greater or lesser extent.

    @Ralph: I am on holiday so will answer in more detail your tome later!

    @MJL: there is a little truth in the abdication of personal responsibility in a tiny minority. There is not a general breakdown in the morality of society, something that every generation has erroneously thought is happening since, and before, Socrates said the same thing about ancient Greece. Suggest reading Anthony Painter’s excellent piece here at Uncut on that subject.

    @David C, @AmberStar: I would hold your horses on your victory march a little while. This is not a public inquiry and does not come under the Inquiries Act. It has come about, not through the awesome political power wielded by the Labour Party, but as a result of pressure from the Lib Dems and in order to save face with their supporters. It will resolve nothing.

    @David C: Btw no problem with mea culpas at all, sometimes a very important thing to do. But it would be much more useful to admit where we really got specific things wrong than take responsibility for woolly and illusory breakdown in society. And, while I’m not against the odd bit of populist politics, it is important to make the long-term calls for the right reasons, not just because the public, in the midst of a media frenzy and a difficult week, have a certain reaction. In a year’s time, the public will not, believe me, be focusing on riots and personal responsibility, apart from those few who lost homes and businesses. And those few, believe me, will not be looking at how to deal with causes but on ensuring that those who committed crimes are adequately punished.

    @Richard: What a strange comment. 1. I didn’t say that the Economist was the only source of the list of possible causes. 2. There was no theorising involved in that quote, I simply thought the Economist summed up well our predicament. You are welcome to disagree. 3. I didn’t say that Labour MPs had not mentioned these causes, either. Your assumption, not mine. 4. If your argument against all of the above is based on whether or not Labour MPs mentioned the same possible causes as the Economist, it’s a very flimsy one.

  11. David C says:

    @Rob Marchant: Unfortunately for you the article you linked to carried the headline “Downing Street agrees to riot inquiry”. The point is that you cited EM’s call for an inquiry as a tactical blunder and it wasn’t. The consequences for Labour are somewhere on the spectrum of neutral to positive.

    You are also badly wrong if you think that social breakdown is “illusory” or that concern about personal responsibility is just a phase the public are going through. This will continue to be a central theme of politics for a long time to come.

  12. Ralph Baldwin says:

    Sorry about the length of it…I’m putting it down to the complexities of the times 😉 I too am on holiday 😉 so do not feel you have to matey!

  13. AmberStar says:

    @ Rob Marchant

    Over at Uk PR, we are all agog to see what Sunday’s YouGov will be & whether there will be any weekend polls from MORI etc. Why are we looking forward to it? Because it seems like Labour’s lead is more solid – & perhaps even a little higher – than before the riots.

    Labour’s message seems to have been interpreted by the voters as: Tough on Crime… without being knee-jerk, excessive & downright bl**dy stupid about it.
    Which is how a competent Party would want to be perceived, is it not?

  14. Rob Marchant says:

    @David C, I don’t seem to have explained myself well enough the first time, because you have just repeated the same thing. So, to be clear: this is *not* a public inquiry, as David Cameron has made abundantly clear. It is a face-saving exercise, and not for Labour, for the Lib Dems.

    I believe it to have been a tactical blunder because it seems fairly clear that we did not know what the outcome would be and winged it. We had a lucky escape in that Clegg needed to show some “liberality” to his party faithful. At the time of writing (on Tuesday), there was uncertainty and I acknowledged the possibility that it might just turn out better. But it is an outcome little better than neutral, and we should not have taken such a risk. It could have ended rather badly, as did the Ken Clarke resignation call.

    In any event, even if this ended up being anything more than a neutral for Labour, which I do not believe it has, I would be delighted to hear your responses as to why you believe my other four points to be incorrect as well, none of which you have so far answered.

    Regarding the article being “badly wrong” about the future feelings of the British public, David, as you well know, on that score neither you or I have a crystal ball. It’s just your opinion versus mine and I acknowledge that: perhaps you should do the same. Both are valid.

    @AmberStar: Nice try. I have already said in the piece that the tactical errors are less important and may be soon forgotten, although it would be better not to have made them. I would not expect to see a great immediate impact on Labour’s polling, especially since anyway Cameron’s handling has been mixed, to say the least, which will compensate. But I wouldn’t be setting too much store by any gain in the polls either, which comes anyway from a desperately low base and may include other effects of more genuinely positive actions, like the handling of hackgate and willingness to reform union influence in the party. Longer term, sadly, this whole thing is not helping us because of the reasons given in the second half of the piece. Our position is muddled and risks ending up on the wrong side of the argument.

    @Ralph: briefly! You may have a point on the political difficulty of saying “we don’t know”. But neither did we have to jump to the conclusions we did. Think we disagree on point 5 – I think this is a dangerous game, as we are not being very specific in the mea culpa – and broadly agree on the rest.

  15. Rob Marchant says:

    @AmberStar, @David C: One last thought on the public inquiry: there is an interesting piece by Felicity Slater at Progress here which broadly agrees with Ed’s strategy, and therefore whose analysis I almost entirely disagree with. However, the one point of coincidence is that Felicity clearly believes that the Communities and Victims Panel is a pale shadow of a public inquiry. She, in fact, calls for Miliband to stick to his original idea of an inquiry initiated by the Labour Party and which I believe to be impractical (see point 4).

    However, she is at least consistent and accurate on what has been achieved by securing the Communities and Victims Panel, where you are not. It is not a public inquiry, and is not even close.

    Finally, the Guardian piece is rather misleading and you will find its specific wording referring to the panel as an “inquiry” is not repeated on the BBC, for example (I have yet to see anyone else call it an inquiry, but by all means correct me on this).

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