Which side are you on: us, or them?

by Dan Hodges

And now we get the fight-back. The backlash against the backlash. The reaction to the reactionaries.

As ever, the left is in the vanguard. We need to pause. Avoid a knee-jerk response. Keep things in perspective.

When the riots first exploded across our communities the political class was united in its response. Shock. Horror. A desire for the perpetrators to be caught and punished.

But now that brief, intuitive, consensus is vanishing. The political battle lines are reforming.

The response of the right is emotional and authoritarian. Use Wembley stadium to incarcerate the rioters. Block social networking sites. Throw the miscreants onto the streets.

The response of the left is logical, and measured. We must not exacerbate the social problems that underpin the disturbances. We must avoid tactical ripostes like the military and water cannon that many experts say would only inflame the situation. We must ensure that our cherished civil liberties do not vanish amid the flames of Tottenham.

Both reactions have been instinctive. Both have broadly gone with the grain of prevailing sentiment within their respective political movements. And I suspect that both have proved instructive to the broader public.

Let’s again try to capture that sense of perspective. The New Statesman’s David Allen-Green pointed out that statistically the level of criminality generated by the riots “may register as no more of a blip”. David Aaronovitch, in the Times, estimated that no more than a few thousand people were involved in the disturbances and warned that we can “make things worse quickly, by reacting with impatience, prejudice and stupidity”.

Both are right. Yet both are very wrong.

We have had riots before. Criminality and disorder are constant, if unwelcome, companions to our inner-city existence. Yet what we saw last week was uniquely chilling.

For a brief period, roughly spanning mid afternoon on Monday to mid morning on Tuesday, the rule of law in the capital city of an advanced western democracy ceased to exist. The mob governed. They murdered, they assaulted, they burnt, they looted. And here is the key point, they did so with impunity, and with the full knowledge that nothing and no one would stand in their way.

Last Thursday I spoke to a local shopkeeper whose store had been ransacked. He had been called at midnight by the terrified pensioner who lived alone over his business. “They’re here”, she told him. When he arrived the looters  initially fled. But then returned. Over a period of four hours car loads of men – not youths, men – were literally circling his shop. For those looking for poverty and social dislocation as a motive one of the cars was a BMW, another a land cruiser. Occasionally one would stop and the occupants would disembark and try and break in through the door, or a window. He would chase or push them back out. He pursued one group until a member turned and pulled a knife. “What are you going to do?”, was the taunt. When the shopkeeper called 999 he was told, “We’ll try and get to you if we can”.

What is the appropriate perspective for events like these? What is the big picture when knife wielding predators are  stalking you and the forces of law and order very politely and sympathetically tell you you’re on your own?

The left’s response has been intellectually robust. We have rightly picked apart David Starkey’s faculty-room racism. We have exposed the flawed logic in expelling the innocent family members of the rioters from their council accommodation, and diligently researched the number of fatalities caused by the discharge of plastic bullets.

Our analysis of the flaws in the government’s response has been skillful. Too skillful.

The manifest relief with which we have switched our attention from the perpetrators to the “underlying causes” of the riots. The tangible relish with which we have seized on the right’s more harebrained pronouncements. The glee with which many pounced on Hazel Blears questioning of why the younger rioters were absent from school.

The language of priorities can speak volumes. And we have communicated with crystal clarity a truth that many will contest, but which we all know to be true. When it comes to being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, the left is much more comfortable with the latter than the former.

That is not of itself a corrupt or crippling stance, even in today’s febrile atmosphere. We do not live in the nineteen eighties, where easy conservative certainties may rest unchallenged. And I suspect that, deep down, a majority of the British public do sense a link between deprivation and disorder.

Nor is it only the left’s response that is influenced by their political DNA. If George Osborne and David Cameron wish to cling to the orthodoxy that sound economic management requires cuts to police numbers, good for them. The Conservative party will be lucky to win another election again this century.

But they wont, of course. The government that caved to the nation’s ramblers over the forestry sell-off is not going to stand firm in the face of  middle England’s fear of the feral underclass.

Indeed we on the left will, in the short term, find it easier to make our narrative stick. We have the moral authority that comes from a party whose MPs represented the bulk of those areas worst affected by the rioting. We have the support of a healthy chunk of the commentariat who detest simplistic responses to any crisis. Time will blur issues currently defined with black and white clarity.

But time is not necessarily on the left’s side. Last week, a wall was constructed. Actually, it had been in existence for some time, but it took the riots to make us fully aware of its height and breadth.

On one side was Us. And on the other, Them. On one side were the good, the law abiding, the innocent. On the other the evil, the lawless, the guilty.

We on the left can make our arguments. And we are clever and committed enough win them.

We can successfully campaign to save the council houses of those who burnt their neighbors out of their own homes. We can see to it that those who used social networking sites to co-ordinate mass social disorder are not hampered by the authorities from doing so again. Ed Miliband can deliver a solemn pledge that if, God forbid, the appalling events we saw last week are repeated, any government he leads will ensure that the water cannon remains undeployed, the rubber bullets in the armory and the troops their barracks.

But as time passes the wisdom and nuance of these stances will fade. All people will remember is the wall. Us. Them.

And as imperfect memories try to peer again through the smoke and the flames, Britain will pose a simple question. Whose side were you on?

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.


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5 Responses to “Which side are you on: us, or them?”

  1. Whose side were you on Dan? 😉

  2. Rod Howard says:

    ” For those looking for poverty and social dislocation as a motive one of the cars was a BMW, another a land cruiser.”
    That’s sorted then, the looters were wealthy people probably disgruntled with the 50% tax band.
    If you want to be serious you’ll have to do better than this if you’re going to successfully exclude economic factors and associated perceived injustices from a causal role.

  3. Elliot Kane says:

    Dan,

    With the greatest respect, neither the response of Left nor Right were logical or measured. you both fell back on the same old knee-jerk clichés you always do. The Right called for punishment, the Left for understanding.

    But punishment on its own accomplishes nothing except to deepen resentment and the Left are calling for an understanding they have absolutely nothing of themselves.

    Look at the facts. This thing didn’t just blow up out of nowhere overnight. Saintly model citizens didn’t suddenly turn into violent and/or greedy looters with a change of the political weather. It’s the combined weight of factors stretching back through many successive governments, both Left and Right.

    If the Left had answers to the social problems that caused this, why did they not deploy them in thirteen years of Labour govt? If the Right had the answers, why did they not deploy them in the dozen or so years of Tory govt before that? And so on.

    But you get the point. It’s no good for Left and Right alike to snipe and sneer at each other and point fingers. That won’t solve the problem.

    What you both need to do is to stop pretending you aren’t both to blame. Then work together to sort out this problem.

    The basic problem is one of social cohesion. The Right understands there needs to be more discipline; the Left understands that many people need real help to escape a situation they were simply unlucky enough to be born into.

    Both Right and Left have insights to bring and things you do extremely well. Please stop fighting each other in face of a common problem and work together for the good of us all.

    Your country needs you both.

    EK

  4. john p Reid says:

    I owuld guess there were 3000 ritoe/Looters of whom 2000 were carrer theives and 1000 got carried away in the moment, froAaronavitch to call the 2000 carrer criminal bad apples seems a understatement.

  5. I believe the labour response to date has been overwhelmingly resolute in response to those that were responsible for the riots as well as thoughtful in relation to the causes.

    I also sense the public are, on the whole, up for a discussion on both and won’t be put off by much of anything labour has said so far.

    In truth, I get the impression that so disillusioned have the public become by the entire political establishment in recent years, concerning ourselves with what the left has been saying on the present situation and how that is being received interpreted on the streets is to miss the whole point about the situation being faced by many communities and how vulnerable and insecure many, many people must be feeling at this time.

    Frankly, the riots weren’t about the labour party, its likelihood of getting elected at the next election or how it connects with parts of society it too has been out of touch with for some time.

    This is about traumatised British communities and how the political establishment, the police, the agencies of government and the rest of us can respond both to support them and empower them to begin the process of healing the many problems that they face. For it is they, in my opinion, who ultimately hold the answers to those problems.

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