SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 156 - March 2012

Reasons for revolt

Why, why, why? In the seven months since English inner cities erupted over four days in August millions of words of research, interviews and surveys have been accumulated. Everyone, from politicians, to police, to campaigners, young people, journalists and academics, tries to understand the riots. SARAH SACHS-ELDRIDGE looks at what these studies have revealed.

THE CON-DEMS GOT it wrong. That is absolutely clear. "Criminality, pure and simple" was David Cameron’s diagnosis. The evidence disproves this simplistic approach. Across the board interviews produced articulate and political explanations for the seething anger that found its inchoate expression in riots. The Guardian and LSE interviewed 270 people from all over England in their Reading the Riots research (RtR). Poverty (86%) and policing (85%) were the two main reasons respondents gave for their participation in the events.

The government’s interim panel (IP) report found that 70% of those before the courts came from the 30% poorest postcodes. Seventy per cent cited inequality as a cause. Bankers’ bonuses, Murdochgate and MPs’ expenses also aroused anger.

Omar was quoted in The Guardian, illustrating the anger, as well as the impact of poverty on self-esteem. He said he stole Nike tracksuit bottoms to make him feel like "people with money, good families", who he said look down on him. "I hate feeling like people are judging me. They don’t know about me and then they just look at you and I hate it, I absolutely hate it". Before the riots, Omar said his clothes were ripped or dirty. "And when I get new clothes I feel better", he said. "Then they will have to look down at someone else". He added: "I have gone to loads of jobs with my CV. But I’ve got no qualifications so people just don’t want me – there’s people better than me".

Unemployment was a major issue. Jobseekers’ allowance claimant rates are 1.5% higher among 16-24 year-olds in riot areas (7.5%) than non-riot areas (IP). Tory work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith banged the war drums insisting that action must be taken against gangs, claiming they were largely responsible. It is now accepted that the role of gangs in the unrest was largely incidental and the research suggests that ‘beef’, gang rivalry, was set aside for the duration.

State repression

RIGHT-WING POLITICIANS used the suffering of those who lost homes and livelihoods to justify the harsh sentencing of anyone charged for riot-related offences. The IP estimates that 13-15,000 were involved and 4,000 suspected rioters were arrested. Average sentencing was 12.5 months, compared to 3.7 months for similar offences in 2010. Meanwhile, the IP found that the "insurance industry has not performed well… On current forecasts, in London, by 31 March 2012… nine out of ten of the largest claims will still not have been processed and barely half of people with the smallest claims will have been paid".

Social media is another thing that politicians got wrong. Cameron threatened to shut down Twitter and Facebook. Labour’s David Lammy called on RIM (Research In Motion) to shut down its BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) system, used by young people involved more than other forms of social media – BBMs are free once you have the handset. The RtR found that a key communicator of events was the rolling news coverage.

The fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, north London, and the subsequent treatment of his family and friends by the police triggered the events. As MP for Tottenham, Lammy has taken advantage of the focus on the riots to publish a book, Out of the Ashes, in which he provides little explanation. His conclusions, however, graphically expose the ideological bankruptcy of most Labour MPs.

Lammy is a Blairite and the thin solutions he proposes are based on the failed policies of recent New Labour governments: privatisation, such as of prison and probation services, coupled with token reforms of "predatory capitalism". He insists that capitalism is here to stay and makes limited proposals, such as putting workers on company boards. This is combined with a fondness for discipline, including his call to repeal the "smacking ban".

Given the extent of Con-Dem austerity many, including the Socialist Party, expected that riots could take place. Riots are not an effective way of registering discontent - the vast majority of people do not condone such actions and condemn the burning of ordinary people’s homes and businesses. They can also allow draconian measures to be introduced.

Nonetheless, given the pernicious attacks on young people, a response had to be expected. The onslaught includes the removal of the education maintenance allowance (EMA) and the trebling of university tuition fees. Spiralling youth unemployment is combined with harsh compulsory workfare schemes and a propaganda war against the unemployed.

Deep-seated alienation

FOR SOCIALISTS IT was not just an understanding that the Con-Dem cuts would inspire huge opposition and anger. Riots represent an inchoate protest of a section of society that has no voice and no clear understanding of what is fundamentally wrong and how to change it. Large numbers of working-class young people feel alienated from a society that promises them no future, expects little of them and criminalises them, to boot. Of the RtR respondents, 51% said that they felt part of British society. This compares to 92% of the general population.

But their alienation is also a product of other aspects of life in 21st century capitalism. Manufacturing in Britain has been decimated, reducing the number of big workforces. For example, the largest employer in Haringey, the borough where Tottenham is located, is the council and 95% of businesses employ less than 24 people. The public sector can be a strong base for working-class organisation but it is also under enormous threat from privatisation and cuts. Haringey’s Labour-led council is proposing a further £20 million in cuts in 2012. It is well documented that its 2011 cuts, including slashing the youth services budget by 75%, contributed to the upheavals. The undermining of public resources, such as community centres, youth clubs, etc, also contributes to a sense of atomisation. The absence of a mass working-class movement that shows young people how their conditions can be improved is a major factor.

On this basis, the Socialist Party predicted the riots long before they took place. Referring to an attempt at the ‘individualisation’ of society by the ruling class in the book Marxism in Today’s World, Peter Taaffe writes: "It was expressed by Thatcher, who said, ‘There is no such thing as society’. That is a conscious ideological approach: to scatter the working class politically and to dissipate its collective force. Perhaps when the system is going ahead, even inching ahead, it can succeed. When it jams and breaks down, when there are wars and ruptures, ‘individuals’ and groups begin to ask questions and that is where the political possibilities come in. By this attempt at individualisation, the bourgeois is loosening the bonds which tie the masses to the system; the ship’s moorings have gone, the anchor has been lifted and people are casting around for alternatives, and that produces a crisis of politics as well. ‘There is no alternative, where is the alternative? They are all the same!’ This is the mood of significant sections of workers. It can produce, in the first instance, a kind of nihilism, anarchistic ideas and so on among young people, but it is a phase. It is the first wave before the working class, or at least sections of it, begin to draw conclusions and then are forced to move, which will have an effect on other sections of workers".

Good or bad capitalism

IN THE WEEKS following the English riots, a different, but also raw, expression of rage at the unfair system appeared in the US, a similarly unequal country. The world watched as the Occupy movement erupted in the belly of the capitalist beast. Its slogan of ‘the 99% and the 1%’ communicates the widespread sense that we live in a them-and-us society. The riots research shows that those involved subscribe to this view of the world.

Pro-big business politicians across the world, from Obama in the US to Sarkozy in France, Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband, have even been pushed to pontificate on and promote the idea of good/responsible capitalism as the alternative to bad/predatory capitalism in an attempt to undermine the search for a real alternative.

The shift underway in consciousness instils fear in the ruling class. The first issue of the Financial Times of the year expressed the capitalists’ obsession with inequality. "Inequality will be the central theme of 2012… In 2012 peaceful coexistence with inequality will end and demands and promises to fight it will become fiercer and more widespread than they have been since the end of the cold war".

Lammy seems to be among those New Labour politicians who have suddenly metamorphosed into critics of ‘bad capitalism’. Miliband has announced the solution as ‘good capitalism’ – although he is entirely absent from Lammy’s book! Capitalism is increasingly understood by the masses as the core reason behind the inequalities and other contradictions they face.

Income inequality is currently at its highest since the second world war and pay-gap growth in Britain is higher than any of the richest countries. The top 1% doubled its share of income compared to the 1970s, while the tax it pays fell by 10%. During Lammy’s time as MP for Tottenham poverty has grown. Nearly half the children there live in poverty, while the combined wealth of London’s top billionaires is estimated at £76 billion. This sort of wealth accumulation is the nature of capitalism. Lammy acknowledges this: "The business of business is business". He accepts and even celebrates its "dynamism".

Joblessness and hopelessness

IT WAS CLEAR that young people would not and could not silently put up with the decimation of their futures. Of RtR respondents, 79% said unemployment was a key cause for the disturbances. A ‘Citizens’ Inquiry’ (CI) was commissioned by North London Citizens, an alliance of 40 mostly faith and education institutions. It interviewed 700 people and collected 307 surveys in Tottenham: "When we listened to young people who chose not to riot, their most important reason was that they had a stake in the community: family and community ties, education and job opportunities".

The CI’s recommendations include the call for money to be targeted at the creation of 1,000 new jobs before 2014 for those aged 16-24. The Guardian reported that at the report’s launch a school student stood on his chair and asked: "You said you’re going to employ 1,000 people – so when are you going to start?" It is well he might ask – one of the recommendations is that Sir Alan Sugar of Apprentice fame be involved in the process.

In February 2012, the number of unemployed 16-24 year-olds was officially 1.04 million, 22.2% of the workforce of that age. That is up by 22,000 on the previous figures. As a whole, unemployment stands at 2.67 million although the TUC argues that, if you include the record numbers working part-time who want a full-time job, the number should be more like 6.3 million.

This is likely to get much worse. The Institute for Fiscal Studies warns that only 10% of the Con-Dems’ cuts have yet made themselves felt. We were promised that the private sector would take up the slack from public-sector job losses. But, according to a recent survey of 1,000 employers, 31% of private-sector services firms intend to make redundancies this quarter, up from 24% in last quarter’s report. With the unabated worsening of the situation and bleak outlook it is becoming increasingly clear that this is not a short-term problem.

Lammy recognises that youth joblessness is a factor. In a chapter subtitled ‘making work worthwhile’, he lists the devastating figures for a number of affected areas: in Wolverhampton, "close to one in three 16-24 year-olds can’t find work", and so on. But what does he propose? "We should put people to work in the public and voluntary sectors rather than pay them to sit at home. Work placements should last for up to six months and be no more than 30 hours a week, to allow people time to search for permanent jobs. People should be guaranteed a job on a decent wage – and required to either take it or forego their benefits". But where should these jobs come from? He has no clear answer.

Lammy’s is a slave labour plan that does not differ much from the Con-Dems’ community action programme and other workfare schemes. So far, 34,200 have participated in ‘work experience’ which means 30 hours of unpaid work a week for eight weeks with an interview at the end. Tesco says it has had 1,400 such placements, resulting in 300 jobs. Tesco is estimated to have made over £1 million from the scheme. The benefit Tesco can provide in terms of work experience is less obvious. All these programmes, like Lammy’s proposal, threaten benefit cuts or total withdrawal.

A 2008 review of workfare programmes in the US, Canada and Australia commissioned by the DWP, showed "there is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work". It also found that workfare is "least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high".

The need to unite workers and youth

YOUTH FIGHT FOR JOBS (YFJ) had already been campaigning against youth unemployment when the riots broke out. It has been almost alone in putting forward any positive demands, such as public investment in a massive programme of socially useful job creation – and no to workfare. YFJ activists argue that bosses who say they cannot afford to pay decent wages should open their books to public scrutiny and face democratic nationalisation.

Across the world, levels of youth unemployment are sky-rocketing. In parts of North Africa and the Middle East it is up to 90%. Suicide and emigration among young people are on the increase. It is a shocking measure of conditions in Europe that, for example, the Portuguese government is instructing young people to seek work in its former colonies.

The trade unions need to show young people that they are willing to fight all cuts. TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, predicted the riots but failed to act on this foresight, by taking such action as organising a mass demo against the education cuts and in defence of student protesters in 2010. The slave labour schemes can be defeated. But it will require united mass action. The trade unions could remedy the perception that they have abandoned young people by throwing their weight into this battle and actively proposing a programme that shows that cuts can be defeated, and a decent future won for workers and young people.

The average age of a worker in Greece is 41. This shows how austerity is undermining the fighting ranks of the workforce. Trade unions must take action – to defend their own future at least. Union membership among young workers is low. These factors pose a challenge to effective working-class organisation. Unions should, however, take massive confidence from the fact that support for the 30 November public-sector pension strike was highest among young people at 78%.

In this period of revolution and counter-revolution every effort must be made to tie the working class together as a bulwark against attack. In Tunisia, where the working class showed its power in the overthrow of the hated dictator Ben Ali, the current government appears to be attempting to open up division. Chronic youth unemployment persists and a propaganda war is underway against the trade unions fighting to defend their conditions. Outrageous claims are being made that foreign investment is deterred by the strikes, causing joblessness. It is an attempt to pit organised workers against unemployed youth.

The Con-Dems will attempt similar divide-and-rule tactics. They have already shown willingness in this direction with their propaganda against benefit claimants and the attempt to divide public- and private-sector workers over the pensions issue. The absence of an independent political voice massively undermines the working class’s ability to expose and challenge these attempts.

Providing an alternative

THIS WAS ALSO revealed by the riots. Gary Younge in The Guardian pointed to the lack of a ‘counter-narrative’ to the government’s interpretation and response. Polls showed wide support for the government’s call for the use of water cannon and baton rounds, and even cutting the benefits of those involved. But this opinion was not set in stone. A mass workers’ party that challenged the Con-Dem lies and provided explanation could cut across the right-wing law-and-order response.

On the basis of total capitulation by its trade union leaders, the Irish working class was written off in terms of active opposition to the horrendous cuts it faces. Now angry public meetings against the government’s household tax in towns and cities up and down the country show a determination to fight. The crucial factor was the leadership given, especially by the two Socialist Party members of the Irish parliament.

Labour’s response to the riots echoed the Tories’ - Hackney Labour MP, Diane Abbott, called for curfews. Some trade unions produced statements, such as the PCS civil service union, which pointed to unemployment and inequality as factors behind the riots. There was, however, no major campaign to challenge the government’s lies. RtR researchers were taken aback by the number of people who wanted to participate ‘to make their voices heard’ but, given no one had publicly answered Cameron’s false claims that "pockets of society are sick" and so on, it is unsurprising.

The withdrawal of EMA, referred to by many RtR interviewees, has been shown to have had a devastating impact on 16-19 year-olds. Miliband says he cannot promise to reintroduce the payments. When tens of thousands of students protested against the cut in 2010 Miliband pledged to join them but failed to do so. Since the riots, Labour has gone much further. Miliband and his shadow chancellor Ed Balls have explicitly said that a future Labour government would not undo the Tory cuts.

Young people have been betrayed by all the mainstream politicians, including Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems who promised everything and sold it all for a seat at the top table. Is it any wonder that some young people express a certain anti-party mood? But that does not mean, on the basis of presenting a programme of struggle, that young people cannot be won to the campaign for a new mass workers’ party. This is an urgent task. It is crucial that it emblazons on its banner opposition to inequality and the capitalist system that engenders it.

The role of the police

THE RIOTS SENT a massive shockwave across the country – and the world. People worried about their own safety and that of their families and homes in the areas affected and those that feared its spread. But the establishment was also shaken.

It was obvious that the police had not been able to contain the looting and angry explosions. In fact, they were a motivating factor for it. Police stations were key targets for attacks in Liverpool and Birmingham, as well as Tottenham and other places. The RtR confirms that huge anger over police intimidation, especially through the use of stop-and-search, exists.

RtR interviewees spoke of feeling "violated" and humiliated by this process. Home Office data reveal that less than 0.5% of Section 60 searches led to an arrest for possession of a dangerous weapon, five times fewer than a decade ago. Interviewees also reported being beaten up, stitched-up and abused by the police. Some RtR respondents were angry about the hundreds of deaths in police custody – 333 from 1998 to 2010, without a single conviction of a police officer – mostly of black men.

These were not race riots but police racism was a factor. The Guardian quoted a 17 year-old Muslim, in full-time work in Tottenham, who took part in the riots. He told of being stopped by police on his way to school when he was 13: "One of them said to the other one: ‘Mate, why don’t you ask him where Saddam [Hussein] is. He might be able to help out’. They’re supposed to be law enforcement. I hate the police. I don’t hate the policing system, I hate the police on the street. I hate them from the bottom of my heart".

Many of those who lost property blame police inaction. But amidst the smoke and flames, the role of the police in capitalist society was glimpsed, as it is on strikes and demonstrations. The police force is primarily there to defend the status quo, which in a capitalist society means the ability of the oppressor class to exploit the working class. It is not there in the first instance to protect lives – despite the intentions or beliefs of many who join the police out of a sense of ‘providing justice’.

The British ruling class prides itself on its ability to largely ‘police by consent’, ie not merely by force and fear. Policing by consent involves the media, education, and the promotion of social mores, etc. But it relies on the social contract that has developed – including the provision of public services, won by the working class.

Now the Con-Dems, driven on by capitalism that demands more and more privatisation, are attempting to smash free provision of quality health, education and other services. Big business sits atop a £130 billion-pile of cash but can see no profitable outlet in the ongoing economic crisis. Hence the relentless push on the sell-off welfare and health ‘reform’ bills, despite opposition from all quarters and the risk, as Osborne put it, to re-toxify the ‘nasty party’.

The Tories’ response to the riots, including calls for water cannon, rubber bullets and draconian sentencing, reflects the cracking of this contract. It also reflects that capitalism offers nothing to the 99% of working people and all those exploited by its profit-hungry system.

Given that the conditions behind the riots have not changed, there can be little wonder that the vast majority, 81%, felt that there would be more riots (RtR). Despite the violence of the government’s response, around a third said that they would again participate. That these events, in a distorted way, showed a section of a young generation wanting to take action against the ever harsher limits capitalism imposes on their lives is clear. A 17 year-old rioter told the Citizens’ Inquiry: "It was the best night of the year, it finally felt like all the people coming together, united to do something, even if that something was ultimately destructive".

Capitalist politicians have no interest in drawing these lessons from last August’s events and the research that followed. But working-class organisations must – and struggle to win young people to the fight for a socialist world.


Home About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page