Cameron: Pockets of our society that are not just broken, but frankly sick.
By Steve Tolley
The political argument over whether Government cuts fuelled the violence seen in London and across the country in the past few days has begun in earnest.
In a heated exchange on Newsnight last night, deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman told Education Secretary Michael Gove that “short-sighted” Government policies like “cutting” the Education Maintenance Allowance, the trebling of tuition fees and closing job centres were adding to a situation where young people feel they are not being listened to.
Gove said it is “ludicrous” to claim people looting shops and burning down buildings were concerned about the “reform” of the EMA. He accused her of “speaking out of both sides of her mouth” for blaming Government policy after saying she wanted to elevate the debate above party politics.
Harman said: “The truth is the Government should be on the side of young people. And you are not…We want people to have opportunities although nothing justifies people who have not got opportunities taking and robbing.”
Gove responded: “I do not want any more of your double dealing, out of one side of your mouth saying you are going to show solidarity with the Government and with legitimate forces of order and on the other side try to make partisan points.”
There was widespread rioting, looting and arson in London on Sunday and Monday night and while 16,000 police on the streets last night meant the city was relatively quiet, trouble flared up in Manchester, three men died in Birmingham and a police station was fire bombed in Nottingham.
In his statement yesterday, Prime Minister David Cameron said the “sickening scenes” were “criminality, pure and simple”. During the election he spoke about failures in education, political disenchantment and social breakdown leading to Britain’s being a broken society, although he dropped the leitmotif over fears the negative message would turn off voters.
Alongside Cameron’s strong rhetoric against the rioters, he has today also acknowledged that social problems have played a role in creating the violence that has exploded over the past few days. “There are pockets of our society that are not just broken, but frankly sick,” he said. An interesting map on the Financial Times’ website contrasts the areas of London that have seen the worst violence with youth unemployment figures and high deprivation levels.
Nobel Prize winner Professor Joseph Stiglitz was among the first to wade into the debate in an interview with Channel 4 news. He said when people see nothing but long term unemployment they lose faith in society. He suggested that while a contributing factor, the picture is more complex than simply cuts leading to violence.
He said: “Our market economy is not working and our Governments are not succeeding in helping the market do what it has to do. In too many countries they are going in the opposite direction showing very little compassion. I worry the UK is one of those countries and that is very much connected to some of the scenes in London.”
On Thursday, a recalled Parliament will be the stage for a tussle for the public’s hearts and minds over links between economic policy and social unrest. The civil disorder will be debated and George Osborne will give a statement on the economy in the midst of volatile stock markets, falling growth projections, the Eurocrisis and the US credit rating downgrade.
The Government’s understandable hard-line could give way to ’Broken Society’ thinking if and when the violence recedes. Neutralising Labour’s line of attack will not be easy without finding other factors to pin the violence on, whether that is dissatisfaction with the police, poor discipline at home or other long-term social problems. But as a political historian, Cameron will know that a Prime Minister not in control of the streets does not remain PM for long, so for now he is showing his teeth. His top priority is ensuring and convincing people they are safe in their communities.
Gove told Harman the argument she was making was below her and the Labour Party. If Labour are careful, they could capitalise politically. But the party must be sure that in looking to explain the violence it is not accused of political opportunism with even Labour bloggers on Labourlist calling on the party to put politics aside and get behind Cameron until order is restored.
If the party can convince voters Government policy has in any way contributed to the violence, the days of the nasty party could return to haunt the Conservatives, adding extra stress to the coalition. But it will be a very difficult political move to get right. With emotion running high, get it wrong and the wrath of Michael Gove will be the least of Ed Miliband’s worries.
- London riots: Harriet Harman attempts to link EMA cut and tuition fees to the anarchy in Britain’s cities (blogs.telegraph.co.uk)
- pb:: Boris Johnson, London Mayor, calls for conservatives UK countrywide drastic police cuts to be scrapped after riots (guardian.co.uk)
- Minister hails police riot action (bbc.co.uk)
- Riotous Behaviour [Nigel Dunn] (ecademy.com)
- Gove: Discipline and values key (bbc.co.uk)
- Riots and the righteous: now comes the game of blame | Michael White (guardian.co.uk)
- Hundreds arrested as riots spread across England (independent.co.uk)
- David Cameron flies back to UK for emergency meeting on riots (guardian.co.uk)
- David Cameron chairs emergency Cobra meeting after third night of riots (guardian.co.uk)
- How can Andy Burnham possibly disagree with Michael Gove? He doesn’t have a choice (blogs.telegraph.co.uk)