The TV comedy The Thick of It brilliantly satirised the tendency of New Labour to govern by ‘initiative’. Politics was reduced to public relations. Policies were created on the hoof with an eye to the next morning’s headlines.
If you thought those days ended at the last general election, think again. The recent riots should have given everyone pause for thought. Instead, many politicians and commentators were shooting from the hip or trotting out predictable responses.
Playing to the gallery pays only short-term dividends. Yes, “something must be done”. But politicians of all parties have a duty to think before they open their mouths, and not try to cash in on gut reactions or tabloid hysteria – despite the media’s hunger for sensational news and tendency to incite sensational comment.
Despite the pressure to meet emotionally-driven imperatives, only an intelligent, long-term, considered response will prevent a recurrence of these riots. What needs to be done?
First, we need moral clarity. Rioting, looting and arson are wrong. There are no excuses. But profound moral questions confront us all, not just the rioters. What sort of example is set by the scandals of executive pay or MPs’ expenses? How have we allowed society to corrode and consumer tat to become the pinnacle of people’s ambitions?
We must examine the deeper causes of the riots if we are to formulate an effective response. We should start by listening to people who work at the sharp end and know what they’re talking about, such as Camila Batmanghelidjh (Kids Company) or Decima Francis (The Boyhood to Manhood Foundation). The government’s inquiry into the riots, brokered by the Liberal Democrats, is a step in the right direction.
If the prescription is to be based on a rational diagnosis, it follows that knee-jerk responses must be rejected. And we’ve had no shortage of those since. People naturally feel angry and want action, but calls for plastic bullets, water cannon, spraying people with indelible dye, bringing in the army, shutting down social networks or ignoring human rights laws will do no good at all. If such measures were adopted, they would undo years of patient work to build police-community relationships.
David Cameron has set a poor example. His decision to hire an American ‘supercop’, without consulting the expertise available in our own country, is nothing more than grandstanding. And his simplistic suggestion that parents should take more responsibility for their children completely ignores the fact that many of the looters don’t have two parents.
The knee-jerk demand to evict rioters from social housing is simply irrational. Such a policy is inconsistent, since the families of offenders who are private tenants or home owners will not be made homeless. It is also counter-productive, since local councils will be under a duty to re-house most of the evicted families at a huge cost to the taxpayer. It is for the courts to decide appropriate punishments, not the local council.
The riots should force the government to rethink its policy towards the police. Now is not the time to cut police numbers. The riots stretched police resources to the limit. The government’s cut of £1.9bn in police budgets is equivalent to 16,000 officers – the same number of officers that were placed on London’s streets at the height of the riots. If police numbers continue to be reduced, it will be increasingly difficult to deal with future unrest.
Nor is it the time to introduce elected police commissioners. When police budgets are being cut, how can the government justify spending more than £130m on setting up the new system, £50m on each round of the elections and £112k in an annual salary to each commissioner? In particular, it would be highly irresponsible to launch a major overhaul of police administration in London only months before the 2012 Olympics (the greatest security challenge this country has ever faced in peacetime).
Talking of the 2012 Olympics, Adidas is a major sponsor of the Games but it is also one of several global brands that cash in unashamedly on gang culture. Adidas was quick to condemn the riots, yet is about to launch an advertising campaign featuring rapper Snoop Dogg, who personifies gang culture. Olympic sponsors should not be allowed to promote the gang culture that leads to violence on our streets.
Gang culture is to a significant extent a product of the criminal drugs trade. The ‘war on drugs’, launched by President Nixon forty years ago, has been counter-productive and an unmitigated disaster. Politicians’ macho posturing on drugs policy must end. We need a smarter approach.
Of all the knee-jerk responses, the most depressing has been the talk of a ‘broken society’. But, for every single rioter, there were a hundred volunteers cleaning up with their brushes and a thousand generous donors providing money and clothing for those burned out of their homes. Society may have corroded but it survives and in many areas prospers.
We must now focus on fostering a healthy society for all. If the sort of people who riot felt that they were part of society instead of feeling excluded, they would be less likely to riot in the first place.
Baroness Doocey is a member of the London Assembly and the Metropolitan Police Authority.