Thursday, 11 August 2011

Why UK riots are sounding the alarm on inequality

The scenes of widespread violence and looting across British cities this week have been a horrifying reminder of what can happen when a community chooses to turn it's back on each other. The disenfranchised in turn react to their exclusion by violently refusing to play by the rules of the majority. I spent the first few days of the rioting watching aghast from Amsterdam and Brussels, desperate for detail from parts of London I used to live in and unable to support those of my friends frightened by the violence around them. Whilst the immediate focus has rightly been upon the police re--establishing safety on our streets, the crucial task ahead will be identifying ways to prevent this happening again.

The impotence I felt in Europe is even stronger back home. After plowing through acres of newsprint and countless TV interviews, at first I had a real struggle to understand how the political context is changing. The press and politicians have run the gamut of explanations: at first it was black youth run rampant, then disaffected white young men, then gang culture breaking into the mainstream, police discrimination against ethnic minorities, cuts to Educational Maintenance Allowances and University tuition fees, joblessness and lack of parenting. The truth is that there may be a dozen contributing factors to this explosion, but there is still no excuse for criminality.

The Government has notably stuck close to right-wing simplistic form in arguing that the perpetrators are morally bankrupt criminals raised without discipline and respect. This sort of thinking leads you into an intellectual dead-end and conveniently places all blame at the door of the individual, not accounting for the impact culture and political choices make to this toxic brew. It also means they can stay firm on their decision to cut policing budgets in the next year. I'm as angry as anybody else about the havoc these rioters have caused to our cities, but blanket condemnation without understanding the context isn't going to prevent a recurrence. The priority for Government is to get the situation under control and then learn lessons from both the affected communities and professionals in the field.

I think that there two elements of Green political philosophy lurking here that we need to talking about: the gradual replacement of citizenship with consumerism and the gulf of inequality widening between the rich and poor in society.

The attractive embrace of individualism, consumption and a sense of entitlement has fueled political discourse in the UK since Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister and has led to a society where value stems from which labels you wear, which restaurants or gigs you visit or where you take your holidays. Gaining our self-esteem from how others perceive us, rather than what we have achieved or contributed, has never been more worrying. This seduction has been made even more rampant by the rise of social-networking, where we form and project a number of identities to the outside world. How destructive must this hierarchy of importance feel to those without money, influence and voice? Look at the focus of the looting - opportunistic attacks on top brand names, such as sports and trainer stores, high-end electrical equipment and computer games. Allowing the market to reign supreme has made us all consumers rather than citizens. It leads to us devaluing our communities and responsibilities to each other. As always, it is the poorest who feel the effects most severely, as the quality of life deteriorates in inner-city communities and public goods such as libraries dwindle in number.

The destructive role that inequality between richest and poorest plays on a number of indicators, such as community relations, violence and social mobility has been heavily documented in recent years. The most articulate and common-sense argument for closing this gap is found in "The Spirit Level" by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, published in 2009. If inequality widens between groups of people, they will inevitably distance themselves from each other and find the other's behaviour increasingly alien and incomprehensible. Much of the violence has stemmed from individuals living in relative proximity to wealth, but finding that affluence frustratingly unattainable. We need to urgently rebuild a sense of shared community and give everybody a stake in it. The time has come for the Big Society, but not in the way that conservatives have been expressing it. We need to continue investing in community infrastructure, the provision of career advisors and youth activities in deprived areas. The indicators of success in public policy-making should be to ensure that it does not deepen inequality amongst us.

What does it mean to the Green Party? I am standing for election this month for political office on the Green Party Executive on theEqualities & Diversity ticket and it is strikingly clear to me that this crisis makes this role more critical than ever before. I have talked a great deal in my election platform about the importance of broadening representation within the Green Party, so that the full diversity of voices in this country have a place at the table and a role in solving our problems. This remains more crucial than ever, but it is not the only element that needs to be pursued. To view the Equalities & Diversity Co-ordinator role merely in terms of facilitating inclusion is no longer sufficient after we've experienced this tragic wake-up call. Every sinew of the Green Party needs to be strained to close the inequality gap across our policies and if elected, I will work across the party and on GPEX to champion this at the heart of our activities.

NB: Since I published this article, Caroline Lucas has spoken in the Parliamentary debate on the riots and has given a strong speech touching on many of the points I raised above. It is well worth looking at.

1 comment:

  1. Good article, those with no stake in society, have been drawn into looting and violence, tragic, the right wing response of repression ignores root causes and promises a cycle of more violence.