Wanted - working class morality

Eddie Ford comments on the murder of 11-year-old Rhys Jones in Liverpool

Recent headlines have reminded us - yet again - that for very many children and youth in this country life is hardly idyllic. Indeed, all evidence indicates that childhood and adolescence are becoming increasingly fraught and stressful experiences - more something to be endured than enjoyed.

All this was dramatically underlined by the horrific murder of 11-year-old Rhys Jones in Liverpool. To date, the investigation into the killing has seen the arrest of 17 people - in addition to a further five released without charge and now being treated as witnesses. And there was also the discovery - though apparently unconnected - of two guns near the shooting scene. It would not be unreasonable to conclude that the high number of arrests, and the located firearms, generated by the Jones case demonstrates an acute level - and problem - of criminality in the area.

Then at the Old Bailey on August 31 we had the conviction for manslaughter and violent disorder of five youths, now aged between 12 and 14 - who were all members of a local gang called 'TNE' (The New Estate). They were found guilty of killing a father of two as he played cricket with his teenage son. Ernest Norton, aged 67, suffered a heart attack when a group of up to 20 youths pelted him with stones and sticks - and shouted abuse such as "rubbish bowler" and "Go back to the old people's home".

Earlier in the day the youths, so the court heard, had met another group for a fight - so, in a sense, Norton was, like Jones, unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. At the trial only one of the accused, now aged 14, gave evidence - saying he was only throwing stones at the cricket stumps in order to have a "bit of fun", and added that the boys had ended up at the leisure centre because there was "nothing else to do". The teenager, who belongs to a boxing club, also said that the gang was formed so they could play football and enjoy 'manhunt' - a particularly rough form of hide-and-seek.

Exposing the whole tragic waste of the situation, he described his behaviour towards Norton as "stupid", "revolting" and "appalling" - not that his 'confession' will prevent him, and the others, from being sent down on October 19 when sentence is pronounced. Among the youngest defendants ever to appear at the central criminal court, they were bailed for reports before sentencing by the judge - who had complained strongly about their behaviour and conduct during the hearing. So much so, in fact, that he actually ordered the boys' parents to "keep them under control".

Naturally, the rightwing press and the Tories have attempted to create a moral panic. David Cameron talked about "anarchy in the UK" - which he believed was due to "family breakdown", "lack of discipline in schools" and a "lack of proper values being taught in the home". Doing its moralistic bit, last week The Daily Telegraph published a YouGov survey which found that 41% wanted the minimum age to buy alcohol raised from 18 to 21. And a separate poll from ICM, commissioned by Channel 4 News, came out with similar results - with 52% saying only over-21s should be allowed to buy alcohol.

Self-evidently, this is the height of irrational nonsense - a knee-jerk authoritarian response which could only escalate youth-related social problems and crime, not reduce it. Just look at the human disaster zone known as the United States. But, of course, the same reactionary elements in society who would like to see a crackdown on alcohol are also currently agitating for cannabis/marijuana to be re-reclassified - back to its old status as a 'class B' drug alongside amphetamines and LSD. The 'war on drugs and booze', just like the 'war on crime', aims to roll back social progress and gains - hoping to undo the horrors of the 'promiscuous society' ushered in during the 1960s and onwards.

Just what are the facts - or at least the statistics - about gun crime? Well, since the start of 2007 eight young people have lost their lives in shootings - six in London, one in Manchester and then Rhys Jones in Liverpool. According to provisional home office figures, there were 58 firearms-related homicides in 2006-07, compared with 49 in the previous year - thus representing an increase of 18% in the space of one year. If we also include airguns, the number of homicides in 2006-07 rose to 61. In total, there were 413 firearms incidents that resulted in serious injury - more than one a day.

But, having said that, the trend in gun crime overall seems to be going down. The number of incidents involving firearms in 2006-07 was 9,608 - an actual 13% reduction from the previous year, and the lowest number in seven years. Firearms robberies, handgun offences and serious injuries from firearms are also down. Just over half of all firearms offences occurred in three major areas - London, Greater Manchester and West Midlands.

Additionally, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College London has recently conducted extensive research which concluded that between 22,000 and 57,900 young people could have been victims of knife crime in 2004. However, without better and more rigorous official data from the home office it is impossible to establish a truly accurate figure.

However, what has been established is that almost a fifth of all crimes committed by under-18s are violent offences, second only to theft - but that the vast majority are relatively minor assaults, obviously frightening for the victim but usually dealt with by warnings from the police. Of last year's crimes, 39,000 offences were committed by young men and 15,000 by young women. The number of 'actually existing' offenders will be much lower, of course, because one person is very often found to have assaulted more than one victim. Only 1,500 resulted in some form of detention - nine involved a life detention order.

Now, make of these statistics what you will. But one thing that is clear is that young people are most likely to be the victim of crime - not old age pensioners sitting alone in their flat or middle-age shoppers flashing their credit cards in the high street. But, regardless of the truth, youth will continue to be demonised by the tabloid press and sections of official society - always on the hunt for easy scapegoats.

Yet the truth of the matter is that the youth have to increasingly bear the brunt for Britain's general capitalist decline. Young workers are in general not protected by trade union membership - less and less so, in fact. Homelessness and unemployment - and hence crime - are greatly disproportionate amongst the young. Those that make it onto an official training scheme will doubtless be offered something utterly mediocre and unimaginative - designed more to massage government statistics than equip youth with the skills of the future. And if you go on to university you are more than likely be given a woefully diluted, factory-fed, 'one size fits all' pseudo-education - for which privilege you will have to rack up staggering levels of personal debt.

Then, to top it all off, the odds are that you will never be able to afford to buy a house anyway, given current market conditions. Therefore, you will be forced to either stay at home with your parents/relatives for an agonisingly long period of time or plunge into the Darwinian jungle of the private rental sector - moving from one sub-standard, over-priced, temporary accommodation to the next, year in and year out.

Is it any wonder that so many youth suffer from alienation?

Naturally, when we hear some establishment figure - or whoever - going on about the 'good old days' of the 1930s when you could leave your front door open and not worry about being broken into, there is an instinctive tendency to dismiss what they are saying as reactionary, nostalgic nonsense about a time that never existed.

However, that would be a mistake. There is a certain truth to such a 'backward-looking' comment. In the past - and this is hardly the distant, ancient past - there was a real working class culture based on a sense of solidarity and commonality. The organisations of the working class, no matter how weak or profoundly flawed their politics and programme might have been, were part of that cultural fabric - helping to 'police' society and prevent an anarchical breakdown in working class values and standards.

For communists today, the main task is to provide an alternative vision of society and the world. One that will inspire youth and, in turn, provide role models genuinely worth having, as our working class organisations grow and organically throw up leaders, thinkers, artists, writers, etc. Logically, as part of this process of democratic empowerment - and organisation - from below, we would create our own self-defence bodies and units (ie, workers' militias). And, yes, there would be local social-political organisation, but as part of the centralist whole - the sum is always bigger than the parts.

Sad to say, the Socialist Workers Party fails to provide much by way of an alternative. If anything, the feeble scheme it chooses to promote is just as futile - and pathetic - as those of the ruling class. In the latest edition of Socialist Worker, Zoe Davies - a policy and research associate at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies - writes about "some steps that have been suggested to effect radical change".

Apparently, these include: banning the imprisonment of children under the age of 18; raising the age of criminal responsibility; encouraging diversion into positive activities and focusing on strengths and skills; investing in preventative solutions, including meeting mental health and educational needs; holding a royal commission into the state of the youth justice system in England and Wales; discouraging political knee-jerk reactions, and tackling the negative perceptions and demonisation of young people. Davies concludes that "the problem, therefore, is how we convince politicians and the public that the punishment of abused and ill children will not heal them" (September 8).

Very revolutionary, comrade (if that is how Davies likes to be addressed). And in the same wretched mode, a week earlier, Michael Lavalette - Respect councillor for Preston Town Centre ward and a senior lecturer in social policy at Liverpool University - informs us that "most violent crime is directed at young men in the vicinity of pubs and at taxi ranks on Friday and Saturday nights", which "suggests that some of the questions need to be addressed to the alcohol industry" (September 1).

Such a comment smacks of playing to the islamic fundamentalist gallery: should booze be further restricted? Banned? His approach certainly has more in common with teetotaling ethical socialism than the genuinely radical politics to be expected from an organisation which still claims to be "revolutionary Marxist".