Aftermath of August
Eddie Ford looks at the response to the UK riots, both from the establishment and the left
Stunned by the ferocity and magnitude of the recent riots, its world temporarily turned upside down, the dazed establishment has responded with a show of force - time to reclaim the streets. So far just over 2,000 have been arrested and over 1,300 people have appeared in court on various charges relating to the riots. In total, using the latest official statistics, the police have recorded more than 3,000 offences, including 1,101 of burglary in non-residential buildings, 95 cases of handling stolen goods and 48 reports of serious wounding.
Predictably, but no less sickening for that, we have seen a vindictive and vengeful response from the authorities - throw the book at them. Detailed analysis of 1,000 riot-related cases heard by magistrates has shown a 70% overall rate of imprisonment, compared to the normal 2%. Public order offences are leading to sentences 33% longer than usual and those convicted of assaulting police officers have been jailed for 40% longer. Seven in 10 of those charged with riot-related offences were remanded in custody, as opposed to only one in 10 of those charged last year with serious offences. And so on.
Indeed, some of the saner members of the establishment are beginning to worry that the government's over-the-top reaction threatens to bring the whole criminal justice system into disrepute. They might have a point. Eoin McLennan Murray, president of the Prison Governors Association, has likened the magistrates courts to sharks who sense there is blood in the water - openly accusing them of embarking on a "feeding frenzy" of "disproportionate sentencing", spurred on by nothing else than "naked popularism". Inevitably, McLennan Murray argued, this is leading to all manner of unfairness and injustice. The state must avoid "acting in an extreme way", he said.
McLennan Murray also made the point - quite correctly, of course - that putting minor offenders behind bars is a "risky strategy", given the fact that "prison isn't the sort of place where you learn the best way". And, needless to say, all statistics confirm that, once you have had a spell in prison, it is far more likely that you will re-offend - or even become a habitual criminal. Stung by the criticisms, the chairman of the Magistrates' Association, John Thornhill, replied that it was "just not the case" that normal sentencing was being ignored. Rather, he maintained - and this doubtlessly has a large degree of truth to it - the "vast majority of sentences have been imposed by the professional judiciary, not by the lay magistrates". That is, the magistrates courts have been swiftly passing on the cases before them to the higher courts - conveyor-belt 'justice'.
As a consequence, by August 19 the prison population in England and Wales had reached a record high for the third consecutive week, as the courts continued to jail hundreds of people deemed to have been involved in the riots. The total number of prisoners hit 86,821 and the prison population is now only 1,500 short of the "usable operational capacity". Yet Scotland Yard has warned that its investigations are "far from finished" despite the more than 2,000 arrests. The PGA has issued a statement saying that if people continue to be put behind bars at such a rate, the prisons will be "full" by mid-September. In fact, the PGA bluntly states that the super-punitive approach adopted by the government has pitched the prison system into an "unprecedented situation" of crisis.
Already there are signs of strain - things are starting to burst at the seams. There has been a rise in attacks on prison staff - not something that we report gladly, no matter how much we abhor the brutal UK penal system. At Feltham young offenders institution, inmates broke on to the roof of the building and tore up the gymnasium. Clashes in Styal women's prison, Cheshire, saw "traumatised and psychologically vulnerable" women as young as 17 involved in confrontations with other prisoners.
Obviously, as the prison space literally runs out, so the potential for work, education or rehabilitation - already painfully inadequate, if not almost non-existent - will shrink to virtually zero. A vicious circle. The new influx of angry and resentful prisoners, especially if they had not been directly involved in the riots themselves but still got banged up anyway, will become institutionalised - with crime developing into a way of life. The very thing that the Tories and the rightwing press say they want to prevent - what hypocritical fools.
The government's vengeful crusade does not stop at sentencing, naturally. David Cameron has talked of evicting rioters from their council homes - and, of course, being homeless is always conducive to leading a crime-free life, right? Similarly, Iain Duncan Smith, the secretary of state for work and pensions, has suggested rioters could have their benefits stopped: another real incentive to keep on the straight and narrow. Theresa May, the home secretary - scarily enough - has told prosecutors to "name and shame" as many people as possible connected to the riots, in order to "teach them a lesson". The Howard League for Penal Reform commented that the effective lifting of anonymity for children will serve as a "double punishment" - from now their names will be in the newspapers and the notoriety will cause problems if efforts need to be made to help them reintegrate into society or eventually get a job. Any job.
For an example of the state behaving in an "extreme way", we had the widely reported case of an 18-year-old who urged his friends on Facebook, possibly in a late-night post whilst boozed-up, to go on the streets of Nottingham and "riot". He was sent to a young offenders' institution for nearly three years and now might be fraternising with individuals who have committed a real violent crime - as opposed to mouthing off on a social networking site. What an achievement for the British 'justice' system. And if the government wants to continue imprisoning people who make foolish or inane comments on Facebook, then they better instruct the prison service to make room for at least another 100,000 inmates.
Quite clearly we are seeing a move against broader democratic rights. Immediately after the riots, David Cameron suggested - maybe in a moment of madness - that social media services like Blackberry Messenger, Twitter, Facebook, etc could be closed down "temporarily" to prevent a repeat of the troubles. Ernie Schmidt, Google's executive chairman - not that he has any self-interest in this matter, of course - quickly declared that such a move was likely to "backfire", highlighting how, when the Egyptian authorities under Hosni Mubarak turned the internet off to try and quell unrest, it merely "enraged the citizens" and "got them to leave their homes to protest". Google, the great democrats, it seems. However, it soon became apparent, even to Theresa May, that such an idea was crazy - and, backtracking furiously, she told the social networks at a semi-emergency meeting that the government had no intention of "restricting internet services"; rather, she was just interested in "improving law enforcement online". So Cameron is not about to morph into Hosni Mubarak quite yet.
Self-evidently, the overwhelming majority of rioters were young, male and from deprived areas - often unemployed. Though sounding a bit like a study conducted by Monty Python's Department of the Bleeding Obvious, a Liverpool University urban planning lecturer, Alex Singleton, has found that the majority of people who have appeared in court live in poor neighbourhoods, with 41% of suspects in the most deprived places in the country. The data also shows that 66% of neighbourhoods where the accused live got poorer between 2007 and 2010, and 66% of those who have appeared in court are aged under 25 - with 17% aged between 11 and 17. All this is backed up by a recent report from the Institute of Public Policy Research, which found that that in almost all of the worst-affected areas, youth unemployment and child poverty were significantly higher than the national average, while education attainment was significantly lower.
Communists stand against this tide of authoritarianism and irrationality. The CPGB, it almost goes without saying, does not advocate rioting and looting. To do so would be to embrace the politics of despair, if not nihilism - and in reality would amount to the junking of our communist programme, which outlines a positive vision of universal human liberation. But we attempt to fully understand the causes and origins of the riots, so we can provide answers for society; an alternative to an increasingly dysfunctional capitalism. The plain, unpleasant fact is that very large numbers of youth face a bleak future indeed, possibly a lifetime of flitting between unemployment and soul-destroying, chronically low paid work (ad-hoc, temporary, casual, etc). So they have nothing to look forward to. No wonder then that rioting for some of them brought a moment of joy or release - even if it is was only fleeting. But, as with many drugs, after the highs come the lows.
Official society is in crisis, desperately clawing around for solutions, yet unable to find them. At present, it appears cheaper and easier just to lock up young people, terrorise them even, then actually give them some sort of future. Reversing the regime of cuts and austerity is ruled out in advance by the ruling class, determined to launch naked class war on the working class.
So step forward the left? Tragically, no. The left has got the riots wrong. Hence we had the obviously nauseating example of the Pavlovian left reformists of Socialist Party in England and Wales, which complained that the police did not "act effectively to defend people's homes and local small businesses and shops" and "were not prepared to protect local areas", perhaps due to cuts in police numbers. We take it then that SPEW's 'answer' to the riots, and to declining capitalism in general, is to demand more policing? It has obviously not occurred to it that the main function of the police, as an organ of the bourgeois state, is to uphold existing property relations - not protect working class communities. But the Socialist Workers Party has got it all wrong too - very wrong. The comrades cretinously dress up the riots as a straightforward rebellion by the dispossessed, something that actually points the way forward, it seems. Accordingly, we read in Socialist Worker that during the riots "the streets weren't the police's any more", but rather "belonged to the angry, disenfranchised and the poor". In fact, we discover, the riots represented the "biggest urban uprising in Britain for decades" - as "years of burning anger poured out" and the "police surrendered the streets across London". Anarchy in the UK, as blessed by the SWP.
If only we could attribute such infantile nonsense to merely a bad day at the Socialist Worker office - maybe the air conditioning broke down and the editors became overheated. But just look at the SWP central committee's motion to the forthcoming party council, the delegate body which "has power to take decisions on matters of general policy binding on the CC" between annual conferences. The motion asserts that the "riots that swept across large parts of Britain were an explosion of anger and rage" and "have nothing to do with criminality or gang culture" - absolutely not. It then proceeds to inform SWP comrades that "across many parts of the world we are witnessing a rising curve of militancy and resistance" - like the Arab revolutions, general strikes in Greece, mass strikes in the US and China, movements of the poor and unemployed in Spain and Portugal, etc. "Britain is no exception", the SWP CC stridently states, so in "the space of nine months we have seen two waves of mass demonstrations and riots" ('CC document for party council, September 11 2011').
Self-deluding idiocy, the flipside of SPEW's craven, legalistic reformism. Once again, the SWP comrades are collapsing before spontaneity - bowing to the rioters. Many ordinary people were at the receiving end of the riots. In other words, the working class were just as much victims of the riots as they were its instigators. Yes, the riots might have begun as a (peaceful) political protest in Tottenham against the police killing of Mark Duggan - but that quickly degenerated into individualistic and criminal looting. A simple fact which communists have no interest in prettifying. Frankly, it is a fantasy to believe that the riots can be likened to organised working class political action. Not that we in the CPGB deny for a minute that the riots could be a sign of things to come. But this is hardly something to rejoice in, more a danger signal that the working class is becoming further atomised and demoralised - and a reminder that the left has failed to provide any kind of viable alternative to the Tory programme of managing capitalism in crisis.
- The Guardian August 21.
- Socialist Worker August 13.