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Mary Ann Sieghart: We must be tough on rioters, but even tougher on the causes of riots


If a conservative is a liberal who's just been mugged, then almost all English city-dwellers are going to feel a lot more right wing now. For we didn't just witness the riots, we felt actively targeted and acutely vulnerable. Many readers will have much worse stories to tell, but a member of my family had his house looted by thugs who beat his door down, a friend was mugged and kicked in the head by a bunch of 20 hoodies, and my daughter – home alone – had to barricade herself into the house as rioters and riot police fought in our local high street.

By Tuesday morning, most of us were as enraged as we were terrified. If you found yourself thinking, "So what was so wrong with the stocks?" you probably weren't alone. The weekend opinion polls showed overwhelming support for water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets.

To be a liberal, you have to have compassion and empathy for those who are worse off. It is easy to feel that in the abstract, and even easier if you are actively involved in helping them. But it is terribly hard to continue to feel compassion for people who have repaid it with hatred. As Camila Batmanghelidjh of Kids Company explained so lucidly in last week's i, the trouble with these excluded young people is that they have no empathy for others. How else could they set light to buildings with people in them or steal from a young man who is lying bleeding on the street?

You have to be a saint, like her, to continue to feel compassion for people who have committed violence to you or your neighbourhood. If you no longer feel safe in your bed, your first instinct is to want the evil-doers to be locked up. Your second is to demand a lot more police protection than any of us saw last Monday night.

So it's not surprising that both main party leaders have found themselves moving to the right. David Cameron declared that the riots were criminality, pure and simple, and produced a list of new punitive measures to reassure the public. Ed Miliband sensibly resisted the temptation to blame the looting on spending cuts and instead deplored the smash-and-grab mentality of the rioters. But once public order has been properly restored and the riots are no more than a nightmarish memory, people are going to start asking more difficult questions. You can lock 'em up, after all, but you can't throw away the key. The looters will be out of jail in six months' time and the problem won't be solved. They will simply have become more alienated, less employable and better skilled at criminal pursuits.

Meanwhile, some of those who weren't caught may be targeted by a police crackdown on gangs. Again, though, a punitive approach won't solve the problem unless it is accompanied by help for members who want to leave their gangs and alternative associations for boys to join. What attracts them to gangs is the sense of belonging, the protection, the structure, the discipline, the respect, all of which are lacking from their lives outside.

As Shaun Bailey, the Government's Big Society ambassador, will attest, these boys need to join the Army cadets or start boxing or train very seriously for a sport. They need tough, inspirational male role models who can motivate them to find purpose in their lives. And, speaking of role models, they need to see that those at the top of society aren't also in it for what they can get.

These themes play well into Miliband's argument that there has been an abdication of responsibility at all levels of society. This is an idea that is just starting to gain ground on the right too – witness a banker-bashing column by The Daily Telegraph's Peter Oborne which went viral last week. But it's a more uncomfortable thesis for a Conservative government to make.

It used to be hard for Labour too. When Peter Mandelson declared that he was "intensely relaxed" about people becoming "filthy rich", he was merely following the New Labour orthodoxy that any attack on the rich was seen as an attack on the middle classes who aspired to be rich. But that sense of solidarity between the middle class and the "overclass" was shredded by the banking crisis. Hard-working professionals saw their livelihoods, savings and pensions wrecked by bankers who continued to pay themselves toxic bonuses.

As a result, it's no longer politically suicidal for a Labour leader to talk of higher taxes for the very rich or to lament Britain's historically gaping level of inequality. Nor is it wildly socialist to point to the fact that very unequal countries tend to have higher levels of crime. If people at the bottom are left too far behind the rest of society, they are less likely to believe they have a stake in it.

So "tough on riots" is all very well, but it's not enough on its own. If Cameron isn't careful, he will find that Miliband has painted a more coherent picture of the causes of riots, just as Tony Blair did after the Jamie Bulger murder. Labour's message may then resonate better with the mood of the country, which will want future riots prevented as well as past rioters punished. After all, a Labour Party that has moved to the right is closer to most voters' broadly centrist views than a Conservative Party that has moved even further to the right.