Mary Ann Sieghart: How far right are we going?

If Cameron isn't careful, he will find that Miliband has painted a more coherent picture of the causes of the riots

Share
Related Topics

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 Independent, 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 in 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.





m.sieghart@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Head Porter / Concierge

£16000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Credit Controller

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

Recruitment Genius: Interactive / Mobile Developer

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The UCAS clearing house call centre in Cheltenham, England  

Ucas should share its data on students from poor backgrounds so we can get a clearer picture of social mobility

Conor Ryan
A study of 16 young women performing light office work showed that they were at risk of being over-chilled by air conditioning in summer  

It's not just air conditioning that's guilty of camouflage sexism

Mollie Goodfellow
Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
10 best sun creams for kids

10 best sun creams for kids

Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

Tate Sensorium

New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

Remember Ashton Agar?

The No 11 that nearly toppled England
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks