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

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.

React Now

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

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page


Ed Miliband's conference speech must show Labour has a head as well as a heart

Patrick Diamond
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments