Consensus after the riots?
by Ben Rogers
At the time, it seemed natural to assume that this summer’s riots would represent a significant watershed in politics and policy. But after two weeks listening to political debate at the Lib Dem conference in Birmingham and the Labour one in Liverpool, I wonder, will they?
There was good reason for thinking that the riots, or rather our response to them, might represent some sort of a turning point. The last two sets of major riots both had a very marked impact on policy and more indirectly on society. The Scarman Report on the 1981 Brixton riots - with its strong criticism of police heavy-handedness towards Britain’s fast-growing urban black communities - did not go down well with many in the ruling Conservative party. It did, however, lead to a fairly profound shift in police culture, and contributed to a wider drive to address unemployment and disaffection in declining urban heartlands – a drive most closely associated with Michael Heseltine.
The 2001 riots in the former mill towns of Bradford, Burnley and Oldham and the Cantle report that followed had a profounder impact still. Pointing the finger at the way the Asian and white populations of these towns had come to live ‘parallel’ lives, Cantle argued for policies that encouraged interaction, mutual understanding and shared identities. A politics of multi-culturalism gave way to one of integration and ‘community cohesion’.
The response to the riots in London and elsewhere could be expected to be deeper still. After all, they appear to speak to a pre-existing, widespread concern, that more needs to be done to address the ‘breakdown of the family’, improve parenting, and better support disadvantaged young people into adulthood. Over the last decade or so, evidence has mounted about the importance of early years in shaping later outcomes, and the importance of ‘character’ and social skills in today’s economy. This has become a hot policy topic across the political spectrum. True, there is heartfelt disagreement between left and right on issues like whether marriage should be incentivised through the tax system, teaching and discipline in school, the role of commercial pressures, and the importance of poverty and inequality. But the principle is shared.
Policy analysis is going in the same direction. ippr’s work on young people, Demos on Character, and Centre for Social Justice’s on social fragmentation are all worrying away at a similar set of issues. All agree that over the generations, we have invested too little in early years and youth services, and not done enough to support people into the responsibilities of adulthood. This came home to me when, a few years ago, I told a senior government economist that I was writing a report on social capital in poor communities. ‘I wouldn’t waste your time,’ he said. ‘All the evidence is pointing to the need to invest in families and children, not communities’.
The public inquiry that the Prime Minister conceded to his Liberal-Democrat partners is out next month, but it appears narrow in focus. The ‘Victims and Witnesses Panel’, chair by Darra Singh, is not a full public inquiry, as the Scarman inquiry was. It seems to be focusing only on the views and experiences of those directly involved, rather than other inquiries which are focused on shaping a ‘shared narrative’, as happened with the 2001 riots. It is possible to imagine a consensus emerging that supports a very significant boost to programmes improving parenting skills or providing more structure to out-of-school activities. As Graham Allen’s Government-backed report suggests, there might even be clever ways of paying for some of this (for example, through ‘justice re-investment’ type initiatives, or social impact bonds).
True, money is short, and other issues loom large over Westminster and Whitehall, not least the on-going global economic crisis. Speakers I heard at Lib Dem or Labour conferences did not appear particularly pre-occupied with the riots or to have anything particularly penetrating to say about them. The political motorcade has moved on. But then perhaps politicians are simply waiting, as they should, to hear what the inquiries find. I’ll be listening out for what the Conservative have to say at their conference this week, but even more, for the initial findings of the Singh Inquiry.