In London, it's jobs, stupid
by Ben Rogers
I don’t know much about inner city hoodie culture, Lethal Bizzle not really being my thing, but this is my take on the recent riots.
In short, we badly need some new thinking on how to tackle the social and cultural pathologies that no doubt contributed to the riots in London and beyond, and there is no doubt much we can learn from successes and failures in tackling gangs in the US and elsewhere, and other recent cultures of disaffection and violence. But we also badly need some new thinking on how to tackle the massive challenge of improving skills and tackling unemployment in our capital.
A few years back I spent a year working on community cohesion for Haringey in North London, including Tottenham where this month’s riots started, and which could arguaby lay claim to being the most diverse place in the world.
I was slightly surprised, then, to be told repeatedly by councilors, council officers and community leaders that the real tensions in Haringey were not between its many different racial and ethnic communities. The real cleavage was between young and older people, with each looking at the other with wariness, if not outright hostility. This seemed to echo work by ippr and others showing that British youth appear particularly alienated from broader society. And it seems congruent with recent experiences, which saw young people of every colour rioting together, even if the riots were sparked off by the killing of a black man by a largely white police force.
The left and right have inevitably disagreed about the nature of the riots. The right, once it had stopped insisting that they were an uncaused manifestation of evil - have instinctively found the roots of the riots in social and cultural pathologies which disfigure certain parts of Britain – ‘culture’ said Cameron, not ‘poverty’ was to blame. The left has tended, equally instinctively, to see their roots in high levels of unemployment and inequality, wilting public services, and falling incomes. Both are right.
To Shiv Malik, writing in Prospect, it is just common sense that these were a protest against discrimination and disadvantage. In fact, as was widely observed, the riots were remarkable for their apparently un-political, consumerist focus. This appeared unprecedented. David Goodhart, also writing in Prospect, has made the powerful argument that they were at least in part an expression of a culture of grievance and victimization that encourages young inner city kids in the view that the system is against them and that there is no point in really trying. Camilla Batmanghelidjh similarly sees the riots arising from ‘large groups of young adults creating their own parallel antisocial communities with different rules’. There is no doubt that this disaffection grew out of the discrimination faced by black and Asian migrants to this country – though it was nourished more distantly too by the terrible experiences of black Americans. This culture has also spread to white city children and become a force in itself, only too clearly manifest in the growth of gangs.
If Goodhart’s argument is valid, it is only part of the story. A surrounding context for the riots includes a broader (and particularly British?) culture of consumerism, changes in childhood, the route to adulthood and weaknesses in our local institutions. We need to, as Goodhart does, take the attitudes and beliefs of people who took part in the riots seriously. Reducing violent rioting to poverty as a cause is just too simple - as if cultural attitudes are simply an expression of economic developments, rather than a force in shaping them. And understanding the cultural dimension to the riots suggests we learn lessons from successful efforts to tackle gangs and explore relations to other cultures of disaffection and violence – football hooliganism, far right nationalism, jihadism.
But what about the economic factors? As figures published since the riots show, its not all bad news. On some counts at least, London is faring relatively well. London schools, as measured by GCSE attainment, have gone from strength to strength, and the recent GCSE results continue that trend - at least if the national headline figures are anything to go by.
And surprisingly, the latest figures on the number of 16-18 year olds not in employment, education or training (‘NEETS’) are also not discouraging. Their proportion in London has actually fallen since the recession, bucking the national trend.
Conversely, the work prospects facing many young Londoners are fairly bleak and getting bleaker. Around one in ten young Londoners have no qualifications at all. And around 24 per cent of young Londoners are unemployed, compared to 18 per cent nationally – this is an increase of about 5 per cent since the beginning of the recession.
The cuts to the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) will also have a particularly profound effect on London, which has a large school age population – a striking 42 per cent of 16 and 17 year olds in Haringey currently receive EMA, giving them each £30 a week to stay in school.
To add bitter icing to an already sour cake, government drives to get more long term unemployed into jobs are likely to run into trouble . The Social Market Foundation's powerful report on the viability of the Work Programme - the coalition’s flagship approach to getting the long term unemployed into work - argues that the targets set for the programme were either unrealistically high or funding unrealistically low. The challenges faced by the Work Programme is arguably greatest in London, not least because the government makes no allowance for the higher costs of operating the programme in London. This graph, from the LSEO gives some flavour of the challenge .
The Work Programme will need to considerably out-perform the New Deal framework it is replacing. Yet there are fewer jobs to go around.
Thanks to the London Skills and Employment Observatory for the background stats and graphs.