March 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard
Among the more memorable examples of urban unrest dredged up by the analysts after last August's riots was Tottenham, that place in North London with the Seven Sisters Road and White Hart Lane, Jimmy Greaves and, less happily, the tragedies of Baby P and Victoria Climbie. And the Broadwater Farm Estate where in 1985 there was a riot on a scale to ensure its place in the record books. The riot was notable, too, for the killing of P C Blakelock, an event which led to Winston Silcott being sent to prison for life only to be released in 1991 when his conviction was found to be based on fabricated evidence.
It took a long time for Tottenham to adjust to the memories of those events and to the fragile tension which followed. This was not helped when the Leader of Haringey Council, Bernie Grant, shrugged off the killing of the policeman in the memorable description that “...what (the police) got was a bloody good hiding”. It says enough about those times that Grant went on to be elected when the Parliamentary seat at Tottenham became vacant in 1987 and later stood for the leadership of the Labour Party. He died of a heart attack in 2000; his wife was on the candidates’ short list but the party, perhaps hoping for a less combustible representative, preferred one David Lammy who, when he was elected in June 2000, may have warmed many a Tottenham heart by becoming the Baby of the House – not expected to turn out to be like one of those gurgling, screeching, defecating infants who keep you awake at night.
Thatcher vs Beveridge
And so it has turned out as Lammy, with his scholarships and Masters Degree and being called to the bar, is one of what some electors are comforted to call “middle class”. And perhaps to foster this he was quickly assumed to be well suited to a smooth, unhindered rise up the Greasy Pole with a succession of ministerial posts eventually reaching the heights of Minister of State and Privy Councillor. All this came to an abrupt end with the 2010 election. As the Labour Party subsequently struggled to unravel the chaos of Gordon Brown's leadership, Lammy's contribution to their leadership election did not seem to be entirely free of confusion. He nominated Diane Abbott while declaring his support for Ed Miliband, then refused Miliband's obliging offer of a place in the Shadow Cabinet on the grounds that he wished to be free to speak on a wide range of issues. Labour members may have seen this as something of a continuous process when he bewildered them by writing that he saw common ground between two people who they had always regarded as at opposite ends of the political spectrum: “ . . . to knit society back together again . . . means a working class with a stake in capitalism and a middle class with faith once again in the welfare state. It requires fulfilling the goals expressed by both Mrs. Thatcher and Beveridge, not one or the other” (Out of the Ashes – Britain After the Riots).
There was more to come on the same theme. At a meeting in September 2011 of the “think tank” Policy Exchange he warned, “We can't have another generation that are routinely unemployed for longer than a year. We have to guarantee these people work otherwise we will pay the price dearly”. But in January he was advising a markedly different explanation for the riots, declaring that they were due to “. . . an explosion of hedonism and nihilism,” rather than government cuts or unemployment. He expanded on this analysis by linking the riotous behaviour to legal restraints on parents smacking children: “Many of my constituents came up to me after the riots and blamed the Labour Government, saying, 'You guys stopped us being able to smack our children”. He then displayed more confusion by outlining the problems of all those frustrated unsmacking parents who “. . . raise children on the 15th floor of a tower block with knives, gangs and the dangers of violent crime outside the window”, contrasting them with those he can classify as “middle class” who can afford to place their children in private schools where they are taught “discipline” and have tennis lessons.
Contradicting Lammy's ravings, there is a mass of established evidence that anti-social behaviour is deep-rooted in poverty and alienation, aggravated by the police assertion as the guardians of property society and its system of class privilege. A study by the London School of Economics and the Guardian – one of many – which interviewed 270 of the rioters last December said that 86 percent of those interviewed gave poverty as the main cause; 85 per cent said the police were “important”; and 79 percent said unemployment. There is no record of anyone mentioning restraints on parental smacking of children. If, as Lammy blusters, “hedonism” and “nihilism” were contributory factors, that is likely to be, as an observer of a typical Saturday afternoon in any shopping centre will notice, the effects of the “branding” of goods which is designed to be a powerful aid in a profitable sales method. The problems displayed in the riots and beyond are severe and toxic. The events at Broadwater Farm took place 26 years ago. Has nothing been learned since then, as the politicians promised? Has nothing of any consequence changed? As long as the matter is left to the likes of David Lammy, that is all there is to look forward to.