Sarah Sachs-Eldridge
Riots: rioters and police in Tottenham during August 2011 disturbances , photo Paul Mattsson

Riots: rioters and police in Tottenham during August 2011 disturbances , photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Britain in 2012 is a ruthless ‘them and us’ society. Millionaire ministers dish out life-destroying cuts to working class and young people while doing the bidding of their super-rich pals in big business. A new report on the riots that shook England’s cities last year, After the Riots, commissioned by the government, shows once again an out of touch elite acting in the interests of the 1%. To say this puny report falls short of providing any useful solutions would be gross understatement.

The report implicitly shows that all three main political parties got August’s explosions of anger wrong. Prime Minister David Cameron tried to explain the riots as “criminality, pure and simple”.

Labour leader Ed Miliband also called the events “disgraceful criminal behaviour” and demanded that Cameron order “the strongest possible police response”. While falling far short of solutions the report at least reflects that unemployment and public service shortages were a factor.

The Socialist Party explained that rioting is not an effective way of expressing anger and that it is working class communities that suffer. But we also said that these events represented an inchoate form of protest by a generation facing attacks on every front. We said “most of the factors which led to the riots – which were predictable and were predicted by the Socialist – are rooted in the worsening economic and social situation, and the sense of powerlessness this engenders.”

The Guardian’s Reading the Riots (RtR) research revealed the burning anger of young people involved in these events. Poverty (86%) and inequality (70%) were two of the main reasons interviewees gave for their participation in the riots. It should not be surprising. Income inequality is currently at its highest since World War Two.

The media have picked up on the report’s reference to “500,000 forgotten families who bump along the bottom”. What an indictment of the capitalist system – in what is one of the richest countries on the planet.

Half a million families are struggling to survive, denied the jobs, pay, services and support they need. As the vicious measures in the latest budget take effect, this number will increase. Undoing this impoverishment is not among the Panel’s measly recommendations.

RtR respondents also referred to the growing proof of the rottenness of the political elite: the MPs’ expenses scandal, Murdochgate and bankers’ bonuses. This of course continues apace with Cameron’s ‘dining donors’. The Panel mentions none of this.

No future for youth

Those brought before the courts were largely young. Three-quarters were under 24. Two-thirds of them had special educational needs and were likely to miss at least one day a week of school. 70% of those before the courts come from the 30% most deprived post codes.

Almost despite itself, the report found a “feeling expressed by some rioters that they had no hope and nothing to lose.” 55% of black men aged 16-24 are unemployed. On average more than one in five of that age group is jobless. With the EMA student payments stolen from them and the tripling of university fees and rapidly worsening conditions for the poorest in society, what else could be expected?

Unsurprisingly 83% of the people interviewed for the Panel’s Neighbourhood Survey feel that youth unemployment is a problem in their area and 71% felt there were insufficient employment opportunities for young people.

The Panel makes vague recommendations that the government take action for young people in long-term unemployment but this is an empty and derisory pledge, given there is no indication of where jobs should come from – there is no call for the government to invest in a programme of public works to restore and expand much-needed public services and create jobs.

Public services

The yawning cuts to public services threaten to erode the ties that bind young people to society. But the Panel merely points to ‘deficiencies’ in many public services as a factor behind the riots. This is sheer hypocrisy.

Most of the panel members have well-paid careers in local and national government. They know as we all do that it is the billions of pounds gouged out of services by the Con-Dems as well as decades of privatisation under Tories and Labour that have annihilated many public services.

Literacy levels are correctly a cause for concern. One-fifth of school leavers have literacy levels at or below that of an 11-year old. But the Panel’s response is to say that schools be effectively fined for this.

Another example is the Panel’s recommendation for a “careers support guarantee”. Who could disagree? But no mention is made to the slashing of this service as was described in the Guardian last December: “thousands of school careers advisers are being laid off and many others are having their hours cut, leaving teenagers to finish school and college without official guidance on their next move”.

Connexions, the service that provided careers and benefits advice for young people, has been destroyed. Undoing these cruel cuts would also create jobs.

The riots were sparked in Tottenham, north London, when friends and family of Mark Duggan, fatally shot by police, were ignored as they protested about his death. The local council, Haringey, had previously slashed its youth services budget by 75%. Young people in the area at the time warned that the closure of eight of the borough’s 13 youth clubs would lead to riots.

But the Panel blithely recommends “that local authorities work with local services to maximise the availability of buildings, facilities and equipment to local youth groups and services and that they challenge instances where this is not happening.”

In the immediate aftermath of the riots Youth Fight for Jobs campaigned among young people in the area to put pressure on the Labour-led council to re-open the services. This shows what is necessary.

Without demanding that councils set a needs budget and link up with the local trade union and anti-cuts movement to fight for money from central government this and many of the Panel’s other demands are meaningless.

Unquestionably the money is there to fund public services – given the £120 billion annual theft through tax avoidance by the wealthy and the over £750 billion hoarded by big business.

Instead of Chancellor Osborne cutting the highest rates of tax they should be raised and a levy introduced on the cash piles. Opening the books of job-shedding companies and genuine nationalisation under democratic workers’ control and management must be discussed by the labour movement to show that the cuts are not necessary and can be fought.

Organised resistance needed

The riots brought suffering to those who lost family members and friends through the five deaths and those who lost property and means to make a living. It also led to increased repression from the government. The appalling sentencing is having a devastating effect on young lives.

But even that does not mean that further rioting is ruled out. Given that the conditions behind the angry eruptions have not changed, there can be little wonder that the vast majority, 81%, felt that there would be more riots (RtR).

TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, predicted the riots but failed to act on this foresight, by taking such action as organising a mass demo against the education cuts and in defence of student protesters in 2010. The trade unions could remedy the perception that they are not fighting for young people by now throwing their weight into the battle against youth unemployment.

Young people have been betrayed by all the mainstream politicians, such as Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems who broke all their pre-election promises on university fees. Miliband and his shadow chancellor Ed Balls have explicitly said that a future Labour government would not undo the Tory cuts and have no solutions to youth unemployment other than their own version of the government’s hated slave labour workfare schemes.

Young people need to develop their own democratic and mass movement, including building anti-cuts unions in colleges, sixth forms and schools as well as the universities. But it is particularly important that young people link up with the trade union movement and the working class to build a movement powerful enough to stop the Con-Dem cuts and kick them out.

Anger at police

The Panel’s Neighbourhood Survey found that one in three people thinks the police are corrupt and one in five thinks they are dishonest. It was not only in Tottenham that the initial focus for the explosions of anger was police stations.

85% of those interviewed by the Guardian cited policing as a cause of the riots, especially stop-and-search. Harassment is a routine occurrence for many young people with young black men especially affected.

Since August, figures have shown that black people are 30 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched by police in England and Wales.

The Panel proposes that the police make better use of social media. But tweeting and liking Facebook pages is not going to overcome these suspicions which are based on material experience.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission is widely seen as useless. The Panel recommends that it phases out the employment of ex-police officers to investigate the police, showing the utter rottenness of that organisation.

To carry out the delayed investigation into Mark Duggan’s death and the hundreds of deaths in custody that remain without justice, the trade union movement must demand a genuinely independent inquiry, made up of elected representatives from the local trade unions, community organisations and especially young people.


This report should act like a red rag to a bull for trade unionists, anti-cuts campaigners and young people. It shows the government has no plan to do anything but continue with its privatisation and cuts agenda. For the movement to defend jobs and services to be successful and have a mass appeal it needs a programme which includes the following demands:

  • No to mass unemployment. For huge public investment in a massive programme of socially useful job creation. For decent minimum wage, pensions and benefits that you can live on.
  • Don’t cut our public services – expand them! Reverse all privatisation and take out-sourced services back in house
  • Re-open all closed youth facilities and services such as Connexions. Re-employ all those who have lost their jobs with funding from central government Invest in young people’s future. Restore and increase the EMA. Scrap university, Esol (English for speakers of other languages) and college fees. Invest in good publicly funded education and training
  • For government investment in mass renovation and house building, creating jobs and improving health
  • No to police harassment and racism. End discriminatory stop and search and section 60. No increase in repressive police powers
  • An independent trade union-led inquiry into the death of Mark Duggan. Scrap the IPCC. We need police accountability through democratic control by local people and trade unions
  • Nationalise the banks and big corporations under democratic workers’ control and management with compensation only on the basis of proven need
  • Build a united, democratic and organised working class movement to protest, occupy and strike against cuts
  • Drive out the Con-Dems. Support the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), an alliance of the Socialist Party, others and trade union leaders like Bob Crow as the first step towards building a new mass workers’ party that can express and fight in the interests of all workers and youth. See
  • For a socialist world free from the blight of the profit motive which results in poverty, racism, war and the suffering of millions

Their answer? A stiff upper lip!

In keeping with the government approach the Panel emphasises individual failings and seeks changes there. It focuses on “character-building” and developing “personal resilience” to advertising, disappointment, frustration etc. Basically young people faced with things they cannot and never will be able to afford or do should not get angry but be taught how to maintain a ‘stiff upper lip’.

Seemingly based on a vague idea that those with stronger characters were able to resist participating in the riots and therefore schools must ‘teach’ character building, the Panel proposes that Ofsted reviews schools’ character-building programmes and that students’ “strength of character is regularly assessed”. No doubt teachers and students who already face massive stress through Ofsted inspections and over-testing will be sickened to read this.

The NUT teachers’ union has responded saying: “Government needs to do far more to reduce child poverty and youth unemployment, including restoring the EMA to its former levels and getting rid of tuition fees. They also need to stop cutting school and Local Authority budgets to ensure there is sufficient professional support available for those pupils who need it.”

Outrageously the Panel quotes the headmaster of super-elite £30,981-a-year Eton: “By the time he leaves the school, we want each boy to have that true sense of self-worth which will enable him to stand up for himself and for a purpose greater than himself, and, in doing so, to be of value to society.”

Attempts at teaching ‘self-worth’ will only go so far when you’re a young person living in poverty, faced with a future on the unemployment scrapheap. Illustrating the anger, as well as the impact of poverty on self-esteem, Omar said he stole Nike tracksuit bottoms during the riots to make him feel like “people with money, good families”, who he said look down on him. “I hate feeling like people are judging me. They don’t know about me and then they just look at you and I hate it, I absolutely hate it” (RtR).

Before the riots, Omar said his clothes were ripped or dirty. “And when I get new clothes I feel better”, he said. “Then they will have to look down at someone else”. He added: “I have gone to loads of jobs with my CV. But I’ve got no qualifications so people just don’t want me – there’s people better than me”.


But socialists recognise that experience can impact on character. The young people who completed the 330-mile Jarrow March for Jobs faced many obstacles, including Tory and media attacks, attempts by police and councils to block the march and of course the physical demands of such an undertaking. They came through it more determined than ever to fight for their future. On the way they inspired and were inspired by trade unionists and anti-cuts campaigners, building huge solidarity.