It’s a sad fact that too much of modern politics revolves around sound-bites. David Cameron’s attempt to move his party on from Mrs Thatcher’s nostrum “no such thing as society” has swung wildly from ‘big society’ to ‘broken society’ with not much in between. Boris Johnson has at least promised to be more reflective.
For my part, this month’s riots sent me looking in my filing cabinet for the account I wrote of the Brixton riots when, back in September 1985, I was the newly-elected GLC member for Vauxhall. The police had accidentally shot Cherry Groce during a bungled house search. Long-standing community tensions erupted into a weekend of looting, followed a week later by the Broadwater Farm riot in Tottenham.
The parallels are uncanny. And what I wrote then – of wanton disorder that had no excuse, but where a partial explanation could be found in a generation lacking opportunity, feeling left out and left behind – applies today too.
Some say the answer is a law-and-order crack down, with ever tougher sentences. It is in my view a real test of Boris Johnson’s leadership whether he now slips into this traditional Tory reaction.
Others say, in an equally knee-jerk reaction, that this all proves the need for more government spending. Ken Livingston’s rhetoric about Tory cuts is ever-so reminiscent of what I heard him saying back in 1985.
It falls to the Liberal Democrats to make the case for personal responsibility AND a helping state: we recognise that public expenditure is a necessary but on its own not a sufficient condition for the sort of society where everyone can get a fair chance in life.
If we are to go beyond sound-bite responses seen from Labour and the Conservatives, there are three essential components towards lasting solutions. I base this judgement on my experience as a local government councillor and leader, as well as my years in London government.
First, the early years are crucial. Nationally the LibDem-championed pupil premium will bring additional resources to schools in the most needy areas. If coupled with effective leadership, much more parental involvement than is the norm today and the right school ethos, then in time we’ll see better outcomes. Addressing the desperate shortage of black head teachers will be crucial here as well.
In London, we need to get regional control of the large amounts spent on post-school skills, sit employers large and small down at the table, and hammer out a plan that will offer school leavers more prospect than a low wage job in some globally-branded fast food chain.
We need to challenge big firms to show the same enthusiasm they had back in the 1980s for promoting entrepreneurism. The contrast with inner city areas in the USA remains striking. There a personal get-up-and-go attitude, coupled with effective support such as the Community Reinvestment Act forcing banks to help, offers a way out for those facing disadvantage and discrimination.
It should not be left to the LibDems alone to make such obvious points about twinning responsibility with support.
Second, more and better housing. I’ve written elsewhere (link) about the crucial need to increase the number of new homes of all types. But numbers alone won’t build that sense of pride and respect which leads to having a real stake in the community.
One of the things I’m proudest of from my time as our leader in Lambeth was the number of self-managed housing estates we nurtured into existence against the odds, overcoming the dependency relationship Labour had spent years fostering.
Again, it is adequate resources coupled with real involvement that will make the difference.
Third, effective policing. Numbers are important, as I’ve set out here (link), and that means having enough money to pay for them. But just as important is how they are deployed.
We need to move forward on genuine neighbourhood policing, going beyond the ward-based SNTs and simple borough-level approaches, so all voices are really listened to, police teams including the ‘specials’ and more volunteers know their whole neighbourhoods and policing becomes truly responsive.
Law and order
All that said, Liberal Democrats are not naïve. When a small minority prefer criminality to opportunity offered, then the full weight of the law must always be applied – albeit in a way that allows people a way back (so, yes, restorative justice is part of the solution too).
We know ‘big government’ is not the answer to ‘broken society’. Equally we know do-it-yourself ‘big society’ is no substitute for effective action led by government. Liberal Democrats need to articulate with confidence why our approach offers answers to the seemingly intractable problems I first encountered on our streets a generation ago.