Last week saw the fifth anniversary of London’s August 2011 riots and some think the conditions that caused them have worsened. As a member of the Government Riots Panel, and founder of a youth charity in Tottenham, I heard many views, saw the reality on the front line and I believe the causes of the riots are many and complex. Some perspectives remain biased, misguided, and driven by a political agenda, entrenching a one-sided view that reinforces a culture of blame, victimhood, and excuses rather than empowering the poorest to improve their lives.
Many politicians, academics and journalists on the left explained the riots through inequality, racism, poverty, unemployment and cuts.
Ken Livingstone blamed the Tories for creating ‘social division’ and Harriet Harman attempted to weaponise the riots: “Not to justify violence, but when you’ve got the trebling of tuition fees…jobs being cut and youth unemployment….you should think again”.
Studies from the Guardian/London School of Economics, and Oxford University amplified this message and also cited police discrimination and ‘lack of respect’ as a cause.
No one disputes the link between poverty and social unrest. Those with less opportunity are always likely to feel a sense of disaffection. But an almost total majority of those from deprived backgrounds did not riot, instead many worked to improve their lives. So to imply poverty must lead to violence, looting, and arson is a denial of choice or personal responsibility. It shifts the narrative from the values of a law-abiding majority and normalises social disorder. But what if there is an alternative view that might challenge this negativity, build a sense of optimism and help people make better decisions?
While many said poverty and cuts caused the riots, some rioters themselves attested to other causes such as opportunism, boredom, or just sheer criminality. Further, several Labour councils told the Riots Panel their cuts had not even started, and where they had it was often to services for the elderly. But how many over 65s rioted?
Official statistics show that in 2011 about 30 per cent of the UK population, around 19 million, were what we might call “poor”. So if all 15,000 rioters were poor, only 0.0008 per cent rioted. In fact many thousands, from poor backgrounds, did the opposite, volunteering to clear up after the riots. So why did so few destroy their communities when many more with the same disadvantages do the opposite?
Some claimed race was an issue, with sensitivity around stop and search and the killing of Mark Duggan. But 47 per cent of the Guardian/LSE interviewees were black and did not consider these ‘race riots,’ a finding supported by the Riots Panel. This is reflected in the 2011 Police Commissioner’s Report on the Metropolitan Police, where nearly 74 per cent of black Minority or Ethnic respondents were satisfied with overall service. This was lower than 80 per cent of whites, but in a 2006 Home Office study, 56 per cent of black respondents said the police were doing an excellent job compared to 48 per cent of whites. The police have made progress and many I met were fearful of being branded racist, a concern reflected in government reports on the Rotherham child abuse scandal. Black police officers also face difficulties, sometimes experiencing hostility from the black community, deterring recruitment.
Stop and search practices must be improved. But research from the Guardian/LSE, and Oxford University was based on interviews with largely convicted or self identifying offenders. In London the average convicted rioter had 15 previous convictions and 9 out of 10 convicted rioters were known to the police. A third of those interviewed by the Guardian/LSE even claimed they would re-offend, so it’s no surprise they object to police behaviour. Further, the Oxford University study, ‘Anarchy in the UK’, reflected the views of American sociologists Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, who previously advocated a 1966 strategy to destroy capitalism by overloading the welfare system to cause a crisis.
Metropolitan Police data released in 2010 showed that of 18,091 males against whom the police took action for street crimes, 54 per cent were black, for robbery it was 59 per cent and gun crime 67 per cent. Around 12 per cent of London’s population is black. Hackney MP Diane Abbott has spoken out on the issue: “Sadly 80 per cent of gun crime in London is ‘black on black’, often involving boys in their teens. As a black woman and the mother of a teenage son this is frightening and wholly unacceptable”.
Profiling makes stop and search more effective, and this means targeting certain groups. In London alone there were 185 youth murders between 2005 and 2015 and at the Boxing Academy, the charity I founded, I saw the victims of this ‘post code war’ between teen gangs. Many of our students had stab wounds. Some were never reported or treated in hospital and many had friends who had been killed. This tragedy is ongoing with knife crime rising by 15 per cent last year as stop and search was reduced.
Youth unemployment, which went up under Labour, and increases in student fees, introduced by Labour, were also big issues. But even if we assume all 15,000 rioters were students, of the 2.3 million in higher education, only 0.0065 per cent rioted. Youth unemployment was just over one million in 2011, but that still meant around 75 per cent of young people were in work, reasonable odds for most of us.
Now 85 percent of young people have work, the UK is at record levels of employment and university numbers are at all time highs. Yet Tottenham MP David Lammy, and others on the left, claim nothing has changed. Is it any wonder that many young people in the most wealthy and dynamic city on earth believe they have no hope? It doesn’t have to be like this.
We often have a choice. If we are resilient, optimistic, and stay true to strong values, we can change our reality and improve our lives. A huge motivational and training industry is based on this principle. Nelson Mandela found the strength from these values to forgive his oppressors and unite a nation, and during those furious nights of August 2011 ordinary passers-by went into burning buildings to save the lives of strangers.
There will always be poverty; life is unfair and riots will happen. But we can reduce the frequency with which they occur.
In 2011, nearly all those in poverty chose not to riot. But the narrative from the left seeks to deny this choice. They preach the gospel of blame, excuse, grievance, and victimhood.
The opiate is more welfare, leading to a culture of learned helplessness that locks people into poverty and increases the chances of civil unrest. It is a vicious circle where the left win and the poor lose.
But left-wing politicians also have a choice.
They can again become the Labour party that helped my grandparents escape the East End poverty of the 1920s, where activists like Clement Atlee put his faith in Methodism, not Marxism. They can again preach strong values such as responsibility, hard work and aspiration, help people understand their choices, overcome adversity and create opportunity. This is what we taught at the Boxing Academy. Our students were excluded teenagers and some were gang members with several convictions. But none of them rioted. They could see a truth in what we taught, most changed their lives, went on to college, jobs and a better future. But too much young talent is still being wasted and it is a scandal for which the left are largely to blame.
Simon Marcus is the founder of the Boxing Academy and served on the 2011 Riots Panel