The riots that have broken out in London and now in other cities across Britain pose an obvious challenge to the government of Prime Minister David Cameron. But they are also a challenge to the relatively new leader of the Labor Party, Ed Miliband.
Labor has been very critical of the deep cuts in social programs that the Conservative-led coalition government has undertaken, and it is a natural instinct on the center-left and left to look to the underlying causes of such violence. Consider this commentary from Nina Power published in the Guardian on Monday:
Combine understandable suspicion of and resentment towards the police based on experience and memory with high poverty and large unemployment and the reasons why people are taking to the streets become clear. (Haringey, the borough that includes Tottenham, has the fourth-highest level of child poverty in London and an unemployment rate of 8.8%, double the national average, with one vacancy for every 54 seeking work in the borough.)
Those condemning the events of the past couple of nights in north London and elsewhere would do well to take a step back and consider the bigger picture: a country in which the richest 10% are now 100 times better off than the poorest, where consumerism predicated on personal debt has been pushed for years as the solution to a faltering economy, and where, according to the OECD, social mobility is worse than any other developed country.
Power concluded: “Images of burning buildings, cars aflame and stripped-out shops may provide spectacular fodder for a restless media, ever hungry for new stories and fresh groups to demonise, but we will understand nothing of these events if we ignore the history and the context in which they occur.”
But Miliband has always thought it important for Labor to cultivate tough-on-crime credentials. And he is acutely aware of the losses Labor suffered in the last election among white working-class voters, who are likely to take a dim view of the urban violence.
His reaction to the riots was thus striking. Commenting during a tour of Peckham in southeast London, one of the scenes of looting and rioting, Miliband led not by talking about “underlying causes” but with a condemnation of the riots themselves. “There can be no excuses for the violence, the intimidation of people, including a young girl I just met, that we’ve seen over the last few days,” he said. “That can never be excused; that can never be justified.”
And when he did get to the reasons for the riots, he was careful to offer a list with which many socially conservative voters might identify: “The issue of the deeper underlying causes of some of the activity that we’ve seen of why people indulge in this criminal behavior is something that of course needs to be looked at. And we have to look at issues of parenting. We have to look at issues of aspiration. We have to look at issues of the prospects for people.”
And then he returned to condemning the riots themselves:
But there can be never any excuse for the kind of action we’ve seen, and that’s why the immediate priority is to restore public order and public safety. The priority of the overwhelming majority of people I’ve spoken to have in the high street want is to restore public order. Because different people have different views about the complex causes for what happened, but there are no excuses for it. And that’s what the vast majority of people are saying to me. And so we need firm action from the police. There must be no no-go areas for the police. And public order is the immediate priority.
Here is a video of Miliband’s comments, courtesy of the Guardian:
In weighing his response, Miliband has clearly decided that the downside for Labor in being cast as in any way sympathetic to the rioters outweighed any advantage to be gotten from attacks on Conservative social policies. Miliband gained in public standing for putting Cameron on the defensive during the recent parliamentary debate over Rupert Murdoch and his media empire. Miliband’s response to the riots is consistent with his past record on crime, but it is also a clear effort to avoid any comments that could come back to haunt him.