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Those who dismissed last year’s rioters as the “feral underclass” will find Jahmal troubling. Recently released after serving part of an 18-month sentence for violent disorder in last year’s Hackney riots, it is difficult to describe this baby-faced, softly-spoken 22-year-old as being simply motivated by “mindless criminality, pure and simple”, as David Cameron described the riots.
Jahmal was born into the ranks of Britain’s burgeoning working poor: his mother is a personal assistant who is studying part-time for a psychology degree. Before the riots, he was a man with little hope. “Things were tough. I didn’t see much of a future. All I’ve got going for me is music.” DJing is his passion but – like the majority of young black people in austerity Britain – he was out of work. “I’ve been trying to get a job for over two years now,” he says. He applied for apprenticeships in construction and the London Underground, but was rejected.
So what made this young man throw two bottles at the police on 8 August 2011, as the turmoil that erupted in Tottenham spread to nearby Hackney? Fury at perceived police harassment – a worryingly familiar tale among young black men I’ve spoken to – certainly played a part. “I see the police as a ‘legit’ gang,” Jahmal says. “They bully people, they harass people. My mum’s been raided three times for no reason at all. Each time they raided they found nothing.” He claims that his cousin was slammed against a wall and injured after a police officer objected to an unwanted stare.
“Some police officers are alright,” he says. “But some will talk to you like you’re a dog.” The riots, then, he says, were partly about turning the tables on despised representatives of authority. “It was to give them a taste of their own medicine,” he claims.
But Jahmal – who after spending months locked away in jail wants to rebuild his life, and who spoke on condition that his surname and picture would not be used – argues that a lethal combination lay behind the riots: a sense that young people had little future to look forward to.
“If you go through proper channels, people don’t really listen to you. They brush it under the carpet.” Jahmal says he cannot bring himself to condemn the disorder. “I’m not saying the riots were a good thing, but in a way they had to happen,” he argues. “I can’t state it enough: there has to b e a lot more opportunities for kids, to keep them off the street, to keep them focused. Otherwise it’s going to happen again.”
Owen Jones will be on Any Questions on Radio 4 this Friday along with confirmed shitstain Kelvin Mackenzie as well as other professional shitstain Norman Lamont
As the post-riot backlash gathers pace, the left should respond with the facts. As studies by the Children’s Society have shown, conflict in a family has ten times more of an impact than family structure. Keeping together a couple who are constantly at each other’s throats is more likely to damage a child than being raised in stable circumstances by one parent. Although there are poorer outcomes for a significant minority of single parents, there is a strong correlation with both conflict and poverty. Indeed, the same kinds of outcomes are found in children raised by couples in similar circumstances.
For many, the feckless Vicky Pollard from Little Britain is as good a symbol of a single parent as any. The truth is that six out of ten work and, as research by the single-parent charity Gingerbread has found, the vast majority want to, despite the difficulties involved in juggling a job and raising kids. If the left doesn’t take on the demonisation of single parents, nobody will.
The left’s position on families should be based on the realities of modern Britain: supporting stable, happy families, whether that means the family of a gay couple, or a single parent, or a conventional nuclear family. It means making the case that poverty and unemployment put a huge degree of stress on all families and are responsible for a raft of other social problems.
The right wants to take us back to a fictional golden age - somewhere in the 1950s, when the proportion of teenage pregnancies was similar to today’s, according to a study by Claire Alexander at the London School of Economics. After the riots, our job is certainly harder - but more necessary than ever.
But it does demonstrate how “socialist” is regarded as the ultimate insult by much of our wealthy elite, who have been in a virtually uninterrupted triumphalist mood since Margaret Thatcher defeated their political opponents in the 1980s. Similarly, an increasingly hot-tempered David Cameron routinely slams Ed Miliband for being “left-wing” at Prime Minister’s Questions; it was once fashionable for the media to label the Labour leader “Red Ed”. It is much like the term “liberal” in the United States: in the 1950s, even Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower described himself as such, as did huge numbers of American voters. Liberal US scholar Lionel Trilling once felt able to dismiss conservatism as “irritable mental gestures”. But now “liberal” is largely hurled as a term of abuse in US political debate, with few mainstream politicians willing to associate themselves with the label.
Socialism used to be a term the Labour Party was more than happy to champion. In its historic 1945 manifesto, Labour announced that it was “a Socialist Party, and proud of it”, with the ultimate objective of establishing a “Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain”. But the word hasn’t made an appearance in a Labour Manifesto since 1987. Curiously, Tony Blair repeatedly spoke about socialism in his early days as Labour leader but, given that no one really believed he was a socialist, it was more a case of “the lady doth protest too much”. For Blair and his adherents, if there was a rare, sentimental need to dust off “socialism”, it was to mean nothing more than platitudes no decent person would disagree with, like “community” and “fairness”.
The reason “socialism” came to be seen as a swear word was twofold. First, Thatcher made it abundantly clear that she was at war with what she regarded as socialism. In her memoirs, she described post-war Britain as a “socialist ratchet” and, reflecting on the 1983 general election, she argued that “socialism was still built into the institutions and mentality of Britain”. In her mission to “create a wholly new attitude of mind”, as she put it soon after her first election victory, she appeared to crush “socialism” into the dust.
In what was fortunate timing for Thatcher’s acolytes, the Soviet empire began disintegrating as her project reached its climax. Although almost all socialists abhorred Stalinist totalitarianism (by the 1980s, at least), these were regimes that described themselves as “actually existing socialism”. Their collapse was portrayed as the final discrediting of socialism, and the ultimate vindication of capitalism.
Beecroft’s use of “socialism”, then, relates to a theory called the “Overton window”, which describes what is seen as politically acceptable at a given time. Rather than having to engage in a debate over the merits of bosses being able to dismiss their workers at will, an opponent can be dismissed as a “socialist”, which – for Beecroft – is code for “extremist” or “someone with views outside of what is politically acceptable”.
The irony of it all is that socialism, of a sort, is actually flourishing in Britain – for wealthy people like Beecroft. The taxpayer bailed out the banks that caused the crisis, allowing them to carry on much as before, courtesy of public money. Private companies such as “welfare-to-work” business A4e leech off the state, as do private contractors throughout our public services. Indeed, our NHS is set to become an even more lucrative opportunity (at taxpayers’ expense) for private health care firms like Care UK than it was under New Labour.
The taxpayer splashes out three times more subsidies on private train companies than they did on publicly owned British Rail. Private landlords get away with charging extortionate rents, knowing that the state will pay billions subsidising them through housing benefit. Wealthy individuals enjoy tax relief on their pensions worth billions. Socialism for the rich is thriving while, for everybody else, it is capitalism red in tooth and claw.
If socialists really were running the show in Britain, they would be building a society run by, and in the interests of, working people. Our banks – propped by the British people – would be taken under genuine democratic control, forcing them to operate in the interests of society as a whole. Our booming wealthy elite would be forced to pay a fair share of tax (or, in some cases, any tax whatsoever). After the disastrous failures of market economics, real socialists would be taking our utilities – such as the railways and rip-off energy companies – into social ownership: not old-style, statist nationalisation, but democratically run by workers and consumers. They would bring down welfare spending, not by kicking people at the bottom, but by building social housing, introducing a living wage, and creating jobs. And they would be reversing the scandalous lack of rights that workers have in the workplace, which is what ensured that wages were declining for many before the crash had even happened.
Instead, we have a government (of which Vince Cable is a pillar) ruthlessly forcing working people to pay the immense cost of getting capitalism out of its mess. Beecroft may feel frustrated that it is not politically possible to adopt his attacks on workers’ rights wholesale, but he can rest assured that this is a government that stands for people like him – and those pesky socialists could not be any further away from the corridors of power.
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