As inner cities erupt – a mass workers’ movement is needed to defeat the government
As inner cities erupt – a mass workers’ movement is needed to defeat the government
Hannah Sell, Socialist Party deputy general secretary, CWI, England and Wales
“The scenes of despair and explosions of anger like those of 1981 will be back on our streets.
“Deprived areas of major cities – if not the central areas, then the ‘banlieus’ or outskirts as in France – will be the scene of new conflagrations.”
This is the warning that the Socialist Party gave just four months ago, in our article on the anniversary of the Brixton riots. This morning thousands of people have woken up to the devastation of their communities.
Today is a tragedy for the small shopkeepers whose businesses have been looted or set alight, the workers whose cars have been burnt out, and perhaps worst of all for those who have seen their homes go up in smoke.
Firefighters have faced horrendous problems trying to fight the fires in the midst of the riots.
The current outbursts of street anger are the biggest Britain has seen since the mid-1980s. Belatedly government ministers have dragged themselves back from their holidays in order to try and ‘restore order’.
Parliament has been recalled for Thursday, but so far the only response of the capitalist politicians has been to shriek about “the mob”, “criminals” and “mindless violence”.
Workers living in the communities affected are inevitably angry at the destruction that has taken place, but will also be enraged by the government’s attempts to absolve itself of responsibility for the situation.
Unfortunately, New Labour’s response has been essentially the same as that of the Tories. Ed Miliband has simply called the riots “disgraceful criminal behaviour” and has demanded that David Cameron orders “the strongest possible police response”.
Diane Abbot, MP for Hackney North and historically on the left of the Labour Party, has called for a curfew to be considered.
The leadership of New Labour has done nothing to point out the reasons why young people are rioting. This is not surprising.
Mass unemployment, cuts in public services and police harassment and stop and search all grew when New Labour was in power. Despite all the capitalist politicians’ attempts to ignore reality, it is no coincidence that Britain is burning in August 2011 – it flows from the social conditions faced by a generation of young people in the inner cities.
During the 1980s disturbances, the then Tory government decried those on the streets as “hooligans”. Now that those riots are a distant memory, Edwina Currie and other Tories are willing to recognise that the rioters had the legitimate grievances of mass unemployment and police prejudice, but claim everything is different today.
In reality nothing fundamental has changed for youth in inner city areas.
The present events are a cry of rage and despair by members of a generation that has been thrown on the scrapheap. They are not race riots, but involve poor young people, living in the inner-cities, from every ethnic background.
Angry and deprived
The motives of those involved vary, but they centre on a single theme, summed up by one woman interviewed on the Today radio four programme: “I am not a thief but I am angry.
“What have we got? – nothing.” Unlike her, others had taken part in order to loot shops. Electrical goods and sportswear shops were targeted in many areas, but so were supermarkets.
In Tottenham, Aldi was emptied, in Lewisham, Morrisons. It was not only ‘luxury’ goods, but the most basic necessities of life that people were queuing up to take.
What does it say about Britain, an ‘advanced’ capitalist country, that so many people are desperate enough, and unconcerned enough about the consequences, to take part in mass looting of shops? Young people with a job worth having, and prospects for a future, do not generally take part in such actions.
But in Britain today there are almost a million unemployed young people who have been effectively told they have no prospects for the future. As the world’s stock markets tumble, the feeling that capitalism offers no prospects for the ‘lost generation’ is inevitably growing.
Already, across London youth unemployment is 23%, in inner city areas it is far higher.
Hackney and Tower Hamlets have the highest youth unemployment in the country, with Tottenham not far behind. These young people live a very few miles from the millionaires and billionaires of the City of London, yet have little prospect of earning the minimum wage, never mind getting a decent job.
The real looters are the city financiers who have made billions from gambling on the world’s stock markets and looting the economy of whole countries, driving entire populations – as in Greece – into dire poverty.
Is it any wonder, in a society that encourages private entrepreneurs to make a profit by any means necessary, that unemployed youth decide to try and obtain a few goods by whatever means they can?
While the riots are not ‘race riots’, and involve young people from all ethnic groups, it is true that many are black. The capitalist politicians try to dismiss the idea that racism still exists in Britain today, but that is simply not true.
All ethnic minorities in Britain still earn less, on average, than white people, with differences amongst men ranging from earning an average of 10% less for Chinese men, to 27% less for Bangladeshi men.
Even those ethnic minority communities with very high levels of higher education qualifications still suffer worse pay. All ethnic minorities have higher than average rates of poverty.
Rates of poverty are highest for Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and black Africans, reaching nearly two thirds for Bangladeshis.
At the same time ethnic minorities are barely represented as the managers and employers of big companies. None of the 98 high court judges come from ethnic minorities, and only four of the 563 circuit judges.
Less than 1% of the army come from ethnic minorities. There are pathetically few black and Asian MPs.
British capitalism has proved itself incapable of qualitatively improving the living conditions of all but a tiny minority of black and Asian people.
Anger at police harassment is a major factor in the explosion that has taken place. In Tottenham the spark was anger at the police shooting of Mark Duggan.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has already had to admit that, despite police claims that Mark Duggan had fired at them first, the bullet embedded in a police radio was actually police issue.
People in Tottenham are right to have no faith in the IPCC to carry out an independent investigation. The trade union movement must demand a genuinely independent inquiry, made up of elected representatives from the local trade unions, community organisations and especially the youth.
A similar enquiry is needed into the riots that have taken place and their causes. Many of those interviewed taking part in the riots across the country express fury at the endless police stop and searches that they face.
From 2005 to 2009 police searches of Asian people increased 84% and black people by 51%. Now the state wants to go even further using ‘Section 60’ to extend their powers to stop and search without grounds for suspicion.
Peaceful protests have taken place on these issues, but nothing has changed, leading to a feeling that ‘more’ is needed. In Tottenham the family and friends of Mark Duggan had marched to the police station and waited in vain for hours for a senior officer to address them.
This was not an isolated occurrence. One young man in Tottenham told NBC: “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you? Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press.
“Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.”
Cuts in services
Mass unemployment and police harassment have created an explosive situation. For many, the final straw has been the taking away of the few crumbs which were designed to at least ameliorate the effects of mass youth unemployment.
The government has abolished the EMA grant, despite mass protests, which had at least made it possible for working class young people to attend college.
Despite endless demands on young people to ‘better themselves’ and ‘get an education’ the one concrete measure that made it possible to get an education has now been taken away.
In addition, the raising of university tuition fees to Å9,000 a year has deterred many working class youth from considering the avenue of higher education.
Other government cuts in already overstretched public services, implemented by Labour as well as Tory and Liberal councils, have also contributed to the situation.
Rather than defend their local communities and refuse to implement the cuts, as the Socialist Party demands and Liverpool City Council did in the 1980s – every single Labour council has slashed public services.
In Tottenham the youth service has been cut by 75%. Nationally, Connexions, the service that provided careers and benefits advice for young people, has been destroyed.
Many local authorities now provide no advice service at all for young people. Yet this is only the first year of cuts; councils plan to implement far more in the coming years.
The government is now trying to dismiss any link between cuts and the riots, yet just weeks before the general election, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg warned that Tory cuts would lead to riots.
It is a sign of the extreme short-sightedness of the current government that it has encouraged cuts in the services which provided an element of ‘social control’ by the government over young people.
The relatively small sums saved by the cuts will now have to spent ten times over in dealing with the consequences of the riots. In the wake of the riots, community campaigns to demand immediate reopening of all closed youth facilities and of Connexions, funded by central government, could force the government to reverse these cuts.
Rioting- no solution
However, rioting is not the means to defeat the government, but, on the contrary, only damages the communities in which working-class people live, and gives the capitalist class an excuse to increase the repressive apparatus of the state.
The Socialist Party does not agree with those on the left who condone the riots, such as the Socialist Workers Party, whose posters in the areas affected by riots declare them to be a step from ‘riot to revolution’.
The present disturbances are an indication of blind rage against the system. Undoubtedly, some of the young people involved will have taken inspiration from the revolutions that have overthrown dictatorships in the Middle East, and the movement of the squares in Greece and Spain.
However, these movements were of a very different character to the riots. While each country has had different characteristics, all the occupations of the squares – from Spain to Egypt – were relatively disciplined mass protests which both opposed and largely prevented acts of violence against local shops etc.
This is one reason that, while all the movements largely began with young people, they were able to reach out to, and win the support of the wider population.
By contrast, while the riots have received huge media coverage, they are allowing the capitalist media and the government to further demonise young people, and to potentially divide the struggle against the government.
However, the government can only be defeated by building a mass, united movement of all those under attack from it. The organised working class in the trade unions have the key role to play.
In Egypt it was when the working class organised general strike action that Mubarak was finally defeated. Historically in Britain, Thatcher’s poll tax was not defeated, as some on the left claim, as a result of the March 1990 riot, but because of an organised mass campaign of non payment, involving 18 million people.
Trade union action
This year in Britain, the day that has frightened the government most was 30 June, when 750,000 public sector workers took strike action. Unfortunately, however, on 30 June it was only around one fifth of public sector workers who were called out by the trade union leaders to take strike action.
The leaders of the biggest public sector unions argued against participating, despite widespread demands for action from their members. The failure of the leadership of the trade union movement in Britain to lead a serious struggle to defeat all the cuts is a central reason why the riots have erupted.
Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, warned that the cuts would lead to riots, but has not been prepared to take the action that could have prevented them.
If, as we demanded, the TUC had conducted a serious battle to defeat the government, mobilising its seven million members, the government could have been forced from office by now.
If the TUC had called a national demonstration against cuts in October last year, mobilised for joint action with the students in November, and called a one-day public sector strike, it would have mobilised huge popular support, and would have been able to act as a pole of attraction for the most oppressed sections of young people.
Having delayed, the TUC needs to act decisively now. It should immediately call a national trade union demonstration to oppose all cuts and demand a future for young people.
This should be a step towards the next day of coordinated strike action in the autumn, which this time should involve all 4 million public sector workers, and be combined with a one-day strike of school, college and university students.
A trade union demonstration needs to show clearly that the trade unions stand together with young people. The widespread trade union support for Youth Fight for Jobs (YFJ), and its Jarrow March against youth unemployment in the autumn, is one important means to demonstrate this.
However, it is also important the demonstration is called around clear demands. These should include the immediate reinstatement of EMA and abolition of university tuition fees.
It should also oppose any attempts by the government to use the riots in order to increase harassment of young people.
On the contrary it should demand the withdrawal of the stop and search laws being used to harass young people, and clearly oppose any attempts to increase the repressive apparatus of the state; Teresa May previously made clear she would like to bring water cannon and teargas to Britain, and the immediate use of rubber bullets is being considered.
If this is done it will be used in the future against workers and student demonstrations, just as police brutality was used against the students last year.
The trade union movement should also call for control of the police to be placed under the auspices of democratically elected local police committees.
The explosion of anger on Britain’s streets is above all a condemnation of capitalism, and its inability to offer the next generation even the measly standard of living that workers have had in the last twenty years.
The trade union movement needs to act to show it is on the side of young people, but to be fully effective this needs to be linked to the struggle to develop a new mass party for workers and youth which stands for a socialist society.
Only by taking the big corporations that dominate Britain’s economy into democratic public ownership would it be possible to begin to provide a real future for young people.
Capitalism is incapable of providing even the basics – a decent job, a home, an education – to the next generation. Democratic socialism would mean production could be planned to meet the needs of all and not for profits of a few.
The Socialist Party demands:
- An independent trade union-led inquiry into the death of Mark Duggan and into the causes of and policing of the riots. Scrap the IPCC. We need police accountability through democratic control by local people.
- End stop and search. No to section 60.
- For control of the police to be placed under the auspices of democratically elected local committees involving representatives from trade unions, councils, tenants associations, and community organisations.
- For the government to immediately cover the uninsured losses and repairs of all small businesses and homeowners affected by the riots.
- For councils to immediately re-house those who lost their homes in the riots. For investment in social house building and renovation, creating jobs and improving health.
- For the immediate reversal of the closure of local youth and Connexions services. Funding from central government to pay for it.
- No to all cuts in jobs and public services. Free education and training for all. Reinstate EMA and abolish tuition fees. We demand huge public investment in job creation and services.
- Build a mass campaign to fight for these demands but also to fight for socialist change in the way society is run, with democratic planning of how we use the wealth and resources of society – under working class control and management, not that of the millionaires.