Yesterday we began to get a foretaste of the political fallout from this week’s rioting; the Gove v Harman clash on Newsnight is perhaps the best example of the sorts of arguments that will be trotted out in the coming days and weeks.
Labour will argue that amongst the underlying factors which drove gangs to violence is the social impact of the government’s deficit reduction programme. The Conservatives will blame Labour for not doing enough while they were in government, and criticise HM’s Opposition for not falling lockstep behind ‘the authorities’.
To my mind, the probable differences in the approach are likely to reflect a difference in emphasis on either the costs or benefits to the rioters/looters of their activity (in turn that probably reflects the biases of the different political parties).
The government is likely to focus more heavily on the costs – for example, prison, fines, tougher police control methods, the direct financial costs of restoring order and the impact on businesses (and therefore employment and growth).
Costs are relative; the herd mentality of the rioters, modern communication techniques and the relatively weak response of the police to the original disturbances are likely to have reduced the relative costs to the rioters of their action. (And the media will have played its part in demonstrating this through its coverage of the riots). This would help explain why rioting took place this week, and not last.
The government’s short- and long- term strategy will need to ensure rioters and looters face higher personal costs to such actions, so the costs to society of such violence are as low as possible. Over the last week, those costs have fallen more on society than the individual (or, rather, the perception of those costs – it remains to be seen how many rioters will be brought to justice).
Those on the left are likely to focus more heavily on the perceived benefits to the rioters of their activity, by which I mean – more specifically – the factors which are likely to have resulted in them thinking it was worth the effort.
Inequality is important here. Arguably, the benefit of a stolen pair of Boxfresh trainers is the same for everyone – it is the value of the trainers. And yet in fact the relative benefit varies greatly. On the margin, an extra pound earned by a millionaire is valued a lot less than an extra pound earned by someone on the minimum wage; equally, the value of a stolen pair of trainers to a millionaire is lower than to someone without a job.
So it is plausible to suggest that the last few years of economic turmoil, anger over bankers’ bonuses (and MPs expenses), the lack of job prospects for the young, and the government welfare reforms and deficit reduction programme may have tilted perceptions of the benefit to taking part in the riots – those on low income feel relatively worse off as a consequence of recent economic events than the more affluent.
Perhaps equally as important is longer term income inequality (which IS partly Labour’s problem, Harriet).
Some of those ‘opportunistic’ looters may have taken part because the potential gains were so high relative to their own circumstances, even if the absolute value of their loot makes it look a bit “mindless” to highly-paid columnists and politicians.
This raises some interesting questions for politicians, and those on the left in particular – should we care about absolute or relative income? Or both? Or is purchasing power a more important metric? Should we level-up or level-down? What is the role of the welfare state? What role policy on community, housing, industry and trade unions?
My fear – based partly on the Newsnight interview – is that the political discourse will now descend into predictably caricatured posturing; those on the left bemoaning the heartlessness of a cruel, austere Tory government casting legion of young people adrift; and those on the right insisting that the way to solve these ills is through ever tougher forms of punishment.
In the mind of the thug, the relative costs and benefits of rioting and looting shifted in the last week. To sustainably restore order, politicians really need to consider both in a balanced way.
(Incidentally, if politicians invoke notions of inequality or lack of punishment as potential contributory factors, then they cannot also maintain that the riots were the acts of “mindless” thugs. If the acts were really “mindless”, then the policy prescription may be more investment in mental health facilities. Arguably the rioters acted in an economically rational way when presented with the opportunity over the last few days, given their relative assessment of the costs and benefits*. Hence I agree with Dave Hill.)
Alex Baker is Secretary of the Young Fabians and Editor of the Young Fabian Blog.
*Obviously some people took part in the riots without looting. This is not necessarily ‘mindless’. For them, there may have been intangible benefits – such as euphoria, an adrenaline rush or status – which still outweighed the costs.