Do we have a feral youth? It’s a question that many have asked since riots erupted across the country over the summer. Images of young people destroying their own communities, presented a challenge to those of us who have long rejected the stereotype of the feral hooded youth. Yet, while no analysis can excuse such wanton violence, it would equally be wrong to reduce these events, as the Prime Minister has, to “criminality pure and simple.” Labour’s former Home Secretary Charles Clarke was right to rebut David Cameron’s over-simplified conclusions in an article for The Evening Standard. “Criminality”, he argued, “is neither ‘pure’ nor ‘simple’.”
This is surely correct. As IPPR Director, Nick Pearce, outlines in the essay in our Autumn edition of Anticipations, “unless you believe that the riots were simply random acts of criminal violence, then some attempt must be made to explain why they happened and what can be done to prevent them happening again.” Of course we need a robust response and should not shy away from punishing those who have broken the law. However, it is also important, as Pearce points out, not to ignore the fact that most of the areas affected had high rates of youth unemployment and low levels of educational attainment.
This is not an excuse for violence and it would be wrong to argue that the disorder occurred as a direct result of policies such as the scrapping of EMA. Many of the rioters were not young at all; many more already had criminal convictions. However, it must also be true that only people with no aspirations for, or connection to, their communities are willing to set them alight.
There are important lessons for Labour here. While New Labour’s focus on modernisation was vital for reforming our public services, the party had too little to say about community itself. This is now starting to be rectified and it is crucial that Labour continues to avoid pandering, as the government has, to those who talk of ‘moral decline’. The party must focus instead on practical ways to strengthen civil society from the bottom up.
London Citizens community organiser, Emmanuel Gotoro, outlines a powerful example of how this can be achieved. The CitySafe Havens initiative, established following the murder of teenager Jimmy Mizen in 2008, successfully brings together young people, police and shopkeepers to tackle local violence and anti-social behaviour. It centres upon the reporting of 100% of incidents and on the idea that strong relationships are the bedrock of community. The CitySafe campaign serves as a pertinent reminder that, far from being feral, many of our most active and civic-minded citizens are young people.
That’s not to say that we should ignore the vital role that the police have to play in all this. Safety and security must always be the overriding priority for any government and Yvette Cooper is right to highlight in this edition’s interview that effective policing is crucial to maintaining this. Cooper offers a devastating critique of the coalition’s approach to law and order, pointing to the evident contradiction between spending well over £100 million on Police and Crime Commissions while at the same time cutting the policing budget by 20%. Strong communities need properly resourced police. Just ask the young people campaigning with London Citizens.
We do not have a feral youth. Most young people are hard working, socially-conscious and responsible individuals – just like the rest of society. The lesson of the riots is not that our young are out of control, but rather that in some parts of the country, in areas of low aspiration, society has grown weak. In our effort to reweave the fabric of these communities we could do worse than look again at the opportunities available to our young people.
Now is the time for a fundamental rethink of youth policy.
James Green is Anticipations Editor and a Fabian Society Executive member