Last week partisanship was put-on hold. The urgency and seriousness of the crisis that faced the country was so grave that it was important to get behind the Prime Minister while he sought to get the situation under control. On Thursday in the commons Ed Miliband was on statesmanlike form – but under the surface a profound disagreement was lurking.
Ed shied away from scoring the political points – the public mood was against such low politicking – but his explanation for how these riots occurred was clearly different to Cameron’s. And rightly so.
On Thursday Cameron denied outright that poverty or depravation were root causes of the disturbances. Whilst of course not all of those rioting were poor, by and large the areas that were destroyed were. Hackney, Peckham, Wood Green and Tottenham. It’s a roll call of inner London deprivation. For the Prime Minister to argue that criminality and culture were root causes but poverty wasn’t is nonsensical. Poverty is the root cause of a culture where criminality is an accepted reality. To deny that is akin to flat earth-ism.
Today Miliband returned to his old school in Chalk Farm, which last week was one of many crime scenes strewn across the capital. He talked about the “national conversation” that we need to have about the kind of society we live in – a society where people could grow up to believe violence and disorder are acceptable or necessary. And he signalled a return to partisanship. And he was right to do so.
Cameron’s prescription for the aftermath of the riots is just more of the same. It’s the traditional Tory law and order schtick (with the added contradiction of police cuts). As Brian Barder noted at the weekend, Ken Clarke’s justice policy may be one of the major casualties of our August of discontent. The Tory Right are desperate to pull Cameron in their direction. Authoritarian voices on the Labour benches like Jack Straw have sought to use the riots as an excuse to talk about prison cuts.
Cameron’s prescription is likely to be all about law and order, and crime. He’ll treat the effects, but not the causes.
It’s not clear yet that Miliband has a prescription for dealing with the underlying cause of the riots either – and that’s to his credit. Only the most shallow or hubristic would claim to have all of the answers to such a complex collapse of order – the Prime Minister is sailing dangerously close to that level of hubris already. Miliband, however, seems keen to tackle this issue with the rigour is deserves. He talked poignantly about areas which gain attention when they’re ablaze but are ignored once normality returns. This can’t be allowed to happen again.
A wise man once said that the Labour Party is a moral crusade, or it is nothing. When on a moral crusade, Ed Miliband looks like a future PM. When he isn’t, he looks like the University Lecturer he once was. Today we saw mostly the later, but flashes of the former.
The most moving moment came when a young man called Naz asked when the talking was going to stop, and action was going to start. He talked powerfully about young people in his area who see no point in trying to “move up the ladder”. He’s desperate for change that politicians have shown themselves incapable of providing. Cameron is the latest leader to similarly show himself to be incapable. Miliband must not make the same mistake.
Putting aside partisan politics was right for last week, but Cameron doesn’t just have the wrong answers, he’s asking the wrong questions too.