David Cameron said Thursday was “not a big day for politics”, but this week’s riots have shaped a new political battleground on which the prime minister and Ed Miliband have begun to offer their competing personal versions of social responsibility and how the state can promote community cohesion.
Indeed, the whole nexus of issues surrounding an amoral underclass – parenting, families, gangs, work opportunities, community – is likely to be the dominant issue of the party conference season and the two leaders’ speeches, the first drafts of which are even now being drafted in various European villas.
Both Cameron and Miliband have an existing template of responsibility on which to build their case.
In opposition, Cameron delivered a stream of powerful speeches on the need for civility, better behaviour and a responsibility revolution. Thus he told the Royal Society in 2007: “What builds society, what encourages civility, is people taking responsibility. Putting each other before themselves. Parents understanding that it is their responsibility, not the school’s responsibility, to bring their kids up with the right values.
“Neighbours understanding that it is their responsibility, not just the council’s responsibility, to look out for each other. Business people understanding that it is their responsibility, not just the government’s responsibility, to think about the social and environmental consequences of what they do.”
But his argument was that the state had to recognise that collectively its solutions “add up to a growing burden of state intervention that simply creates a more irresponsible society”. He said: “Politicians must have the courage to take a long-term view. They cannot directly and mechanically ‘do something’ about the way people behave, and it is only politicians’ vanity that makes them think they can.”
But faced by what he called “a sick society”, Cameron in government felt forced to adjust that view, announcing a raft of initiatives precisely designed to alter individual behaviour, many of them drawn from Tony Blair’s arsenal – gang orders, parenting orders, family intervention partnerships, and bans on hoods, a Labour proposal once denounced by the current attorney general, Dominic Grieve, in opposition as an unworkable gimmick.
Ed Miliband, in a speech in June, made his own call for responsibility at the top and the bottom, saying he wanted to mark a break from the “take what you can” ways of the past.
He wanted his children to live in a country where “compassion and responsibility to one another are valued”. But, unlike Cameron, he identified inequality as a barrier to a responsible society. “When people lead parallel lives, living in the same town but different worlds, we should not be surprised that it’s hard to nurture a sense of responsibility and solidarity.”
He has asked all his staff to read The Spirit Level this summer, the book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett that has become the bible of those who argue greater equality nourishes community.
Beyond these competing high level views of a responsible society, the two parties will also compete on specifics.
Miliband astutely gave himself political cover to talk not just about individual moral failing but also the context of social malaise, by borrowing Cameron’s words in 2006 – “understanding the background, the reasons, the causes. It doesn’t mean excusing crime but it will help us tackle it.”
But he ordered his colleagues at a shadow cabinet on Thursday morning not to follow Harriet Harman, the deputy leader, in hinting that cuts in Education Maintenance Allowance might be behind the riots. Labour officials said the party would retain its right to discuss the impact of spending cuts on community, but sequence its discussions of these issues.
Governments, Miliband will also argue, have a duty to offer the poor opportunity, and too many Tories end up sounding like they just want to hammer the powerless.
Labour hopes to drive a stake into the Tory claim that it is the party of order, criticising not just the police cuts, but restrictions on the use of CCTV.
Cameron’s aides know he is vulnerable on police budget cuts, even though they were relieved Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, spoke strongly in defence of the police cuts in cabinet. The argument that the police is the last unreformed public service is easier to make in a seminar than on the street after the events of this week.
Cameron contended he is only asking for a 6%-a-year cash cut once the police precept [its share of council tax] is taken into account. Moreover, if cuts in police pay, pensions and greater efficiency are achieved, Cameron asserts, there will be no cut in “police visibility” and police forces will have the capacity to boost their numbers if needed. But Labour has the police itself and the garrulous London mayor, Boris Johnson, on its side, and will not let the issue rest.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Police has said 16,000 police officers will be cut over the full four-year spending review. The home affairs select committee inquiry, announced on Thursday, will make a forensic analysis of the controversy. It is unlikely to make comfortable reading for Cameron.
The Liberal Democrats will also make trouble by challenging whether elected police commissioners will, in reality, produce a more responsive, robust service.
On the broader issue of liberty, Labour is unlikely to be a brake. Miliband has long attacked the way in which use of CCTV is being constrained under Clegg’s freedom bill. Labour is also unlikely to oppose specific restrictions on BlackBerry Messenger service, so long as it does not trip into a wider censorship of social media.
Similarly, there is not much dispute between Labour and Tory over punishing rioters in social housing. Indeed it has been Labour councils, such as Greenwich and Manchester, that have in recent days said they will evict convicted rioters.
At present, if a tenant or a member of their family is involved in antisocial behaviour or criminal activity in their local neighbourhood they can be evicted. The new power, proposed by housing minister Grant Shapps on Thursday, would allow a council to evict a tenant for wrongdoing outside their neighbourhood.
Similarly, rioters that go to jail lose their benefits under existing law. In practice, Labour does not expect curfew powers to be extended and the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, said she would support use of water cannons so long as the police, not elected police commissioners, said they were operationally necessary.
There is concern about where Cameron’s talk of the police manual on public order being torn up might end. But it is possibly the softer less tangible issues that may yet become the contested terrain.
“This is not about poverty, this is about culture,” Cameron said. He drew cheers from his side by saying “in too many cases, the parents of these children – if they are still around – don’t care where their children are or who they are with, let alone what they are doing.
“The potential consequences of neglect and immorality on this scale have been clear for too long, without enough action being taken.”
Yet he did not spell out what action should be taken. Instead, figures such as Iain Duncan-Smith, the work and pensions secretary, are now going to be even more influential inside the cabinet. Gang culture, welfare dependency, absentee dads, early intervention to make children school ready, even compulsory national citizen’s service, are all going to be on the agenda.
Cameron also revived some old ideas when he said: “Every single tax and benefit is pro-family, pro-commitment and pro-fathers who stick around. Part of the problem is that fathers have left too many of these communities, and that is why young people look towards the gang.”
Labour may find some of this hard to swallow, but on other issues, bipartisanship can prevail. Duncan Smith, for instance, has worked with Labour MP Graham Allen on early intervention for five years, even if they have yet to persuade the Treasury to allow innovative funding.
A form of gang asbos were introduced by Labour in 2009 and brought into force by the home secretary, Theresa May, in January. David Lammy and Diane Abbott, two black Labour MPs, have both long spoken clearly about disengaged dads in black families. In perhaps the most powerful speech of Thursday, Lammy attacked the moral vacuum created by the Grand Theft Auto culture, but he also urged Cameron to recognise that a generation of people have been bred apart.
He warned: “Those lashing out – randomly, cruelly and violently – feel they have nothing to lose. They do not feel bound by the moral code of the rest of society because they do not feel part of the rest of society. We cannot live in a society where the banks are ‘too big to fail’ but whole neighbourhoods are allowed to sink without a trace. The polarisation is not between black and white. It is between those who have a stake in society and those who do not.”
The political party that best answers how this has happened, and how to reintegrate them, will secure a huge prize.
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