David Cameron has placed the Britain’s broken society back at the top of his agenda. The riots will now probably prove the defining point of this parliament. Will it be Cameron or Ed Miliband who capitalise on the violence that has swept the country? Harry Raffal enquires.
In the fallout from the riots that rocked London and spread north through England, David Cameron has adopted a hard-line stance towards the rioters and criminals. Ed Miliband has also condemned, in strident terms, the criminal damage inflicted upon the country, but stressed the need for looking for explanations.
According to key sources in the Metropolitan Police, David Cameron was talked out of sending in the army to restore order. The truth behind this statement has not been established. However, another source from the Met – who was at the COBRA meeting – branded Cameron “idiotic”.
Labour meanwhile have fallen back on their position of blaming cuts to the police force, reasoning that they are too severe and would mean reductions in front -line policing. The coalition is probably right that, carried out appropriately, 20% cuts will not affect the front-line of the force.
Nonetheless, Labour now can characterise themselves as the party who will protect the police force. The police have hit back at criticism by the government by speaking out against Cameron’s new ‘supercop’ proposal (i.e., introducing tough New Yorker Bill Bratton as the head of the Met). All this has allowed Ed Miliband to say today how wrong it is for politicians to claim credit for police tactics which go right and criticise the police for the decisions which go wrong. As things stand, the Coalition will struggle to convince the public that they are stronger on law & order that Labour.
Part of Cameron’s tough stance is the support of harsh, exemplary sentences for the rioters. He is examining the possibilities of removing benefits from those involved and considering evicting any council housing tenants who are found guilty. Ed Miliband has approached this from a different angle. Whilst he has tough sentencing in mind for those found guilty, he has also said that rehabilitation for those convicted must not be ignored.
Miliband has looked to soft sell, stressing that seeking explanations isn’t excusing the violence but a necessary part of solving it. Miliband has also been able to build the events into his overarching theme of responsibility in society, which has the potential to be far more effective than Cameron’s Big Society.
Cameron seems to have decided to approach the problem by linking current events with a rise in gang violence. I’m not sure the explanation is as simple as that but it does build on the worries held by many in society about gang culture in Britain. Miliband has again put water between himself and the Prime Minister arguing that “there is an easy and predictable path for politicians… It puts the riots down to ‘criminality’ pure and simple. And stops there. It says that to explain is to excuse… It is not strength but an absolute abdication of responsibility to the victims, our communities and the country”.
Unfortunately for David Cameron, Ed Miliband seems to have the inside track when he argues “We’ve heard it all in the last few days. Water cannon. Supercops. A daily door knock for gangs. And today, more gimmicks. A Prime Minister, who used to say the answer was to hug a hoodie, now says the answer is to reform our health and safety laws.”
Cameron has insisted that the riots were not a response to the police, the government or poverty. Instead they were “about behaviour, people showing indifference to right and wrong, people with a twisted moral code, people with a complete absence of self-restraint.”
The PM is suggesting that he needs to change a section of society which has “Irresponsibility [and] selfishness…[in which people behave] as if choices have no consequences.” He bemoans “Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort. Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control.” Throughout the PM’s speech he stressed actions such as reforming the welfare state and the need to “push, further, faster” in the coalitions education reforms.
Unfortunately, Cameron is likely to find that the need for reform may well carry a substantial bill and that cuts in other areas will be needed. Unless Cameron can convince the public that he truly understands the causes of the riots and how to solve what he calls a “broken society”, Miliband will attack him as he did today: “Day by day the Prime Minister has revealed himself to be reaching for shallow and superficial answers.” Cameron’s pledge to turn around the lives of 125,000 troubled families will be attacked as hollow rhetoric unless he makes confident strides to show he has grasped the problems at the bottom of society. Miliband has the luxury of advancing solutions without making the difficult decisions on how to fund them.