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A dark foreshadow of worse to come

London's Burning - Hackney Riots, 8th August 2011 - Clarence Road / Pembury Estate, HackneyThe August riots were, to some degree, a national trauma. For most, they represented a baffling and unexpected disruption to normal life. Thousands felt terrorised in their communities – often in some of the poorest areas in the country; and the disorder provoked an inevitable backlash, boosting support for tough law-and-order policies. Single mums, people on benefits and – as I witnessed first hand – black people were made scapegoats for the unrest.

We still haven’t fully understood what happened, and that’s why a national inquiry is so desperately needed. But from those who have appeared in court, we know most were men under the age of 24, and overwhelmingly out of work and education (despite a few inevitable exceptions, gleefully trumpeted by the press). A whole range of motivations have emerged – hedonism, anger, frustration, opportunism, and so on. But what united the majority of the participants was the lack of a secure future to put at risk.

My fear is that this is a dark foreshadow of worse to come. A record one in five young people are now out of work; in some of the areas worst-affected by riots, the figure is even higher. A generation ago, young working-class men (if not women) had access to paid apprenticeships if they left school at the age of 16: they provided a gateway to a secure future, as well as giving life a structure. Of course, everybody responds to their situation differently, and most would never dream of rioting or looting. But only takes a small minority of young people with a sense of nothing to lose to react this way to bring violence and chaos to the streets.

The consequences of more of this kind of disorder would be disastrous: more communities terrorised; more people senselessly killed; more young people thrown into prison in a country that already locks up more kids than anywhere else in Western Europe; and more bashing of some of Britain’s most dispossessed groups.

There’s only one force that I believe can stop this from happening – and that is the labour movement.

Of course the real solution is to ensure that all young people feel that they have a real future – either by making sure all have access to education after the age of 16; and to ensure everybody else have skilled, well-paid, well-regarded apprenticeships and jobs. But there is little prospect of that happening under a government that has repeatedly slammed the door in the faces of young working-class people.

Instead of allowing disenchantment and despair to grow, the entirely understandable anger of young working-class people has to be organised and given a political direction.

That can begin with small steps. In the borough of Haringey – which includes Tottenham – the council has slashed the youth budget by 75%. A union-led campaign would be pushing at an open door. It could mobilise both young people and the broader community – indeed, many would consider cutting youth provision as verging on insanity given recent events.

But it needs to be more ambitious than that. In the 1920s and 1930s, the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement organised those thrown out of work by economic crisis. It was responsible for the now-iconic ‘Hunger Marches’. The labour movement – which continues to stagnate and even decline – needs to set about organising the unemployed again, particularly young working-class people. In the 1930s, the Labour Party failed to properly engage with the NUWM – this time, its attitude must be different to such a movement.

Because of the rise of job insecurity – particularly in the service sector – trade unions need to increasingly organise in the community as well as the workplace. But recent events show just how urgent this is. Community organising has to become one of the key priorities of the labour movement.

And – at the heart of that organising – has to be our youth. The creation of a national Youth Movement – funded and supported by the trade unions – would be a start. It would have a series of key demands, like free education and secure jobs with good pay. As well as organising demonstrations and peaceful direct action, it would have to engage creatively with young people who have little time for many of the old methods of political organisation. But above all, it would give young working-class people – an utterly disenfranchised group – a political voice.

With political direction, the frustrations of young people could help transform society. The labour movement has a responsibility to make that happen. If it fails to do so, then I fear the August riots will be eclipsed by much worse to come.

This previously appeared at Labour List

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