What caused the London riots?

The following article, by way of reviewing a book recently published by the Guardian, takes up some of the points and debates surrounding the riots that took place in England during August 2011. This book is written by David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham where the riots started.

Written by Senan – Edited by Sezla



Out of the Ashes: Britainafter the riots by David Lammy

Published by Guardian books 2011


The riots that started in Tottenham and spread across Englandduring August 2011 were a symptom of the ever-increasing class divide and alienation. Six months later research has emerged confirming what was pointed out in articles such as ‘Who broke Britain? [1]


The Guardian’s Reading the Riots[2] research shows the direct connection between riots and austerity and the driving down of living conditions. Unaffordable education, joblessness, the cutting of the EMA student payments, increased stop and search – these were the themes that featured in the majority of interviews with rioters.


This conclusion, however, was not apparent to the Con-Dem government or the Labour Party in opposition. Their world view is not shared by the millions of workers and young at the receiving end of these attacks. One such ‘their view’ is put forward by David Lammy, Labour Member of Parliament for Tottenham for eleven years. In his new book, Out of the Ashes, also published by the Guardian.


Cause of riots was not discussed


No real investigation is done into the ‘cause’ of the riots in the book. It overlooks many important key factors such as the phenomenal increase in stop and search which emerged as one of the most important factors behind the riots. While acknowledging their existence, there is no real discussion about the devastation that cuts in public services are causing – and more importantly the cuts in youth services, cancellation of EMA, increase in tuition fees, crisis in the housing, and the effect of youth unemployment etc.


This book, in a way, defends Labour’s past policies and current inaction in the face of brutal Tory cuts. These cuts, particularly in the inner cities, are often executed by Labour-led councils watched by Labour MPs. The remedy for inequality proposed by Lammy is as pathetic as his analysis of the cause.

Lammy seems to be among the New Labour politicians who have suddenly metamorphosed into critics of ‘bad capitalism’. Labour leader Ed Miliband has proposed this analysis, announcing the solution as ‘good capitalism’, although he is entirely absent from the book! Leave aside the unscientific joke that is ‘good capitalism’ – but even that they think ‘good capitalism’ exists shows their hypocrisy. Only a few years ago they were ‘in it together’ with the notorious Tony Blair, implementing the worst possible capitalism – not just ruthless attacks on working conditions here, but also tens of thousands of innocent deaths in Iraq and around the world. Now, sensing the massive anger mounting among youth, workers, trade unions, etc, Labour is opportunistically trying to get support by providing a soft critique of capitalism. Capitalism is increasingly understood by the masses as the core reason behind the inequalities and other contradictions they face.

However, Labour have shown no sign of withdrawing from the path of Tory policies. This book gives a glimpse of the twists and spins of Labour politicians. This is a period of major systemic crisis for capitalism. In this time of major crisis, working people will not fall for bogus concern as it changes nothing in their daily miserable lives. Still we must deconstruct some of those arguments to counter the propaganda unleashed with the sole aim of keeping us away from taking action. In that sense it’s worth looking closely at some of the points raised in Lammy’s book.


What he says:


David Lammy identifies two reasons for the situation we face today. He claims we have not come to terms with “two revolutions” namely the “social liberalism of the 60s” and the “free market, liberal revolution of the 80s”. He calls them revolutions as, according to him, they have “changedBritainfor good” and “madeBritainwealthier and more tolerant”.


Lammy translates this into his version of a solution to prevent riots: “The answer, instead, must be to rebuild a sense of reciprocity to knit society back together again. That means a working class with a stake in capitalism and a middle class with faith once again in the welfare state. It requires fulfilling the goals expressed by both Mrs Thatcher and Beveridge[3], not one or another”[4].


Throughout the book he tries to explain how this can be done in the current period of huge economic crisis. “The very idea of popular capitalism is on the brink of extinction” he says. He argues that “the big question in politics is how we civilise capitalism, not whether or not to abolish it”.


According to Lammy civilising capitalism means ‘bringing the middle class into the welfare system” because the “tragedy” of modern Britain is that the “working class with no stake in capitalism and a middle class that feels cheated by the welfare state.” He claims that the: “welfare state has drifted away from its founding principles” while complaining that “we are nationalising society rather than reinforcing it”.


He argues for a “corporate responsibility” finally revealing where he stands when he says: “These two changes – sharing power and sharing profits – could bring about a fundamental shift in the types of jobs on offer, helping to narrow the gap between the so-called ‘lovely and ‘lousy’ jobs in modernBritain. They ought also to command cross-party support. In some ways both ideas chime with David Cameron’s ‘big society’”.


What is the reality?


Lammy is suggesting the ‘cause’ of the problem as the solution itself! The current economic crisis is not a ‘legal’ crisis or one caused by a few “greedy and reckless” people as he believes but a systemic crisis of capitalism.


David Lammy is correct in saying that the period created wealth, but for whom is the key question. Income inequality rose sharply from 1979, reaching a record high in 2001. Currently income inequality is at its highest since World War Two and in fact pay gap growth in Britainis higher than any of the richest countries. The top 1% doubled their share of income compared to the 1970s while the tax they pay fell by 10%.[5]. This worldwide phenomenon had even embarrassed some wealthy philanthropists some of whom even cry out “tax us more[6]!


During Lammy’s time as MP for Tottenham poverty has grown. Nearly half the children live in poverty[7]. Unemployment is double the national rate with over 50 jobseekers chasing every job[8].


This sort of wealth accumulation is the nature of capitalism. Capitalism accepts the existence of poverty and its growth as a way of life. Even the talk of civilised capitalism is absurd in the sense of wealth distribution as it’s in contradiction with the fundamental law of capitalism – ie increasing profit. Profit for the capitalist cannot increase at the same time as it gets distributed!


To suggest that fulfilling Thatcher’s policies can do anything but cause further suffering is incredible. Thatcher’s policies were a major disaster for working class people. In particular her government’s ‘reform’ of council housing, the so-called Right to Buy, saw more people pushed into poverty and further contributed to the widening wealth gap. Now Britainis more Thatcherite than in the 80s[9]. The Con-Dem government is on the offensive against all public services, thus further robbing the pockets of the poor. This will inevitably create more anger and actions against the government.


On 30 November we saw biggest strike of public sector workers in 85 years in which over two million people participated. This is a decisive and organised action of the working class and only a warning shot. If the attack of the government continues we could see an escalation of struggle similar to that ofGreece. This – the enormous reduction in living conditions –  is what increased Thatcherism means.


The so-called ‘Big Society’ idea is Cameron’s version of Thatcherism. For example voluntary work replaces paid work – which in turn adds to unemployment. Workers are not given the control of resources; rather they are expected to carry the burden of crisis cause by private profiteers. They intend to free large sums of public resources, such as the NHS, making them available to ‘casino capitalists’. Only through real nationalisation – under workers’ control, can real responsibility be assumed. Workers then will be part of the decision making of the organisation of the big society voluntarily.


Riots no solution

Background and trigger


The Tories’ explanation of the riots was the simplest and most vicious of all. David Cameron declared the riots to be “criminality, pure and simple”. In a united attack both Con-Dems and Labour painted a horrific picture of young people as ‘feral yobs’ which further confirmed that we live in a ‘them and us’ society. Lammy claims then was not the correct time to think about the ‘cause’.

But just look at the background situation: youth were on the streets well before the riots. Conditions and cuts had pushed young people to take to the streets in anger months before the riots took place.


“Tory scum here we come” was the slogan taken up by the students in their 2010 movement that was kick-started after the government’s cancellation of the EMA student payments. Young people, most of whom had never been involved in any form of protest, took to the streets in their thousands. The government declared war on the young and unemployed – increasing tuition fees, closing youth services and threatening slave labour schemes and benefit cuts.


No doubt a sense of alienation among some young people deepened, especially those who lived in the areas abandoned and vilified by rich politicians. Watching MPs get away with their expenses scandal and Murdochgate’s revelations about the rotten role and disgusting collaboration between politicians, the media and the police also contributed to a hatred, distrust and disgust with the establishment.

Against this background the fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan acted as a spark to unleash the anger. The lies about this shooting that appeared in the media, even before his family was told of the death, compounded by the police refusal to speak to the families and friends who demanded an explanation and the police’s heavy handling of those who protested, further confirmed the sense of a ‘them and us’ society.

One young man interviewed soon after the riots spelled it out very clearly[10]. Listing the many attacks on young people he also pointed out that they don’t have a voice. He spoke about seeing the ‘criminality’ of the government in the MPs’ expenses scandal on TV and pointed out that “they don’t live our life”, those “pampered politicians”. “Riots didn’t happen in Chelsea or Knightsbridge – they happened in poor areas”. He continued: “I knew this was going to happen – it’s not a surprise”


The Guardian research showed that: “Four out of five participants in the summer unrest think there will be a repeat, with most believing poverty to be a factor”. The young people interviewed for this research expressed a desire to get back at the system that is pushing them to the brink – taking everything from them and using police stop and search, which they see as harassment and a direct provocation by the state, to attack them.


Ministry of Justice figures show that use of stop and search is escalating, with a 70% increase in stop and search of black and Asian people in 2008/09, compared with 178,000 in 2004/05[11].


Black and Asian young people know by experience that in most cases the police don’t have any reason to stop and search, or they lie. I can add my personal experience to those thousands of Black and Asian youth. When I was stopped the reason they wrote was ‘they saw me putting my hands in my pockets’. A silly reason – but also a lie. When challenged they laughed and left without giving any answer. The Met Police claim: “It’s up to you whether you provide your name and address. You don’t have to, but the best advice is that you should cooperate with the police.”[12]


But anyone in Tottenham can explain what will happen if you refuse to give your details to the police or protest that you will only give the details if they provide theirs. You will be immediately threatened with arrest and pushed against the wall. In Walthamstow, in north east Londonnear Tottenham, during the riots and despite the fact that I was very clearly wearing a press card and informing officers that I’m a journalist, the Met manhandled me and pushed me away. One of my colleagues was able to pass due to his ‘skin colour’ as he put it. This is the common feeling [or experience] among black and Asian people. Instead of addressing this growing problem the Met’s powers regarding stop and search have been increased[13]. Lammy managed to ignore this huge problem in a book apparently dedicated to analysing the riots! It shows how disconnected Lammy and his ilk are from reality.


David Lammy, unlike the Oxbridge lot who generally inhabitWestminster, actually grew up in Tottenham and was, in some ways, able to relate to the trouble that young people faced in the area during the 1980s. But he refuses to accept the fact that the conditions for young people have not changed hugely, if anything they have worsened.

Lammy was able to identify the problems during his youth, but he came out with the ‘solution’ during his adulthood ‘Harvard’ experience. He managed to “get out” with his “x-factor” moment through a singing scholarship to a posh school – [and now represents the class that he was adopted into but not the one that he was born into]. The man who stood in front of his father’s paupers grave in a poor US town in shock, saying: “this was not the dynamic, soulful, pulsating black America I knew from an exhilarating few years studying at Harvard and then practicing as a lawyer”, is different from the boy who joined the queue in the post office to cash the child benefit cheque for his mother who “could have considered herself a socialist”.

Unfortunately for many young people, as for his dad, the ‘x-factor’ moment never arrives. Kids shouldn’t require a ‘star quality’ or a great singing voice to get out of poverty. They need decent living conditions – free education and public services would better promote their talent. Most important is a decent job with decent wages.

Look at the conditions today – a highly-qualified young Asian graduate is ecstatic about being invited for interview to work in Tesco. If she is successful she will only earn enough to pay for her hour long journey to work, bills and food. David Lammy admits that, as a boy, he couldn’t even last a few weeks frying chicken in KFC. But life in KFC or Burger King still goes on with “spitting on the onion rings” as payback for ‘peanut’ wages and pitiful working conditions.

And it’s not that young people refuse to travel out of their postcodes as Tory work and pensions minister Iain Duncan Smith (IDS) claims, or that fear of hard work prevents them from ‘coming up’ in their life! The young people who marched 330 miles on the Jarrow March for Jobs put paid to that lie. The problem is there aren’t enough jobs – and not enough wages for those who manage to find one.


Bullet and BlackBerries


While understanding the reason for the eruption of anger we must point out that riots are not an effective method of struggle. However, while young people and the working class are faced with such huge attacks – with no mass organisation to provide a lead on how to defend them – there will be inchoate eruptions of anger in various forms.

But, as has been clear, actions such as riots can allow the ruling class to justify and escalate their increasingly ‘bonarpartist’ measures. The Con-Dem government used the opportunity to introduce further repressive measures – such as arming the police with rubber bullets and tear gas and increasing legislation against protests.

But, as was warned in the Socialist, leading left newspaper, these measures “will reduce the democratic rights of everyone and can be used to try to prevent workers’ anti-cuts demonstrations”. When students planned a demonstration in November against university fees and privatisation the police threatened the use of rubber bullets. Letters were sent threatening arrest. Riot gear, horses and dogs were deployed against them. The 10,000-strong demo of young people was mobbed by 4,000 police who, in effect, made it into a ‘walking kettle’. Furthermore a number of ‘agents provocateurs’ were utilised by the police. Guy Fawkes masks and other items of protesters’ ‘gear’ were seen inside the police vans.

The prime minister, David Cameron, labelled parts of society – ie the poor areas of Tottenham that David Lammy represents – as ‘sick’. But he was forced to retreat from his derogatory comment about the 30 November public sector pension strike – after calling it a ‘damp squib’. This reflects one of the key differences between organised working class action and an eruption of anger that caused damage and loss for ordinary working people and small businesses. Organised mass action is harder to shrug off by the ruling class, though they will try to do so at every opportunity.

It is understandable that young people feel helpless and powerless. Over the last two decades, since the defeat of the poll tax, there have been no significant victories for the working class inBritain. Young people were the first to take action against the brutal Con-Dem austerity measures and protested to protect their EMA. But victory wasn’t achieved. However it cannot be won through riots either. We must not condone these actions.

We explain this is not the correct method of struggle but come from the understanding of the youth who involved in the riots, and their real urge to struggle to defend their conditions and make their voices heard. The Guardian and LSE researchers were taken aback at how many young people wanted to contribute to the study to get their side of the story across. This is in complete contrast to the way the establishment reacted without any understanding of what caused the anger.

That no real opposition came from MPs, when draconian sentences were handed out to young people such as the six month-sentence for stealing bottled water, was not surprising. David Lammy’s lengthy arguments about human rights and the justice system in the book are a kind of defence of his inaction. He exposes the state of the justice system inBritain– a survey of “top judges found that all were white, 98% were male, 84% went to Oxbridge and three quarters had a ‘Full house’- white, male, public school and Oxbridge. But he draws no lesson from it and escapes with the sentence “we have no idea what they think”. Well trade unionists faced with spurious injunctions against strike action have a pretty good idea of what they think, as do the young people sentenced in their courts after the riots. Worse, one of Lammy’s first concrete ‘remedies’ in the book is to undo a recent law change to ‘remove the stigma’ around parents smacking their children. He has found common cause with Tory London mayor Boris Johnson on this. He locates all the problems in society inside the family, failing to really understand that the effects of living in a brutal, violent and deeply frustrating capitalist society cannot be dealt with by the occasional smack and a paper-round.

Lammy also struggles to find a defence for his call for the banning of BlackBerry Messaging (BBM), widely identified by politicians and the media for as facilitating the riots. He admits he was on the phone to BlackBerry manufacturer RIM demanding they switch off the service. David Cameron summoned the bosses of other social media companies to Number 10 to impart a ‘moral’ lesson.

Any medium that could provide a communication method and a real voice to the exploited people is feared by establishment politicians who defend the status quo. Their immediate reaction will be to consider how they can tighten their control.

In times of crisis, faced with increased opposition, governments are prepared to take extraordinary measures. This may not only include curtailing human rights, threatening to deploy rubber bullets, tear gas, the army; handing government to pro-banker ‘technocrats’; controlling social media, but also involves a dangerous game of vilifying a certain community either based on racism or ethnicity to divide it to undermine the potential united challenge.


Vilifying youth as gangsters

David Lammy and other MPs, who continue to defend the austerity onslaught, point the finger at young people saying it is they who are the ‘thieves and criminals”

In fact research has revealed that it wasn’t gangs or “organised criminals from all overLondon[who] swarmed into the area” to take part in the riots as Lammy claimed in his book. Lammy quotes the Ministry of Justice to claim that one in five arrested in relation to the riots inLondonhad links to gangs.

But the Guardian research shows that the majority had no connection to gangs. The police did, however, arrest those known to them, along with some political activists, as a pre-emptive measure.

These were not political acts but neither were they riots without a ‘cause’ or those without politics. Notable, while talking to young people in Tottenham, is how articulate they were in expressing their anger and frustration. They are more articulate, honest, and genuine than the likes of Lammy. Despite Lammy’s rants, hyper individualism and materialism are not the main features expressed, even though many felt that they deserved better.

Framing of the rioters as part of organised ‘gangs’ was initiated by Murdoch’s media who was crying out for another story to get away from the hacking scandal. Other media followed suit. The aftermath of the riot was even worse. While MPs got away with ‘stealing’ tax payers’ money to build a ‘house’ for their ducks, a personal sauna, etc, a student who took some bottled water was given a six month prison sentence – a further confirmation of the ‘them and us’ society for those alienated rioters. Punishments handed down to these youth are unprecedented and totally disproportionate. Can anyone be surprised when one man tells the Guardian that his only regret was that he didn’t cause more damage?


Who represents our interest?

David Lammy’s frequent assertions that ‘he is from Tottenham” and insistence that “I made it so you could do too” are reminiscent of the American ruling elite’s propaganda aimed at absorbing the civil rights movement. In fact he draws many lessons from the US, based on community, not class politics. Burgeoning leaders of the movement have been brought into the system they initially fought. The ‘hope’, based on the success of a few elevated role models, did not lift the millions of Black and ethnic minorities from poverty. This was graphically revealed by the suffering exacted by Hurricane Katrina[14]. Since then the economic crisis in theUS and worldwide has seen millions of Black people further pushed into penury, in the interest of big business profit. The euphoria felt during the election of Barack Obama, theUS’s first Black president, is dying fast among poor black and ethnic minorities. For the Black youth ofAmerica, Obama’s ‘Yes we can’ slogan is rapidly being replaced by the old civil rights movement slogan: ‘you can love your country, but hate the government’.

The fight for equal opportunities in the workplace, etc is vital as huge discrimination remains. David Lammy is right to point out there is a deplorable levels of discrimination within the Met police in terms of Black and Asian appointments. However, this is not the solution in itself. What we want are people who can genuinely represent us and defend our interest. We don’t need to rally behind those whose are with the class that oppress us but share our ‘skin colour’ or ethnicity – which in reality means nothing for us.

The so-called elevated individuals from minority groups have exposed themselves as just a ‘tool’ to control us than actually delivering anything on our behalf. With the salary of more than £100,000 a year, Trevor Philips acts as a ‘race entrepreneur’ rather than a fighter of racism[15]. There are 27 ethnic minority MPs in the current parliament, almost double the number of the previous government[16]. Some even say they have found the ‘British Obama’ in the form of Chuka Umunna MP for Streatham, south London. The Daily Mail’s attack on him as a “King Chuka”[17] is not as baseless as its usual attacks. Apparently the wealthy Umunna receives over £100,000 in staffing allowances a year. By his own admission “he couldn’t bring working class perspective to the House of Commons”[18].

But so-called ethnic minority MPs not only failed to come to a proper defence of those they claim to represent, some instead spearheaded the attack. Hackney Labour MP Diane Abbott even suggested that a “curfew is something we have to consider”. David Lammy is a great disciple of former prime minister Tony Blair, who claimed that the welfare state is “associated with fraud, abuse, laziness, a dependency culture, social irresponsibility encouraged by a welfare dependency”, and with him voted for theIraqwar.

Some of these MPs even echoed the dim-witted so-called historian David Starkey, though were not directly offensive as he was. Starkey revived Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ racist speech on BBC’s Newsnight on 15 August. In his ‘shopping with violence’ comments he launched the abusive attack on the riot that is far from like that of ‘race riot’. He said: “A substantial section of the Chavs have become black. The whites have become black.” Then he referred to David Lammy to defend his argument. He added: “Listen to David Lammy an archetypal successful black man. If you turn the screen off, so you were listening to him on radio, you would think he was white.”

Then he went on to attack rap music. This was a horrific attack on all black and Asian people and on David Lammy which disgusted everybody as Owen Jones pointed out immediately in the show. While appalled by Starkey we cannot help noticing where Lammy stands on this.  “Gang life has bastardised their notion of civic pride” says Lammy further claiming that the rioters are “Schooled by rappers and, in some cases, gang members”.

Young people were fighting for the puny EMA payments that help them to go to college. But Lammy, who believes “shopping is a way of spending quality time with children”, dares to suggest that ‘controlled pocket money’ and smacking are effective methods of controlling behaviour and dismissing young people as “rampant materialists”.
What we need

The solution to preventing future riots must start by getting rid of the current policy of taking away everything from the youth and poor working people and instead creating public works and a programme of socially useful job creation. Lammy echoes the Con-Dem proposals of forced labour for your dole, conditionality and a compulsory national service. A post-riot survey by the British Youth Council found that the vast majority of the 900+ who participated opposed such a scheme.

David Lammy agrees that New Labour does not oppose Thatcherite ideas with any confidence. At a time of huge and unpopular austerity there is no real challenge from Labour against the Con-Dem government. Neither Lammy in Tottenham nor any Labour-led council in the country has yet put any serious challenge. Only two Labour councillors in the country have voted against cuts – one only in a Labour meeting and he has been disciplined for that! This is why people say all you main parties are in it together – in the attack on us.

With nobody to defend the interest of workers and youth, they have no choice than taking to the street and taking strike actions, occupation etc. Those who oppose the austerity are not a minority. In 2011 we saw millions of workers and youth raising their opposition. The year ended with over two million workers taking part in a one-day public sector strike which was not supported by any of these three establishment parties.

The idea that there is no solution outside austerity is false. This crisis is not caused by public debt, rather private debt that banks accumulated. Still all those who caused the crisis are left to run free and make more profit from our public services while workers and youth are asked to pay for it. There is an alternative. For example, one initial good measure could be properly nationalising the profit-making banks and industries, using the resources made available to help to build public services – hence improving life-quality etc for the millions. The government took no time in nationalising the banks on the verge of collapse to pass on the debt burden to tax payers. But these sorts of ideas will never reach the ear of the ruling class – not because these ideas are not scientific or economically viable – but because this is beyond the logic of capitalism.


I am happy to debate the points made in this article with David Lammy.

Some of his facts were proved wrong by the Guardian research. People want public debate about organising the economy with active participation of people in the decision making. The Tory party took power based on minority vote running the life majority. People don’t want to wait till next election and bite the teeth while they are chopped. If the Labour is not prepared to bring the Tories down, the people will.


[1]               http://www.socialismtoday.org/151/riots.html

[2]               http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/video/2011/dec/05/reading-riots-video

[3]               Social reformer- contributed to the creation of welfare state after WW II. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/beveridge_william.shtml


[5]               http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/7193904.stm


[6]               http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/aug/29/tax-us-more-say-wealthy-europeans

[7]               http://www.endchildpoverty.org.uk/why-end-child-poverty/poverty-in-your-area

[8]               http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/08/context-london-riots

[9]               http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/dec/13/social-survey-thatcherite-britain

[10]             http://cubebs.org/senan/?p=17

[11]             http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2010/jun/17/stop-and-search-police

[12]             http://www.met.police.uk/stopandsearch/what_is.htm


[14]             http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,168842,00.html

[15]             http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1257990/Equality-boss-Trevor-Phillips-told-MPs-justify-112-000-salary.html

[16]             http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/may/07/black-minority-ethnic-mps-2010

[17]             http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2063736/Labour-MPs-rebel-Ed-Miliband-s-rising-star-Chuka-Umunna.html

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