Why there were riots in Lewisham

9 Aug 11

We should not be surprised at riots in inner-city areas like Lewisham. A whole workless generation has been abandoned by society.

'The Welfare of the People is the First Great Law'. So goes the motto for Lewisham Council, my home ‘town’ in south east London. Last night as the sirens wailed and the helicopters roamed restlessly overhead, it felt more like a war zone than the beneficent local state its motto suggests. This morning, Catford, just down the road by the Town Hall, has the feel and appearance of a battle scene. Lewisham’s shopping centre has closed early this afternoon, in anticipation of a well-tweeted proposal to attack Europe’s largest police station – standing faceless and unwelcoming, where the borough’s last department store once made sure that we were being served.

Ours weren’t the worst of yesterday’s riots, but it would have come as no surprise if they had been. A long-time net exporter of labour, with a diminishing number of local jobs, Lewisham tops the UK’s league table for youth unemployment .  According to the Office of National Statistics, almost 36% of Lewisham’s 16 – 24 year olds were out of work last year, compared to a UK average of 19.5%:   alarming figures by any standards. Meanwhile, Croydon and Hackney – also under siege last night – were almost as bad – with youth unemployment levels of 33%.

In 2010, a TUC report showed that Job Seekers Allowance claimants in my ‘hood outnumbered overall job vacancies by almost 14:1. Compare this to to a national average of 5:1. This made Lewisham the third worst centre of unemployment in England, after Haringey and Hackney.  In 2010, it was the 31st most deprived council in England – up from 52nd in 2004. Meanwhile, Canary Wharf with its Big Bonus-earning Bankers and their ever-expanding pension pots nestles a complacent 5.6 miles away across the river - another world indeed. Beginning to make some connections?

Unemployment and poverty are not Lewisham’s only distinguishing characteristics. Those readers who recall the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ against the National Front in 1977, the dreadful tragedy of thirteen young black peoples’ deaths in the New Cross Fire of 1981, the ‘Dread, Beat and Blood’ of Linton Kwesi Johnson and the Catford ministry of the Revd Desmond Tutu, will also know that Lewisham has long been a sustaining home to many black and ethnic minority people, as well as the locus of historic struggles against racism and white supremacist organisations. 34% of Lewisham’s population are from black and other ethnic minorities, compared to a 6% average across England.

Grandparents and parents from the Caribbean, Africa, India and Pakistan – as well as the white working class - once worked hard for a living in local hospitals, transport, the council and low paid jobs in the private service sector. They now see their children and grandchildren facing the interminable prospect of lives without even low paid work, as the great law of the welfare of the people unravels in the haze of George Osborne’s deficit reduction strategy and a global economy in crisis. That means lives without money and all those things that turbo capitalism has made us think we need – even if we could only afford them in the ‘boom’ times on the sort of credit that helped bring the global economy close to its knees. Most live out a ground down existence on the dole and the margins of London’s consumer society.

That’s bad enough in itself, but Coalition cuts have wreaked savage revenge on Lewisham’s Labour majority council, which has barely put up any kind of a fight against the ensuing meltdown in services for young people.  Earlier in the year the council decided to shut down the Connexions service, which played an important part in supporting workless young people along the way through learning and unemployment – and occasionally found them a job too! (I was impressed by the very kind and gentle Connexions advisor who called a couple of times last year to check that my gap-year son was doing OK and who was delighted to hear that he’d scored a temp job in John Lewis.) It was the largest cut yet made to a Connexions service anywhere and has led UNISON to explore a judicial review on the grounds that Lewisham is failing to meet its statutory obligations to provide ‘Information, Advice and Guidance’ services. Add to this the five libraries and IT centres that were closed in May, cuts to youth work, restricted access to the EMA and unimaginable university tuition fees and you can see why young people in my neck of the woods are angry.

Policing practice in Lewisham shows that black people are on the end of the strongest arm of the law when it comes to ‘stop and search’ too. Between March and May 2011, there were 7 searches per 1000 white people, compared to 30 for blacks, 15 for Asians and 12 for ‘others’, although white arrests slightly exceeded those for black people. Not at all surprising then that the death of Mark Duggan should trigger the latent anger of those singled out for such special attention.

Of course, none of these facts and figures justify the sort of wanton and personal violence meted out to hard working and terrified residents of Lewisham and elsewhere over the last couple of days. It is hard to construe the riots as the ‘moral economy’ depicted by Edward Thompson, renowned historian of the English working class. The sight of dispossessed, forgotten young people destroying the heart of their own communities is as sickening as it is saddening. But it should come as no surprise. Those who have been deprived of the chance to use their own imagination, skills and labour to find the self-respect and material comforts that we are led to consider normal in this crazy world, have been literally forced outside of society.

Many of my young Lewisham neighbours no longer feel that there is any trace of a local Great Law ensuring  their welfare. Without the beneficent aspects of the state, many are left with nothing material or psychological to hang on to. The moral codes that evolve from citizens who feel a responsibility to those around them no longer apply. MP’s fiddling expenses, tax evaders, phone hackers and multi-nationals who screw their workforces are hardly an example to anyone either, are they? The big question is, where to now?

  • Heather Wakefield
    Heather Wakefield
    National Secretary for Unison’s local government, police and justice section

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