Friday, August 12, 2011

The unions and the riots - what do we do with Thatchers' grandchildren?

Yesterday, UNISON issued a statement saluting the public service workers dealing with the consequences of the riots (http://www.unison.org.uk/news/news_view.asp?did=7116).

A riot is a rending of the social fabric - and it's quite right to remind politicians and the public of the worth of those of us whose work is to weave, and sometimes repair, that fabric. UNISON was absolutely right to do so.

Whilst ACPO and the Police Federation can be pleased that both the Mayor of London and Her Majesty's Opposition have made the obvious step from that point to questioning forthcoming cuts in policing numbers, it's understandable that firefighters are angry that the cuts they face aren't being challenged to the same extent (http://www.fbu.org.uk/?p=3963) - the FBU are clearly right to articulate that anger.

However, our public services are not simply there to respond to, or pick up the pieces after, social disorder. They also play a role in meeting social need, and sustaining involvement in, and the cohesion of, our communities. The statement from PCS on Tuesday went some way to acknowledging that growing unemployment and inequality, accompanied by cuts in social provision are among the longer term causes for the social conditions from which rioting can arise (http://www.pcs.org.uk/en/news_and_events/news_centre/index.cfm/id/E0A7A515-CEFA-48A4-865EFD52B0A653D3).

Heather Wakefield, writing personally, was able to go a deal further than official comments have in her blog post, rightly picking up on the alienation of inner-city youth and the nature of the policing of those youth as elements in the causation of the riots (http://opinion.publicfinance.co.uk/2011/08/why-there-were-riots-in-lewisham/). This analysis is not a million miles from that offered in the statement issued by my own union branch (http://lambethunison.blogspot.com/2011/08/lambeth-unison-public-statement-in.html).

We certainly need to go beyond praise for our own members to make the point that the deep cuts being made to jobs and services will, without doubt, make such disorder even more likely in future. Our members losing their jobs in the provision of youth services bearing the brunt of cuts can see this and expect to hear us say it.

However, the trade union movement has a broader responsibility to those beyond our ranks, including those - predominantly young - people engaged in rioting and looting. Our union movement is not just the largest civil society organisation - it has a particular role to represent the interests of the working class.

Thatcher's grandchildren, who rioted this week, have internalised her message that "there is no such thing as society" - only a dog eat dog world in which you can expect neither hope nor justice and might as well take some "free stuff" from fellow citizens to whom you neither have nor feel any ties of common interest or obligation.

These are the bitter fruits of the failures of our trade union movement - failure to defeat the Tories in the 80s and 90s; failure to assert the interests of our class under New Labour - but also failure to organise young people, in and out of employment.

We can't change the past - but we can now turn our minds to how we take the ethos of collectivism to marginalised and excluded young people. Surely we need to start by stepping up campaigns to protect the services on which young people rely, and to reverse the policies, on EMA in particular, which are further diminishing the life chances of the young?

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