The Prime Minister's challenge - RSA

The Prime Minister's challenge


Over breakfast in my hotel near Cairns a member of staff who knows I'm from London said 'I'm so sorry about what's happen to your city'. Someone else says 'I wonder how long until this spreads to other countries; there is so much anger and hopelessness right now'. 

Reading the commentary, blogs and tweets there is a predictable divide between the left of centre, linking the riots to economic and social causes, and the right seeing it simply as mass badness which requires an authoritarian response (some contributors to Conservative Home are calling for rioters to be shot). Spanning the divide somewhat there is a fine piece by Mary Riddell in the Telegraph

For politicians this is a defining moment. The country needs their leadership but they are only too aware of the pitfalls of getting their response wrong. Although Ken Livingstone calls for calm and condemns violence the very fact that he refers to previous riots under Conservative Governments and feelings of social alienation means he is seen as an apologist for the rioters. Perhaps wisely, Ed Miliband has restricted himself thus far to attacking lawlessness and backing tough police action. I suspect if the situation continues he may play one of the few cards in the Opposition locker at a time like this which is to suggest a Parliamentary recall.

David Cameron's response will be one of the most important moments of his Premiership thus far. Politicians need holidays like anyone else (says he writing from his sun lounger), but the fact that the Prime Minister, Deputy  Prime Minister and Chancellor were all away when both the rioting and the international financial crisis broke out is not a good starting point. 

Cameron has three message challenges. First, he needs to show control and help restore some calm. Following events on Twitter, it seems that there are genuine concerns about the police being overrun as rioters and looters use social media, particularly Blackberry Messenger to group, disperse and regroup. There must be a danger that the focus of their activities will move from local high streets and shopping centres to more high profile targets. Second he must, of course, condemn theft, vandalism and violence and refute the idea that there is any excuse for such behaviour. But third, there will surely have to be some part of his message which goes to the wider sense of social malaise. 

However unjustifiable the action of the rioters, mass outbreaks of lawlessness rarely just happen. George Osborne famously used the phrase 'we are all in this together' but as the economic crisis moves into another frightening level the simple fact is that it doesn't feel this way to the people at the bottom. With high youth unemployment, cuts to support for 16-18 year old students and the loss of much youth provision, the Prime Minister needs to find some grounds for people see improvement in underlying social conditions.

For amidst the sad and frightening news there is also some hope (and a more positive example of the role of social media). As I write rising trends on Twitter include #reclaimLondon and #riotcleanup as community activists pledge to meet in the morning to help clear up after the riots. David Cameron could do a lot worse that be seen to join such a clean up (although he should at all costs avoid mentioning the Big Society). When he does he will find people angry, frightened and hurt at the criminality which has caused injury and wrecked business and homes. But he is also likely to hear people talk about why they saw this coming and why something must be done to bring hope to the young people of our cities. It is recognising this while being tough and reassuring that will be the test of whether David Cameron can speak for the nation.

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