The English riots and the English left

The two largest organisations of the British radical left — the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the UK Socialist Party — have responded inconsistently to the wave of rioting, looting and arson that swept across English cities for four days in the wake of the police killing of Tottenham (London) resident Mark Duggan on August 4.  As a result of the riots, five people were killed, about 100 homes were burned and 48,000 shops,  pubs, clubs and restaurants were damaged. By August 15, the police had arrested 3100 people and charged more than a thousand.

In a statement posted on its Socialist Worker website on August 13, the SWP attributed the riots to the “bitterness and rage” resulting from a “society of deep and growing inequality, where there are great pools of unemployment and poverty, where there is systematic police harassment and racism, and where many young people feel they have no future”.

However, the statement then implied that the root cause of the riots was the austerity measures launched by the year-old Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government of PM David Cameron. According to the SWP statement, “... it is the ‘lost generation’ created by the Tories who are at the centre of these struggles — although many older people were also involved … Equally the riots would not have happened without the attacks being launched by the Tory-led government.”

Similarly, the weekly paper of the SP attributed the riots to the Cameron government’s austerity measures. The August 16 Socialist’s lead article was headlined, “Con-Dems to blame for anger of youth — mass, trade union-led workers’ response needed”. The article stated: “... we place the blame for what has taken place firmly on the Con-Dem government and say that it must be removed”.

Both the SWP and SP therefore claim that the riots were a response to the social situation created solely by the Cameron government’s austerity measures, rather than the alienation, hopelessness and despair produced among many working-class youth over several decades under both Tory and Labour governments.

The SWP statement called for “huge demonstrations” like the 400,000-strong March 26 anti-cuts march in London, organised by the Trades Union Congress, as the way to “unite desperate young people and workers who face job cuts, attacks on pensions, huge wage reductions and worse conditions”. However, an accompanying article in the same issue of Socialist Worker by leading SWP member Gary McFarlane presented the previous week’s rioting and looting in an entirely positive light.

Despite the fact that most of the victims of the riots (including the five killed) were not members of the police, but instead were ordinary workers and owners of small corner shops, McFarlane claimed: “... as far as violence goes, that was aimed at the police who carry out violent attacks on working class communities on a daily basis, especially against black male youth”. Grotesquely, McFarlane even tried to enlist Karl Marx in support of looting as a means of  working-class “political resistance” to capitalist exploitation. He wrote: “Karl Marx was exactly right when he talked about expropriating the expropriators, taking back what they have taken from us. That’s what looting by poor working class people represents and in that sense it is a deeply political act.”

By contrast, the Socialist’s Judy Beishon argued: “The Socialist Party does not support rioting as a method of protest”, adding, “whatever form it took and whatever momentary release was gained through the outburst of anger, the unorganised, chaotic manner of the revolt has led to a number of unfortunate and in some cases tragic consequences for the participants, for the communities that suffered the direct effects, and for working people in general”.

An August 9 article on the SP’s website on the August 6 riot in Tottenham argued: “... there was also anger that police were not prepared to protect local areas. Many blamed government cuts to police services.” It then approvingly cited London Metropolitan Police Federation spokesperson Paul Deller’s statement: “Morale among the police officers dealing with this incident, and within the police service as a whole, is at its lowest level ever due to the constant attacks on them by the Home Secretary and the government in the form of the reviews into police pay and conditions”.

The SP’s concern for morale among police officers might strike readers as odd for an organisation that claims to be for the revolutionary replacement of the capitalist state machine with a “workers’ state”. However, the SP regards police officers as both agents of the capitalist class, part of its state apparatus for upholding the capitalist social order against the working class, and as a part of the working class. Hence, the SP has argued that “revolutionary socialists” should campaign for the inclusion of the police within the workers’ movement.