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Screen shot 2012-01-01 at 18.28.56Ben Rogers is a human rights activist, focused on Asia, and a former Conservative candidate. Follow him on Twitter.

David Lammy is a ‘Big Society’ conservative. That may be ‘conservative’ with a small ‘c’ – he is, after all, a Labour MP and former Minister – but if his new book is anything to go by, he has more in common with David Cameron, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and Oliver Letwin than with Ed Miliband, Harriet Harman, Gordon Brown and Ken Livingstone.

His book, Out of the Ashes: Britain after the Riots, is the most sensible piece of analysis of modern Britain by a Labour politician in a long time. There is, in fact, little to separate it from the ‘broken Britain’ analysis which the Prime Minister and IDS have been highlighting for years. It is almost as if he has taken the enormous, excellent, weighty Centre for Social Justice policy reports such as ‘Breakdown Britain’ and ‘Breakthrough Britain’, and translated them into a quick-and-easy-read designed for the man in the street.

Bigger than party politics

What is most striking, and an example to us all on both sides of the political debate, is the lack of partisan rancour. Lammy talks passionately and authentically about the issues themselves, and avoids pointing the finger or scoring cheap party political points. “No single political party, no single government and no single factor was to blame for the riots,” he argues.


Indeed, if anything he apportions responsibility equally, citing the “two revolutions” Britain has experienced as the “backdrop to the riots”: the social and cultural revolution of the 1960s, and the economic revolution of the 1980s. He writes:

“Together they made Britain a wealthier and more tolerant nation. But they have come at a cost, combining to create a hyper-individualistic culture, in which we do not treat each other well. The riots were an explosion of hedonism and nihilism.”

He praises the “creative genius” of a market economy, and the tolerance of social liberalism, but both ‘revolutions’, he argues, “sell Britain short unless they are moderated by other forces”. We have become less judgmental, but also “less compassionate, civil and supportive of one another”. This chimes with Cameron’s “we’re all in this together” message.

Labour 'nationalised' society

Even more in tune with Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is Lammy’s recognition of Labour’s failings. He argues that Gordon Brown had “a tendency to see the world through a spreadsheet”, and New Labour saw the State as having all the answers. Labour, he says, failed to show any sense of “the individual in context – surrounded by a culture, by relationships with other people, by social norms and expectations of behaviour”. He writes:

“Faced with the problems of an individualistic culture, we turned to government to make society more fair, safe and virtuous. The result was a blizzard of rules, regulations, targets, measurements, instructions, inspections and initiatives  … Too often it felt as if we were nationalising society rather than reinforcing it. New Labour appeared to become interested only in what the state could deliver on its own. With that, our politics lost a language of care, generosity, neighbourliness, compromise and cooperation. We revered public services but spoke too little of public spirit. We became statist because we appeared uninterested in the other forces for good in society.”

That could have been written by Cameron, IDS, Oliver Letwin, Michael Gove, Steve Hilton …

Rampant materialism, lack of role models, family breakdown

He talks with first-hand experience – not just as the MP for Tottenham, where the August riots started, but as a man who grew up on the Broadwater Farm estate, raised by a single mother, who could so easily have ended up in jail instead of in Parliament were it not for the values his mother instilled in him. And it is those values, he argues, that we as a society have largely abandoned, a fact illustrated most clearly in the attitude of the rioters. He admits he had expected to see faces “filled with rage and resentment”, and was shocked by “a far more sinister emotion: happiness”. This was accompanied by a “methodical nature” to the looting and destruction. “It was cruel and calculating”, says Lammy. “This was not a protest; it was rampant materialism”. Unlike the riots of the 1980s, the 2011 riots were not grievance-based. “Those who put others’ lives and livelihoods at risk were not doing so in the name of justice,” he notes. The shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham may have been the spark, but those looting in Hackney, Enfield, Brixton, Peckham, Clapham Junction, Birmingham and Manchester “had never even heard of Mark Duggan”.

Lammy argues that the riots “were the result of a lethal cocktail of issues”: consumerist culture, community and family breakdown, a “my rights” attitude, the absence of boundaries, role models, work, dignity and opportunity on many of Britain’s estates. “In a world where everything is available on demand, the idea of working for something, waiting for something and truly earning something is losing currency,” he notes. And to those who suggest that the riots were about poverty, he asks: “Why did the majority of youths from deprived areas choose to remain at home and obey the law? … What shields kids in the inner city from this kind of temptation is not just their material circumstances, but strong, healthy relationships with others – with parents, peers, teachers and neighbours.”

Restoring responsibility

So what solutions does he propose? A responsibility culture. Sound familiar? “What is needed, more than anything in a more fractured, anonymous and individualistic society, is a sense of responsibility to each other. This must be nurtured in families, cultivated in schools and enforced from within communities themselves.” He argues we should draw on the best of the radical reformers of post-war Britain:

“The answer .. 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, not one or the other.”

Lammy outlines a range of interesting ideas, including “making work pay” by reforming the benefits system, making child benefit conditional on parents accepting “intensive packages of support to help them restore calm and order in family life” and putting people to work in public and voluntary sectors rather than paying them “to sit at home”. Has he talked to IDS recently?

He highlights the breakdown of the family, and particularly the problem of “the absent father” and “the disengaged father”. It is time, he argues, that “fathers must be held properly to account”. Currently, only mothers are legally required to place their name on their child’s birth certificate. “Where the father is known, he should be obliged to register his name and National Insurance number on the certificate. If necessary, this would allow any future child maintenance payments to be deducted at source from either wages or benefits.”

Civic service

He discusses the problem of gang culture, and argues for the development of sustained mentoring schemes, pairing successful people with inner-city youths. “There is more to philanthropy than finance. Young men in inner cities need access to powerful role models in person, not just their chequebooks,” he argues. In addition, “modern Britain needs more institutions on the lines of the Scouts, the Girl Guides or the Boys’ Brigade to ground youngsters in the habits of citizenship”. Young people should be encouraged to visit the elderly, help out in schools, renovate public spaces and mentor younger children. This is not dissimilar from Cameron’s National Citizen Service, but Lammy’s critique of the coalition’s programme is that it is too short, voluntary and young people have to pay to participate. By definition, those involved in the looting in August would simply be excluded. “A British civic service must reach everyone,” he writes. “It should be compulsory and last around six months – long enough to make a real difference to young people’s lives. Participants should be paid the minimum wage to ensure that this amounts to more than a glorified gap year scheme for the well-off.”

Restorative justice, community punishments, local policing and immigration are all part of the picture too, and Lammy offers some thoughtful proposals for addressing these areas of policy. The rioters and looters, he argues, “should have been rebuilding Tottenham High Road on day release from prison. They should have been made to confront the damage they inflicted on the lives of their peers and expected to take some small steps, at least, to help put things right.”

I hope that the Prime Minister, IDS, Michael Gove, Oliver Letwin, Theresa May and other ministers read Lammy’s book. It isn’t a weighty policy paper, but it makes no pretence to be. It is, instead, a very readable, thoughtful and relevant first-hand account of life in one of Britain's most deprived areas, and an analysis of social breakdown which chimes with much of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ agenda.

Bring Lammy into the Big Society Big Tent

It is surprising that Lammy is no longer on the Labour front-bench – and that presents Cameron with an opportunity. Appoint Lammy as an adviser on social justice and the 'Big Society', to work with IDS and other ministers to develop concrete solutions to the social problems in Britain’s deprived inner cities. There is a precedent, as Lammy’s Labour colleagues Alan Milburn, Frank Field and Will Hutton have all taken up similar advisory roles with the coalition government. Lammy would bring authentic grit gained from growing up in Tottenham and representing the constituency, which would complement the work already pioneered by IDS. Such a partnership could actually help begin to rebuild Britain’s social fabric out of the ashes of the 2011 riots. 

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