Humpty Dumpty

 “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

(from Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll)

I don’t often defend Labour MPs or their policies on here. But this morning as I travelled in to work my twitter feed was filled with people harrumphing about the apparent idiocy of a pronouncement by David Lammy MP that we should “give shoplifters softer sentences if they steal from top stores” or that “Stealing from Fortnum & Mason less serious than pilfering corner shop“. It sounded like just the sort of inane class war thing a left wing Labour MP might say – instead of let them eat cake, let them steal posh cakes!

However, in a fit of generosity, I went to have a look at what the story was really about. The reason Lammy was on the news this morning was that he had published for the think tank, Policy Exchange, a report about property crime in the aftermath of the riots that had started in his Tottenham constituency in 2011. As think tanks go, Policy Exchange is not really on the bleeding heart liberal end of the spectrum – a few years ago it provocatively recommended that instead of “wasting” money and effort on regenerating places like Sunderland it would be better if people in such benighted places got up and went to booming places like Oxford and Cambridge. The interesting and that context unsurprising thing about this report is that what it actually says is almost the diametric opposite of what it was being reported to have said.

True, it does state in one of its recommendations (number 17) that “The impact of a £150 theft, for example, would be far greater on an independent corner shop than on Fortnum and Mason”. But, the recommendation this is there to support is not, as the Mail and Telegraph reports would have you assume, to reduce the sentences for shoplifting from Fortnum and Mason or other high end shops. What it is actually looking at is the way in which the replacement for ASBOs seems to have effectively decriminalised shoplifting where the value of goods taken is less than £200. At pages 29-30 the report explains in more detail how low value shoplifters are able to repeatedly target small shops and receive no real punishment. What it proposes is to increase the penalties and enforcement resource for lower value thefts rather than to decrease them for higher value ones. There may be a resource implication to this but that is a different matter.

As I said earlier, it would have been easy and predictable for Lammy to have concluded that punishment for low value shoplifting was too severe. Particularly as some of those who had stolen no more than a bottle of water or a pair of trainers during the 2011 riots got custodial sentences when ten UKUncut protestors got conditional discharges for the aggravated trespass of “occupying” Fortnum & Mason. It would have been easy for a Labour MP for a relatively poor area to conclude that people nicking food or nappies from a corner shop were victims of austerity and poverty so they shouldn’t be treated harshly. Instead, the report takes a much more aggressive stance against such criminality.

I know there’s an election on, but it does seem rather strange to find apparently “right wing” media outlets criticising proposals to get tougher on crime just because they come from someone of the Left. Or to find them unsympathetic to moves to protect small businesses, preferring outrage at the suggestion that a luxury food emporium owned by a multi-billion pound private investment fund might be able to mitigate and bear the costs of shoplifters than a corner shop run by a hardworking family taking up most of their waking hours for relatively modest profits. Perhaps it is all just about who, as Humpty said, is to be master. It does seem a bit of a waste when there are so many better targets for ridicule in Labour’s official policies.

Middle Class Revolt

A lot of wags have commented in the aftermath of the rioting and looting that gripped parts of the country last month that “well, the Kaiser Chiefs told us this was going to happen”. Not that there was much sign of social upheaval at the first of the band’s two sell-out homecoming concerts at Kirkstall Abbey at the weekend, but you needed something to think about while stuck in an hour long queue for the beer tent.

Starting to queue

 

Just getting served now!

Apart from a torrential deluge during Pete and the Pirates’ rather nondescript second support slot, this was a long way from being a festival appearance. The amateurish attempt to provide beer for 10,000 people meant that I didn’t get anywhere near the stage for Gruff Rhys’ set, but luckily the sound quality was excellent so I didn’t miss out too much. I’m way too old to even consider fighting my way towards the front anyhow. I haven’t got round to buying his Hotel Shampoo album yet so I’d only have been shouting for him to play some Neon Neon (on my own) if I had done.

Although the Kaiser Chiefs played well to an audience mainly receptive to their older, more singalong stuff, it was interesting to listen again to see whether they really are the Nostradamus band. The answer is, no, they are not. At least not intentionally. The riot they predict is not a political one or one that they are supporting, but just the normal drink-fuelled violence of a weekend evening out in town. The Angry Mob aren’t the dispossessed but the crowd of “people like us” in the audience.

This is an angry mob that merely tuts a bit at having to queue for an hour for a flat pint of Fosters at £4 and then obediently files out through a single narrow exit at the end of the evening. One that has mainly got the babysitters in and for whom the lives of the ordinary Leeds youngsters drinking WKD and fighting over cabs and kebabs outside Majestyks is as exotic and far-off as looting in Tooting. Not to mention that Majestyks has been closed for years.

Riot? No, we’ll just guard these hard-won beers, thanks.

The nearest to discord and a clash of the classes came with Chris Moyles’ brief moments on stage to announce that the band would shortly be coming on. It must be good being Chris Moyles – you just have to go home to Leeds for the weekend and you get invited on stage in front of 10,000 people. Apart from the having to be Chris Moyles for the rest of the week part. He managed to be more offensive and less funny than usual, which suggests that “Comedy Dave” and the rest of his posse actually do do something to merit their places coming in the ears of Radio 1 listeners on weekday mornings.

So, to the Kaiser Chiefs set. Leaving aside the incongruity of singing that they’d never been so far away from home they played the hits powerfully to an appreciative audience. Watching their set at Glastonbury (on TV), it seemed a bit flat and lacking in variety of tone – perhaps in a more partisan setting they were happier to play a more natural show, with less of an eye to trying to showcase their latest album. That’s what outdoor gigs should be like – unashamed crowd pleasing. They also used the striking surroundings of the Abbey well, albeit that I suspect someone from the Abbey would have been displeased at Ricky Wilson actually climbing onto the ruins.

Blinding set for the converted

Good view now but the sound was better further back

Thanks to Lee for sorting me out with a ticket and to Tony and Kate for the experiment later on to discover whether there was any difference between a Chicken Kebab and a Mexican Chicken Wrap at Challenge Sandwiches (answer no, the latter is the former rebranded to appeal to the sorts of ladies who don’t eat kebabs at the end of a night out).

No, they're being looked after at home, honest

The undervalued art of doing nothing

It might seem strange to describe doing nothing as undervalued. After all, it is the middle of the summer holiday season when many people are busy doing nothing, looking forward to doing nothing or fondly remembering a fortnight just passed doing nothing. The last category probably includes not a few politicians who hastily packed up their beach towels, improving books on social theory and economics and families to return to harrumphing duties in the House of Commons.

In the aftermath of the rioting and pillaging that briefly took hold of London, Birmingham and Manchester last week, pundits and politicians have had to hastily cobble together suitable responses to the events. Unsurprisingly, the overarching theme to these responses has been to echo the public’s demands that “something must be done”.

However, what is much more contentious is the answer to the question, “so what must be done?”. Nobody really knows what needs to be done. Perhaps all of the things blamed by David Cameron, Ed Miliband and the other voices are to blame and we need a general “down with that sort of thing” response. There’s a germ of truth in most of the claims to understand the causes – although even I’m struggling to see quite how Health and Safety legislation was significant enough a factor to be worth being in the Prime Minister’s firing line. Maybe its impact in reducing the opportunities for children to indulge in organised perilous activities like going camping or climbing trees might have contributed to a culture where there was no safety valve for youthful frustrations. Or at least not for those who were unable to make good the aftermath of their drunken rioting by throwing bundles of tenners at the victims, like members of the Bullingdon club are reputed to.

It will take time to assess the real causes of the breakdown of order. This will involve sifting out the non-reasons too (the withdrawal of EMA or the fees that will be payable by undergraduate students who won’t be filling in their UCAS forms until later in the year are not likely to have contributed much more to the thoughts of the rioters as they covered their faces before heading out than the red tape of health and safety).

Unfortunately, one thing that politicians don’t have is time. Reactionary soundbites are being made because politicians are gripped by a fear of being seen to do nothing. Better to do something, anything, than to risk being portrayed as “do-nothings”. That, today, is the worst thing a politician can be accused of. It opens them up to being caricatured as ditherers, indecisive, clueless, or (particularly if they are Tories) too aloof to care. Perhaps it is a sign of the continued masculinity of political discourse – if there’s a problem, politicians consider it a failure of their machismo not to be able to quickly see the problem and do something about it.

That was certainly the theme picked out by Lord Mandelson in criticising David Cameron and George Osborne as the financial crisis hit. The repeated attack was that they would have done nothing and that this should be unfavourably contrasted with Gordon Brown having led in saving the world the banks. In the momentum of those momentous, but now curiously distant, days nobody really stopped to ask whether what was being done was the right thing, or whether it needed doing (it was hard to tell then and nearly impossible to imagine now for instance, how securing a shotgun wedding between staid old Lloyds Bank and the disastrously holed HBOS was going to make things better). We heard that the ATMs were all going to run out of cash unless “something was done” but never really stopped to question whether this was actually true or might just have been self-serving exaggeration from the same bankers who caused the problems and stood to gain the most from the banks being bailed out.

Similarly, while there are undoubtedly many social ills that need to be addressed because young people don’t generally go on the rampage en masse, kicking in shop windows and looting shops to order, that doesn’t mean that doing even more of the same things that were done in the past for that group is the answer. More youth clubs, more outreach workers, more information about training opportunities, more EMA, more investment in regenerating housing stocks etc etc etc would make it look like something was being done just as much as more prison places, benefit cuts and evictions from social housing. But it might be no more effective in addressing the problems or satisfying the general public.

Societies and economies are big things. Small changes can have big effects. Big changes, like trying to stop a car on the motorway by shifting into reverse rather than progressively braking and changing down, can be counterproductive. Trying to do too much too precipitately is dangerous and foolish.

A period of silence and reflection is needed. Let the politicans have their soundbites  but don’t pressure them to take drastic action in exactly the terms of their rhetoric because neither they nor us know where such action will take us let alone whether it will be better than where we are going already. Just saying what they believe will be more popular with their own supporters and the public more generally is the main aim for most politicians. What they actually follow through with could and should be more considered. Cameron’s speech (http://bit.ly/rfl0As ) has been criticised for being a return to the “nasty party” that he spent so long trying to detoxify (eg http://bit.ly/qzKCtA ) but in fact doesn’t introduce a lot that is new or different to the line he’s developed in the 5 years or so since he became Tory leader. Miliband has encouragingly resisted the temptation to say very much in terms of concrete proposals http://bit.ly/oJ7Qfu .

When it has all died down it may just be that doing little or nothing new or additional might be the best balance between the extreme “do somethings” of banging all the perpetrators up, stopping their benefits and evicting their parents from their homes and being seen to reward the focusless protests by giving even more of the social support services that did not make much difference before. That might show that the majority believe in a plague on both houses – the hangers and floggers and the bleeding hearts.

Something must be done? Are you sure about that?