The National Conversation - speech by Ed Miliband15 August 2011
Ed Miliband MP, Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Labour Party, said today in a speech at Haverstock School:
It’s a pleasure and a privilege to be back at my old school - Haverstock Comprehensive.
Haverstock inspired me with great teachers.
It gave me a great education.
At Haverstock I grew up – with people from all walks of life.
Haverstock made me the person that I am and without that experience I wouldn’t be standing here today as Leader of the Labour party.
Everyone here will have a personal story about last week’s riots.
Mine is that a week ago, near the route that I walked every day for seven years to school, in Chalk Farm road, shops were vandalised, windows were smashed and there was looting.
No part of London and no major English city seemed safe or immune from what was happening.
This week, I did what politicians don’t do enough.
I went out on the streets of the areas affected and I listened to whoever came up to me.
People told me their stories. Their powerful stories.
Let me bear witness to them today.
Because it is only with the voices of people that we can begin to understand and start to solve the problems we face as a society.
On Tuesday, I was in Peckham, less than 12 hours after the looting had finished.
I heard from a young woman, at university, who had feared for her safety as she tried to get home.
I heard from an old man, who said that politicians were deserting the young.
On Wednesday, I saw the fury of the people of Manchester about the rioting there.
I saw the true spirit of that great city represented by the thousand volunteers who came out in a morning to clean up.
On Friday, I witnessed the range of emotions of those in Tottenham.
A community which has done so much to build its reputation since the riots of 1985, that now feared the world might turn its back.
I met people like Alan Moore, a jeweller, who saw his shop burned down.
All that was left after 35 years of hard work, was a solitary safe deposit box, standing amidst the rubble.
And at the same time, I visited the leisure centre in Tottenham and saw volunteers young and old providing support to those who had lost everything.
The teenagers, who had seen what had happened to their community, felt that they needed to make a difference, and were serving to tea to those who needed help.
The teenagers who reminded me of the vast majority of decent young people in our country.
On Saturday, I heard from people in Hackney.
Shopkeepers who had seen their businesses attacked and people searching for answers.
I have seen and heard anger, grief and fear.
But I have also seen determination, bravery and hope.
And from almost all, I have heard condemnation, a refusal to make excuses or justify these acts.
Because nothing can excuse.
Nothing can justify.
That is why it is right that tough punishments are being handed out.
And yet I have heard something else: a deep need to explain, a profound desire to understand.
When we first said twenty years ago that we should be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, we spoke to the common sense of people then and now.
Everywhere I have been, people are discussing the same questions.
Why did this happen?
What does this say about our country?
What can be done now to prevent it happening again?
There is an easy and predictable path for politicians.
It might even be the more popular in the short term – and I heard some people demand it on the streets.
It puts the riots down to “criminality” pure and simple. And stops there.
It says that to explain is to excuse.
If others wish to tread this path, that is a matter for them.
But it’s not the one for me.
It is not strength but an absolute abdication of responsibility to the victims, our communities and the country.
Because if we follow that approach, we run the risk of disturbances happening again.
As Bill Bratton, the former LA police commissioner, put it: “you cannot arrest your way out” of the problem.
There is another path, simply to blame others.
Blame the parents.
Blame the so-called underclass.
Blame the police.
And we’ve certainly seen a lot of that in the last few days.
Our police force, already being undermined by cuts to the number of officers, now undermined further.
An unseemly attempt by Government to take credit for operational decisions when things went well and to criticise them when things didn’t.
And the approach of blaming others, so simple.
And, I am afraid, so simplistic.
Instant and si mple judgements bring bad solutions.
Of course, there is a demand for quick action.
But a new policy a day, knee-jerk gimmicks rushed out without real thought will not solve the problem.
The politician’s instinct, reach for new legislation, appoint a new adviser, wheel out your old prejudices, will not meet the public’s demand for real answers and deep rooted, lasting solutions.
We’ve heard it all in the last few days.
A daily door knock for gangs.
And today, more gimmicks.
A Prime Minister, who used to say the answer was to hug a hoodie, now says the answer is to reform our health and safety laws.
A crisis like tells us something about our political leaders.
Day by day the Prime Minister has revealed himself to be reaching for shallow and superficial answers.
Not the lasting solutions the country needs, based on the wisdom and insights of our communities.
A strong response to restore order must be followed by real change.
But to do that we have to answer the most
Why are there people who think it’s okay to loot, vandalise and terrorise their own neighbourhoods?
Who seem to owe no loyalty to their communities?
Who think they have everything to gain and nothing to lose from doing this?
The small minority who did this are not one race, one community, one age group.
They are British people from Brixton to Gloucester, Croydon to Manchester.
And to answer what has happened, we have to state the most inconvenient truth of all: yes, people are responsible for their actions.
But we all bear a share of responsibility for the society we create.
Governments, Labour and Conservative.
Powerful elites in politics, business and the media.
And all of us - me and you as well.
Only by starting with this truth can we get to the honest answe rs our country deserves.
I am here today because the national conversation we need must start with the communities affected.
In every place I have been to, there is the
knowledge to solve these problems and the overwhelming desire to be heard.
But also I have heard the suspicion, that this will be another example of politicians, arriving at the scene of trouble and then melting away when the world moves on.
People have seen the way my profession works before and are understandably cynical.
Can we be different this time?
Only if we give people a chance for their voices and views to be heard.
After every major disturbance, from Brixton to Oldham, we have had a commission to look at the causes.
We must have one this time.
A genuine national conversation.
Not a group of MPs, simply focussed on policing and criminal justice.
Not a review of government policy, conducted by civil servants in Whitehall.
Not a standard judicial inquiry, made up of elites, such as we have with hacking.
We need an answer which comes from the people themselves, that listens to the victims, that builds on their own experiences.
If the Prime Minister wants to know the solutions, he should come to these communities and have the humility to listen.
You should have nothing to fear from the truth.
The people leading this inquiry must include young people, those with experience of being in gangs, people from across the community.
The hearings should not happen in Whitehall or the palace of Westminster but in the areas which experienced the riots, and those that did not.
And what are the issues this national conversation needs to discuss?
Let’s start by asking the question of what values we saw from the looters and rioters.
Greed, selfishness, immorality.
Above all, gross irresponsibility.
And the irresponsibi lity is not just confined to those who took part in the riots.
We know there are big issues of parental responsibility.
I was appalled to hear about the parents who didn’t turn up to court when their fourteen year-old was charged with looting.
As somebody I met in Hackney on Saturday said to me, angry about parents not taking responsibility: “When the riots began I made sure my kids were at home, why weren’t other parents doing it?”
The reality though is not simple.
Some people say it’s all about family breakdown, but there are single parents who do a brilliant job and two-parent families who do a terrible job.
Some people say it’s all about the feckless at the bottom, but there are rich families unable to control their kids and poor families who do it very well.
We must avoid wheeling out the old stereotypes and prejudices in this debate.
And we need to ask deeper questions about what causes this irresponsibility.
About why some parents are not teaching their children the difference between right and wrong.
I heard on the street a lot of people say ‘you can’t tell off your children any more’ and I asked them, who is telling you that, because I’m certainly not.
We need to ask why many young people don’t have the role models that can put them on the right path in life.
And we need to understand the link between the problems in our society and the way our economy works.
We need to ask what we can do about an economy where children don’t see enough of their parents because they are working 50, 60, even 70 hours a week.
The solutions won’t be simple either.
One of the most important things government can do is back families up, with programmes like Family Intervention Partnerships and Family Nurse Partnerships.
Proper one to one support to help parents do their duty.
But as we talk about what happened i n the riots we must be honest with ourselves.
Children’s ideas of right and wrong don’t just come from their parents.
And we can’t honestly say the greed, selfishness and gross irresponsibility that shocked us all so deeply is confined to the looters or even to their parents.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen this kind of me-first, take what you can culture.
The bankers who took millions while destroying people’s savings: greedy, selfish, and immoral.
The MPs who fiddled their expenses: greedy, selfish, and immoral.
The people who hacked phones to get stories to make money for themselves: greedy, selfish and immoral.
People who talk about the sick behaviour of those without power, should talk equally about the sick behaviour of those with power.
Let’s not pretend that the crisis of values in our society is confined to a minority only at the bottom when we see the morality of millions of hardworking, decent people u nder siege from the top as well.
Let’s talk about what it does to our culture.
Too often we have sent a message from the top to the bottom of Britain’s society that says: anything goes, you are in it for yourself.
As long as you can get away with it, who cares?
We hear lots of talk now about role models for communities, but what role model has been provided by the elites of our society?
So, no, the values crisis is not confined to a so-called underclass.
Our whole country is held back by irresponsibility, wherever it is found.
It can only be solved by addressing the issues right across our society: from bonuses to benefits.
So the culture of our society does matter.
But just as those on the left who dismiss arguments about culture are wrong, so are those on the right who dismiss the importance of opportunity and hope.
It is true that some from comfortable backgrounds took part in the riots.
So a lack of opportunity cannot explain all of what happened.
But just because it can’t explain everything, it doesn’t mean it can’t explain anything.
This is where a Leader of the Opposition needs to speak frankly:
“Of course, not everyone who grows up in a deprived neighbourhood turns to crime—just as not everyone who grows up in a rich neighbourhood stays on the straight and narrow.
“Individuals are responsible for their actions—and every individual has the choice between doing right and doing wrong.
“But there are connections between circumstances and behaviour.”
These aren’t my words.
They are the words of David Cameron in a speech five years ago.
Five years ago he thought both culture and deprivation mattered.
But last Thursday he said:
“This is not about poverty; it is about culture”
I don’t understand why he has changed his mind, why he has accepted the false choice between opportunity and culture.
But maybe it isn’t his view of the world that has changed, but his view of what would make him popular.
I am clear: both culture and opportunity matter.
To explain is not to excuse.
And if we refuse to explain what has happened we will condemn ourselves to repeat it.
Opportunity matters because we have far too many young people in our country without the hope of a better future.
Who don’t feel they have proper chances in life, a stake in society.
Of course the vast majority of young people were not rioting.
But their decision to do the right thing does not absolve us of our responsibility to offer them a future.
And in the battle to give hope to our young people, with a minority we are losing to the gangs that scar life in parts of our inner cities.
I heard it everywhere I have been.
Best put in Brixton on Friday.
Some kids wrongly see the gang as offering peop le money, protection, status.
And some in our country believe there is not much alternative to gangs.
Just as we need tough action against gangs we need to show young people there is another way.
And yes that’s harder when support is being taken away.
But I am not interested in blaming one government or one policy or even simply defending one government.
I am proud of what the Labour government did to advance young people’s chances: the New Deal, the minimum wage, rebuilding our schools.
These changes advanced the cause of young people in Britain.
Higher school standards, narrowing the gap in educational achievement between poor areas and rich areas, getting more people into university and building for the future with sure start centres.
But we didn’t do everything right and we didn’t reach everyone we would like to have done
Let’s debate as a country how we build that better future for young people.
Are issues like education and skills, youth services and jobs important for diverting people away from gangs, criminality, the wrong path?
Yes they are.
Does it matter that there is a grave risk to what I call the promise of Britain that each generation does better than the last?
Yes it does.
That’s what David Cameron used to say too.
I hope he will say it again.
And if I am wrong, and hope and opportunity are irrelevant, then let us have the commission reach that conclusion.
Let’s not be scared of seeking an explanation and hearing answers.
Let’s be brave enough to find the truth.
And it isn’t simply that young people find it hard to get on.
It is about the gap between what they can expect and what seems available to others.
They see a society glorifying those who make millions while they struggle to keep up.
They see the cult of celebrity replacing the ethic of hard work.
The se are the parallel lives of those who have so much, and those who feel they have no stake in society at all.
We all want the chance to get on.
But what if the chance to do that seems small and the rewards for success seem distant.
If the rungs on the ladder are so far apart that you feel you can’t possibly aspire to climb up.
If we give the impression that we value, we exalt things that are well out of the reach of so many people, it leads to frustration.
A stake in society requires a ladder you can climb.
A stake demands that the things you value be within reach.
So I hope as part of any commission, we look at these deeper issues of inequality.
What I know is this:
We cannot let these be the seven days in August which shook our nation, which our nation then forgot.
That’s why our national conversation is so important.
Reaching across the gap between parallel lives.
A gap that might only be as wide as your street.
So I urge the Prime Minister to establish this commission of inquiry without delay.
If he does not do it, in the coming days I will.
It is right for the victims.
It is right for the country.
It is right to build the society we need.
In recent years, we have seen three great crises in our national institutions: banking, Parliament and the press.
Now we have seen a crisis affecting our great cities.
In each case an irresponsible minority let down the majority of good decent people.
Each crisis showed a wider problem.
Each crisis showed a country in need of deep-rooted change.
And this crisis showed something else.
Our strength as a country to come together and respond.
The people who came together to sweep our streets show how our country can unite.
The people who reclaimed our streets show us the true character of our country.
And it is that spirit with w hich can build our future together.
It is that spirit which our national conversation must draw on and nurture.
And it is that spirit which gives us hope for the future.