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The politicians' problem with the riots

The political parties are not the only ones trying to dissect the causes of the riots and looting that happened across English cities recently, but they're the ones who feel they have to comment vociferously on what they think must be done.

Some of them are using it to justify proposals such as blocking social networks or evicting looters' families from council housing - strategies very similar to those which, only months ago, we looked on in dismay as they happened in uprisings in Zimbabwe, Syria, etc.

The biggest problem for the political parties is that they probably don't need to do anything. We already have appropriate and proportionate laws (and case law) in the UK, and the police service has learnt the lesson from the mistake they made at the start which allowed a big group-think to develop along the lines that the time was now for rioting/looting with little consequence. (See this interesting article about the role of Blackberry messaging.)

But social networking is not a new and terrifying phenomenon that upends our legal system, it's just a faster and sort-of-decentralised way of communicating. There is no need for the law to change, or for the balance of freedom and surveillance to be reconsidered. (In fact the UK already monitors its citizens more closely than most other EU countries, so clearly a lack of surveillance cannot have been the deciding factor in the riots.)

The rioting and looting clearly reveals social problems in the UK, problems about alienation, gangs, and class. (I never rated Russell Brand before but his blog about the riots hits on some of the power/class issues involved. Oh and I don't generally think about UK society in terms of "class" but it's hard to find a concept that better fits.)

These social problems are in part what the tories' "big society" idea is aiming at, but I'm afraid I think it relies on some pretty wooly thinking - and when you put it together with a too-rapid cuts programme and some really unhelpful rhetoric which obscures understanding about the riots, there's simply no way that the "big society" is ever going to expand to include the groups of people it would need to, to fix these problems. The big society will not hug a hoodie.

(New Labour are also responsible for the mess, of course, though they did have some programmes which went a little way towards social inclusion.)

But anyway: I'm not so naive as to think the main parties might reconsider some of their ideologies in light of recent events. And given their ideologies, the riots don't actually signal any need for them to change tactics, and certainly no need to bring in drastic laws. The police are learning how to work with socially-networked events, and we all need to think long-term about what's going on, longer-term than the 4-year cycle of party politics.

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