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Riots highlight Manchester’s unemployed underclass

Riots highlight Manchester’s unemployed underclass

| Text: Lars Ådne Bevanger, Manchester

What made hundreds of youths run amok in Manchester and other UK cities in August? Debate has been fierce in the weeks following riots that cost five lives and millions of pounds in damages. The political right blames a moral collapse, the left blames budget cuts and social deprivation. In Manchester the riots have led to a renewed focus on the large and growing gap between the rich and poor.

A few weeks after the worst riots Manchester had seen in 30 years shop windows have been replaced and the city centre appears to be back to normal. Yet the media and many Manchurians are still asking just how this could happen in a city which has seen strong growth and a lot of regeneration over the past 15 to 20 years. 

There is little doubt Manchester does have a problem with what many now call an underclass. A Save the Children report earlier this year showed the city north-west in England has the country’s highest level of severe child poverty at 27 percent. Manchester also has England’s lowest life expectancy and in April youth unemployment stood at 28 percent (the national average was 20 percent). To thirds of the unemployed are men. 

Yet Manchester’s politicians do not agree that these numbers have anything to do with August’s riots. 

“This was people who went out there deliberately to rob designer shops in Manchester in order to profit from it. It’s not about social deprivation, economic poverty or anything else. It’s basically criminal activity,” says Jim Battle, deputy executive at Manchester City Council.

“Manchester has a whole raft of programmes addressing unemployment, addressing youth unemployment, creating an economy within the city. The economy in the city is booming despite the world recession,” says Battle.

Social or moral deprivation?

The riots and looting which kicked off in London after police shot dead a black man in Tottenham quickly spread to the UK’s two second largest cities, Birmingham and Manchester. The violence claimed five lives and millions of pounds worth of material damage.   

There has been cross-party condemnation and most people say they deplore what happened. But not everyone agrees with Jim Battle at Manchester City Council that the riots were unrelated to social deprivation. There is a need to find out how this could happen in a modern, Western society.

The debate has become polarised between David Cameron’s centre-right coalition, arguing a lack of morality in certain social groups is to blame, and the opposition Labour party, which focuses on social inequalities, youth unemployment and hopeless prospects for people in poor areas. 

“In Manchester you’ll find parts of the city where you’ve got 3rd and 4th generation unemployment,” says Walt Crowson. He works for the city’s Learning Skills Employment Network, an organisation coordinating various measures aimed at helping people in deprived areas and getting young people back into education and jobs. 

“Manchester is not really a homogenous city, each part of the city has its own identity. So you’ve got a central core of the city which is quite affluent, lots of new apartments, people who are quite well off living there. But then literally as soon as you step over the border into the outskirts of the city - which could literally be a hundred yards out of that boundary, you start getting quite significant pockets of deprivation. Young people living there don’t feel part of their own community - they’re not going to feel part of a city community,” says Crowson.

When presented with the opportunity, many of these youths travelled into the city centre to loot shops in streets which normally appear to them to be unapproachable shopping areas. Normally marginalised youths who travel into the city centre with no money are often asked to leave private shopping centres by security guards or police. 

Predicted a riot

The 2008 economic crisis hit the UK hard. When David Cameron came to power in 2010 his government introduced massive public sector cuts to battle the budget deficit, and dramatic reforms of the welfare system. Some predicted a riot when the scale of the cuts and reforms became known.

In December last year Professor of Economy Colin Talbot at Manchester University wrote in his blog that the government’s economic policy would lead to unrest and youths attacking shopping centres. 

“I thought there would be riots at one stage, but not until 2013,” explains Talbot. Colin Talbot

“I think politicians are wrong to say this has nothing to do with the overall state of the economy and deprivation. Levels of inequality, even for those in employment, have spiralled mainly not so much because of people being forced into poverty but because of the absolutely stratospheric rise in the salaries at the top of organisations, which has been much, much higher in the UK than most other countries. 

“I think that’s had a huge impact, that level of inequality. And all the epidemiological evidence shows the more unequal a society is, the higher you get crime rates,” says Colin Talbot.

A lack of collective agreements

The UK’s large salary gaps have developed over the past 30 years and accelerated during Margareth Thatcher’s first government. She introduced reforms which limited trade unions’ power and made it harder to take legal industrial action.

One consequence has been a decrease in the use of collective agreements. This has led to an increased salary gap, says Chris Wright from the Faculty of Economics at the University of Cambridge. He has been studying this for the UK’s Trade Union Congress.

“High bargaining coverage is one of the reasons why the Scandinavian countries have among the highest levels of income equality in the world. The ‘social case’ for collective bargaining is well established, and is acknowledged by international bodies such as the OECD and the ILO,” says Wright.

“Indeed, the decline of collective bargaining coverage in Britain has been singled-out by various studies as a key reason for rising inequality over the past three decades. The number of workers that were classified as low-paid was 13% in 1979 when collective bargaining coverage was near its peak, but has since risen to 22%.”

Professor Colin Talbot points to the fact that in Manchester these social inequalities have provided a breeding ground for a shadow economy and other crime which must take it’s share of the blame for the riots here.

“There’s clearly a problem of gang culture in parts of Manchester. What happened in the centre was actually fairly well organised by gangs. But then there was a big periphery of people who turned up to see what was going on and then joined in,” says Talbot.

It is these youths some now think need help to find social belonging and leave their status as outsiders behind.

A lack of morality at the top 

When Prime Minister David Cameron called an extraordinary session of parliament in the wake of the riots he said the government wanted to introduce “a stronger sense of morality and responsibility - in every town, in every street and in every estate.” But it is not only among society’s lower classes you find a lack of morality in today’s Britain.

In the spring of 2009 many politicians were themselves found to have been fiddling their expenses. Top finance people hide their money in tax havens. The banks had to be bailed out with taxpayers‘ money during the finance crisis yet bankers carried on awarding themselves huge bonuses. And this summer tabloid journalists were exposed in the hacking scandal involving the telephones of ordinary people.

“The role model at the top is basically if you’ve got enough money you can do what you like,” says Colin Talbot at Manchester University. 

Light at the end of the tunnel

Politicians might disagree on the causes of the riots, yet what happened has highlighted the plight of Britain’s poorer inner-city areas. It has also shown that many local communities can actually emerge stronger and solve serious problems themselves.

“After the riots people in local communities came out and started to talk together about what happened,” says Walt Crowson from Manchester’s Learning Skills Employment Network.

“I believe all this has helped demonstrate what people can achieve when they work together. A lot of these people [rioters] are pushed out of school, don’t feel they’ve got any skills, feel worthless, getting into this downward spiral. So we’ve got to do a lot of work to change how their brain work to help people look at themselves in a different light - see that they’ve got aspirations. To do that you need strong communities,” says Crowson.


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