Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Lambeth calling

The battle against guns will be won at the grassroots

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This summer, our cities have seen a number of young people, typically teenage boys, slain on our streets. A rising sense of moral panic, ramped up by a media hungry for summer stories, has seen politicians of all parties trying to address an issue which is no stranger to Lambeth.

Here, crime is the Labour administration’s top priority, being the main concern of residents. There were over 3,000 fewer offences committed last year, the fifth successive year of crime reduction. But seven murders in a nine-week period have again underlined the need to continue to address violent crime among young people.

Sadly, too many politicians respond in a default way. I never thought I would hear a Tory leader quoting the Sex Pistols, but for David Cameron to talk about ‘anarchy in the UK’ is doubly disturbing. First, because it feeds a sensationalist media agenda, and, second, because it was the social conditions created by the Conservatives’ legacy which contributed to the problems of inner-city violence that we see today.

Some of Cameron’s proposals are welcome, but I cannot believe that the Conservatives are serious about correcting the social ills which they did so much to bring about. Eighteen years of Thatcherite rule saw horrendous riots in Brixton and other parts of the country, and pushed aspiration and wellbeing in Britain’s black and minority ethnic communities to an all time low. The decimation of urban and industrial areas in the 1980s and early 1990s created both a black and a white underclass.

In 1997, Labour was entrusted with the task of tackling these inequalities. Over the past decade optimism has been repaid with better schools and measures to address poverty, as well as Sure Start. But action has been focused too much on broad national intention and not enough on very localised application.

Neither local government, the police, the health service nor the voluntary sector, have yet been trusted enough by the centre to work together on local solutions. The government has introduced tougher legislation to deal with criminality. But more needs to be done to encourage localised action on the causes of crime – poor housing, poverty, school exclusions, drugs, absent fathers and fractured families.

Strong, patient and responsible action is needed in places like Lambeth. Guns and gangs have been a growing problem for years, and it will take years to grow the solutions. In Lambeth we are prepared for a long, determined journey with our communities, and our police. A gangs commission, set up by Lambeth Council, is currently taking a comprehensive look at our problem.

We are realists. It may take 10 years, probably more, working with children from the earliest age and their parents before we see tangible benefits. In the meantime, we are in much need of stronger legislation on weapons and drugs. But we also require funding and support from the government to engage better with young people and their families, to improve council housing and build another secondary school in addition to the two we are now building.

More ‘role models’ are an obvious and talked-about answer, but the best and most consistent role models are good parents, and the best places to learn how best to live are first in the home, and second in a strong community with inclusive facilities for study and leisure.

Yes, we should be also be tough. Crime and antisocial behaviour are intolerable. Discipline is everything, in the home, in school and on the street. The government is right to tackle crime and poverty, but it must also give greater attention to the strains of debt on low-income families and the pull of consumerism on our children.

It is in our communities that the lasting solutions will be emerge – better parenting, more encouragement through school, proud neighbourhoods that celebrate young people and prepare them for a future as working citizens, equipped with the skills to raise families, walk away from conflict with their peers and to live useful lives within the law.

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Mark Bennett

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