Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

London riots: Still no resolution three years on

Nobody doubts that the rioting that we witnessed nationwide in the summer of 2011 was often criminal, copycat activity. There was also much sheer materialism. But underlying the riots, particularly in London, were long-standing issues about the relationship between inner-city communities and the state. These issues have yet to be resolved. And they may even be exacerbated by the politics of austerity. It is also important to note the original disturbances in Tottenham bore all the hallmarks of a classic race riot. Significantly they were triggered, like the 1980s Brixton riots before them, by the death of a black person at the hands of the state.

The Westminster village has moved on from the 2011 riots. Even Labour members of parliament are content to dismiss them as criminality. For our current London mayor, Boris Johnson, the riots have been an excuse to burnish his ‘law and order’ credentials and pander to the Tory right by wasting nearly a quarter of a million pounds on water cannon. Cannon that are, in practice, unusable. But many of us know that the roots of the 2011 disturbances run deep and the underlying problems have not been resolved.

A year after the 2011 riots I organised and chaired a meeting at the House of Commons to mark the first anniversary. It was 12 months later and nobody at Westminster was talking about the riots. But I knew that the community was still anxious to discuss the underlying issues. My meeting got no publicity. It was not organised for that. But it was packed. One speaker was Chief Inspector Ade Adelanke, who had been in charge of Tottenham police station on the night of the riots. The hatred expressed by the rioters and the sight of Tottenham in flames had clearly had a searing effect on him. But he braved his critics by coming to my meeting and everyone heard him out respectfully.

Another speaker was Tim Newburn a criminologist and researcher on the Guardian/London School of Economics ‘Reading the Riots’ project. That project was a data-driven survey of: 270 interviews; 1.3 million words of rioter’s first person accounts and 2.5 million tweets. He set out, what most of the audience already knew, how alienated many young people were and the role ‘stop and search’ played in inflaming feelings against the police. Unfortunately many members of parliament (including Labour colleagues) have been curiously dismissive of the ‘Reading the Riots’ work. Often on the basis of themselves never having spoken to a rioter at all.

At the time of the riots David Cameron claimed that they were largely about gang culture. In fact education failure played a bigger role. Research revealed that one in three rioters had been previously been excluded from school and the majority had special education needs. Education results in London continue to improve, but disproportionate numbers of young black men continue to fail. There is no doubt that if Boris was prepared to spend the £200,000 he has spent on water cannon on supporting London’s children educationally this would be rather more effective in guarding against further riots.

Since the 2011 riots I have gone on to organise a series of meetings in parliament to explore issues around the relationship between inner-city communities and the state. In 2013 I had a packed meeting on ‘stop and search’ attended by: Home Secretary Theresa May; QC Courtney Griffiths; the Hackney Borough police commander; young anti-‘stop and search’ activists and hundreds of members of the community. This year I was pleased to see that, although May has been blocked by David Cameron from making progress on the issue, she has publicly acknowledged how abuse of non-evidence-based ‘stop and search’ has poisoned relationships between inner-city communities and the police. No Labour home secretary has ever said this. Earlier this year I held a big meeting in the wake of the Mark Duggan inquest. And most recently I organised a meeting about immigrants held in detention.

Commentators like to talk about recent riots as somehow exceptional or even instigated by immigrants. In fact London has a tradition of riot going back to the middle ages. On May Day 1517, for instance, over 1000 apprentices congregated at Cheapside in the City of London and erupted into rioting which ended in 300 people being arrested and 13 executed. Such riots are always initially dismissed as mere criminality. But for centuries riot has been the way the London underclass makes its voice heard. Politicians fail to listen at their peril.


Diane Abbott is member of parliament for Hackney North and Stoke Newington


Photo: Todd Geasland


Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

It takes time, commitment and money to build a fight against the forces of conservatism. If you value the work Progress does, please support us by becoming a member, subscriber or donating.

Our work depends on you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Diane Abbott MP

is member of parliament for Hackney North and Stoke Newington


  • “There was also much sheer materialism”

    If you mean looting, then use the word. Stop weaseling about trying to be politically correct.

    Looting is theft. Pure and simple.

  • First of all I described the activity as criminal right at the beginning. So there is no reason to suggest that I was avoiding that point. But there is a difference between looting because you need food to eat and looting because you want to avail yourself of designer goods. Both are crimes. But the latter is about materialism pure and simple. That is why I used that word.

  • Firstly thank you for taking the trouble to reply. Most of the article writers on this blog don’t bother, you get kudos for that.

    I take your point about the difference between looting to live, and looting for personal gain. I don’t believe we have had the former in this country (UK) in living memory. I am however still against the current trend for politically correct use of “isms” when perfectly clear plain words are available in English.

    Never having lived in the Metropolitan area obviously I can’t talk at first hand about the riots, but I have seen at first hand water cannon in action outside the UK, and I would be interested in knowing why you think them unusable in such scenarios in this country?

    Also I would like your view on the reason why as you put it ” disproportionate numbers of young black men continue to fail” and how that should be tackled. It doesn’t seem an ethnic community problem per se, given that other minority ethnic groups do not suffer from the same problem.

  • Water cannon are unwieldy and suit long straight boulevards, not the Victorian street pattern of parts of the inner city. But for my views on water cannon in full see this article I wrote for the Guardian
    Statistics show that black boys do worse educationally in London than almost any other ethnic group. Interestingly when they enter the school system they are doing as well as other groups. the falling off occurs in the course of their school careers. For some of the work that I have done on this issue see

  • Nobody died at the hands of the state in the Brixton riots of the 80’s the 81 riot was caused by, the wrongly held rumour that a black man had been killed inthe back of a police van,actually what had happened was he had been stabbed by another black man,a nd the police saved his. Life inthe back of the van, I admit that operation swamp and the Sus laws(soon to have been scrapped) and excessive stop and search caused this, but the second Brixton riot of 85′ saw Cherry groce shot, but she didn’t die till 27 years later,the inquiry I to the death of Cynthia Jarrett that sparked the Tottenham riot found her body was riddle with heart disease and she would have died weeks later anyway, of a heart attacks she did,

  • Apart from the race riot in Nptting hill in 1958 where an Afircan carribean a man was killed or the race riots in Glasgow in 2003 where an asylum seeker was killed, those riots weren’t started by the states behaviour

Sign up to our daily roundup email