UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Monday, 15 August 2011

‘Hang them – Hug Them’ – The continuum of responses to the Riots: UNISONActive debate

John Stevenson is to be congratulated for his critical and detailed appraisal of the riots that have blighted the streets of some parts of England in the past few days. The response from ‘the left’ has either been ignored or, more likely, been too close to the blame culture of individuals adopted by the neoliberals and right wing politicians and commentators to offer any real alternative.

The populist response has monopolised the media in which outrage, anger and disgust has led to a pathologisation of the victims and labelling of them as ‘sick’ individuals. Even Blair flirted with the need to be tough on the causes of crime as well as on crime itself, but the former attempt to truly understand the recent riots has already been tainted by a need to individualise. Politicians of all persuasion have accepted that individuals are to blame, more individuals need to be caught and imprisoned, more police and more police powers are the answer, and all before the right questions have even been asked.

Having been involved in social work practice, research and education for over 25 years, I am aware of the strategic and deliberate move away from community social work models of intervention, away from ‘Radical Social Work’ practice that sought to understand, define and respond to societal issues on the basis of a collective. Such teaching and politics monopolised the social work students of the 60s and 70s and was supplemented by an understanding of the individualistic models of psychology, psychiatry and the casework relationship.

Social work in 2011 has no reference to collectivism, neighbourhood action or community social work, but is entirely underpinned by a meritocratic and individualised need to understand and ‘treat’ at best family located ‘problems’ but more usually, individuals within that family’s problems. In short, social work and youth work have become agents of social control ‘enabling’ individuals to fit into society.

The continuum of responses to the riots, or more accurately the alleged rioters – ‘hang them to hug them’ - fails to address the uncomfortable questions that maybe we are all in part responsible or benefactors of a society that rewards some and ignores or punishes others disproportionately and unfairly. The annual bubble of trade union conferences are self congratulatory and pass important motions committing millions to change, but the individual remains a victim of the collective.

Our very own modus operandi is to deliver endless casework, one-to-one interviews with individual members faced with individual issues. Collectivising the individual issue is rare in reality, lip service is played to true organising models of trade union activity that allows members to tell us what the key issues are.

Maybe the ‘people’ involved in the riots (as not all were young, or indeed it would seem disengaged) should themselves be part of a collective enquiry that advises us why they took part and what they want to see changed.

What is clear to me is that the political backdrop of cuts in public services and increased demand on fewer and poorer funded community resources are the result of disengaged politicians making quite simply bad decisions.

We need though to keep things in perspective – less that 0.001% of young people were ‘out on the streets’, one third of those arrested so far were on parole or a community order already; Britain is bottom of the league of the 21 wealthiest countries in the world for the well-being of children with 1.4 million living in poverty and 1.5 million being abused and neglected.

‘Treating’ the individual with medicine designed to punish and blame and appease the understandable collective demand of the majority for revenge has not worked if you accept the levels of offending recidivism and child abuse. Crucial and uncomfortable questions need to be asked by all those engaged in social change, including and perhaps especially the trade union movement who can once again show that collectivism (magnificently displayed on 26th March) does have an invaluable part to play and can be an agent of real social change that ancient social workers like me can be proud of!

Glen Williams

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