Feral youths make an easy political target

Twenty years ago, long before Tony Blair adopted the phrase social exclusion, the Church of England’s seminal report Faith in the City said the following: “Poverty is not only about shortage of money. It is about rights and relationships, about how people are treated and how they regard themselves, about powerlessness, exclusion and loss of dignity. Yet the lack of an adequate income is at its heart.”

Recently, Tony Blair has resorted to exacerbating social exclusion rather than tackling it. In supporting the banning of “hoodies” and narrowly defining “respect”, he has attempted to revive the fears of a society divided into “us” and “them”.

“Them” are the feral, anarchic, urban young, marauding around, destroying the lives of older people and decent neighbourhoods. The image of the feckless underclass is one that politicians have used often. It provides justification for bringing disproportionate condemnation down on those it targets while, usefully, distracting the public from the issues that matter.

Blair has proved better than many at targeting the young who already often face hostile domestic circumstances unimaginable to most. Of course, there are young people who behave appallingly, but does the public really support their transformation into modern day lepers by the use of antisocial behaviour orders?

But according to a new survey Attitudes to Urban Living: Bingeing on Antisocial Behaviour, published by the Future Cities Project, when Tony Blair described antisocial behaviour as “the number one issue for many in our society”, he was wrong.

What people are concerned about is the need to improve transport and tackle the high cost of inner-city living. Austin Williams, the Future Cities project director, says: “…urban policy has become a litany of bans, constraints and regulation…these measures have little public purchase. Instead, people are more concerned to see improved public services.”

When asked what urban improvements city dwellers would like to see, only one in seven mentioned an increased effort to contain antisocial behaviour. One in three said improving the quality of public transport was most important; one in four said tackling the cost of living should have the highest priority.

The survey is small – only 580 people – but it does provide an antidote to Blair’s addiction to Asbos. The lack of proportion in his views on antisocial behaviour has a detrimental effect on social care investment and expectations on the rate of progress in eroding social exclusion.

When it came to power, Labour initiated a grown-up conversation with the electorate, sadly long since abandoned. It pointed out that tackling deeply rooted disadvantage, helping families in which unemployment has been the norm for several generations, supporting inspirational programmes such as Sure Start, would all take time.

Now, ministers are obsessed with prematurely demanding measurable progress. For example, the intensive supervision and surveillance programme is deemed a “failure” because 91 per cent go on to reoffend.

But Ellie Roy, chief executive of the Youth Justice Board, says that young people on the programme commit 40 per cent fewer crimes than previously and those they do commit are less serious. “Dysfunctional lives cannot be turned around without intensive long-term help,” she stressed. But in today’s vindictive and punitive political climate, will she be heard?

In the early days, Tony Blair insisted that we had to be tough on crime – but also tough on the causes of crime. The public appears to understand better than he does that turning a generation of young people into Asbo exiles isn’t going to work in terms of the youths’ own redemption – or giving the voters what they want. 

  • Future Cities Project, Attitudes to Urban Living: Bingeing on Anti Social Behaviour from www.futurecities.org.uk
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