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More cutbacks mean more riots?

By Peter Taylor-Gooby

February 10th 2012

More cutbacks mean more riots? Many readers of Next Left might have suspected that already, but were drowned out as politicians and commentators clamoured to lay the blame at the feet of poor policing, poor parenting or simple hooliganism.

However, I’ve just completed a study which shows that they are the kind of response to harsh government policies which we increasingly should expect.  The work takes two sets of data. The first is a database compiled by Harvard University researchers which details social disorder in developed countries (riots, political demonstrations and political strikes). The other is the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s international database on public spending, privatisation, job security and poverty. Both these agencies are among the most highly respected in their fields.

My study puts these two sets of data together and sets them in the context of other relevant issues such as national public policy tradition or specific factors operating at a particular point in time. It shows that over a 25 year period and covering 26 countries, greater poverty, welfare state privatisation, public spending cuts and job insecurity lead to more disorder. These findings are reasonably robust in relation to different ways of specifying policies and their outcomes, different time-periods and different countries.

Significantly for contemporary debates, it’s change rather than level in the various factors that seems to be most important: the rate of increase in poverty or of shifting government services to the private sector, the speed with which social spending is cut back. The UK government’s social programme involves the most profound policy changes for at least two generations. It is now beginning to bite. Projections by the Institute for Fiscal Studies indicate that at least 400,000 more children will be in poverty by 2015. The reforms to the NHS and social care, the harsh cutbacks in funding for Sure Start and for local government and the policy of contracting services like the Work Programme to the commercial sector will privatise a substantial part of state services. More stringent eligibility tests for benefits and changes to employment protection in a context of rising unemployment mean greater job insecurity. The programme also proceeds at a hectic pace. The Coalition is bent not just on achieving major cutbacks, but on changing policy so that the cutbacks are embedded, making them much more difficult for the next government to reverse.

The research reported here indicates that it is exactly this kind of rapid deterioration in living standards for the most vulnerable groups and headlong privatisation that is most likely to lead to public disorder. Last summer the poorest areas of big cities experienced the most violent riots for a considerable period. This was followed by major demonstrations and the largest strikes against government policies – particularly the public sector pension cuts – since the 1980s. Similar unrest is evident elsewhere in Europe.

As 2012 progresses we will see further increases in poverty, rising unemployment, greater insecurity for those in work and more privatisation as the welfare state is cut back. This research indicates that we will also see more riots, demonstrations and strikes disrupting our cities. Again I’m sure many readers of this blog believed that it was worsening social conditions in big cities that were responsible for social unrest. When the poor have no other avenue open to them, they riot.

The recent Guardian/LSE study of the London Riots  shows how the impact of cutbacks on already deprived communities set the context for the inner-city explosion. The research reported here sets that kind of study in a larger context and shows how cutting the welfare state and increasing poverty tends to result in unrest across European countries.

Professor Peter Taylor-Gooby, Professor of Social Policy at the University of Kent writes for Next Left on the link between cuts and social disorder.

Originally published by Next Left

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