London Isn’t Very Equal (Part One)

London and the Shard
London and the Shard

Only right that these should be read listening to mid-’80s Style Council tracks – mingling poppy lounge jazz with blatantly socialist lyrics – on repeat, because it’s what we had stuck in our head while it was being written.

A ramblingly political travelogue taking in the capital at its richest, poorest, and most rampantly neoliberal

The Bemolution recently went to London – big, posh, plutocratic London – which is always morally troubling. It’s quite an easy place to dislike if you don’t happen to live there. Hugely, unaccountably powerful, the capital determines so much about the way the rest of us live – and, funnily enough, seems to wield that power in a way that serves the city and its richest denizens first, everyone else second.

Of course, more than a smidgen of anti-London sentiment can be put down to good old fashioned provincial bigotry. It’s stupid, for example, to blame the largely powerless majority of the city’s eight million citizens for the self-serving political and economic agenda pursued by a tiny minority. Then again, said super-elite wouldn’t have such an easy ride if a sizeable wedge of the capital’s rich-but-not-quite-super-rich didn’t go along with it – especially the conga-line of graduates from wealthy backgrounds that pour into the City year after year, trampling over the poorest Londoners by shunting house prices and living costs up and up and up.

Economically, London reigns supreme. When Britain is doing ‘well’ – by the laughably narrow, elite-serving, ecologically suicidal standards of the political mainstream, at least – London does exceptionally well. If the national economy nose-dives, London is often barely affected. During the 1997 – 2006 boom, London’s economy grew by about 35%. In the same period, post-industrial south Wales grew by 3%.

For decades, political elites in Westminster have colluded with economic elites in the City, tying the UK into the super-deregulated financial lunacy coming out of the US – and when Wall Street crashed, we crashed as well. But since the financial meltdown of 2007-8, London and the south-east’s share of the UK’s total economic growth has actually risen – it had grown to 48% by 2012, leaving an area home to a quarter of the population to enjoy the effects of half the country’s economic expansion. And since the kind of economy that serves rich Londoners so well also creates scandalous levels of inequality, 28% of the city’s population remain impoverished.

Posh London

Despite being from the ‘hood and having spent our salad days painting Warhammer figures with Ice Cube and riding around South-Central in Snoop Dogg’s low-rider, we met a lot of supremely posh people at university and liked quite a few of them. Practically all now live and work in London.

It’s ethically difficult being friends with very rich people. By definition, you like them, and to like them they have to be kind, decent, morally upstanding human beings – and, in our case, at least a bit progressive and open-minded.

But there’s no beating about the bush – if we had our way, very rich people wouldn’t exist. As nice as some of them are, their lives would be radically, radically different – and, in their view, probably much worse. They and their parents would get paid far less. They’d somehow have to scrape by with fewer cars, fewer foreign holidays, much less wasteful expenditure, and, worst of all, put up with being educated and medicated with the rest of us.

Going to visit one of our excessively loaded chums, then, is always somewhat of a moral-psychological ordeal – a mental tug-of-war between the bit of us that thinks they’re delightfully nice as individuals and the bit that wants to see their silly little world broken up for the benefit of everyone else. Now they’ve moved to London, it’s got harder still.

The pal we saw on our most recent visit is a kind, generous, decent human being who’s relocated from the depths of the Home Counties to start a high-powered job in one abhorrently huge corporation or another. She’s probably got too much of a soul to stick it long-term and doesn’t like helping oil conglomerates play less tax. But she does it, and by the standards of the culture she’s grown up in, she’s Doing Well – working in an impressive-sounding, generously-paid job at a big name London firm, and well on the way to making a lot of money doing absolutely nothing socially useful.

The individual in question lives alone in a flat within walking distance of Tower Bridge that her parents bought as ‘an investment’. It cost £700,000. It’s a mind-bending figure, but not a particularly posh apartment. Given the unregulated insanity of the London housing market, three-quarters of a million won’t buy you anything very palatial in Southwark – last year, with 25,000 people on the borough waiting list, a nearby council house was sold to a private developer for a record £2.96m. London house prices have gone up 16.3% since then.

We found London Friend’s abode on the kind of street that only really exists in gentrified parts of major cities – a hipster’s Valhalla built on the ruins of the long-since-eviscerated dockworkers’ community, bristling with upscale eateries, art galleries, independent shops with cutesy names selling nothing very useful at eye-watering prices, and zanily decorated cafes where a glass of orange juice with bits in and a sliver of cake costs the best part of a tenner. Luxury flat developments and gated communities full of millionaires abound, groping in vain for gritty, industrial-era authenticity with names like ‘The Leather Factory’ and ‘The Old Gasworks’. And it’s all loomed over by the jagged splinter of the Shard, the capital’s spanking new 95-storey monument to mindless excess and Qatari petrodollars. It’s just two minutes away, and if you’ve got a spare sixty quid you can even go in for a Chinese.

We met her outside her apartment building, which looked absolutely nothing like a leather factory or a gasworks. She was fresh from work, and clearly feeling a bit harassed by life. Inside, we let her vent her office-based frustrations, which arrived in a veritable tsunami of angst. She was bored, unsatisfied, unstimulated, felt no connection with her colleagues, was lonely living on her own, and, ultimately, felt like an overpaid secretary. We blundered into a moral stumbling block early, when she concluded that the reason her work peers weren’t very interesting was because they hadn’t been to Oxbridge. But for a few hours, at least, we were happy to shut up and just eat ice cream and sympathise in the company of someone we like. Then a load of her friends came over.

Suddenly, the room was filled with prestigious job titles. You had Civil Service fast-trackers sitting round the table, BBC researchers, Rolls Royce engineers, all kinds of interchangeable professional services workers, and a Sith Apprentice from Goldman Sachs. Mostly, they were very nice, the kind of people who’d happily give you the sofa or the spare room if you missed the last bus home, or buy you lunch if you dropped your bank card in a ravine. Even the banker wasn’t obviously a sociopath. And you’d struggle to find a more caring, tight-knit friendship group anywhere – you got the impression that, if it came down to it, they’d take a bullet for one another.

But what immediately struck us was that this was a little gang formed in a single Cambridge college – a student clique that had miraculously managed to move from one city to another with almost all of its members intact. They’d all met at university, and were now all living and working in the centre of one of the most expensive-to-inhabit cities in the world. And to them, and people like them, this wasn’t remarkable at all – they always knew they’d be able to confidently swish from Oxbridge to the heart of the capital with most of the people they knew, just as big proportions of the people they went to school with nonchalantly slid into Oxbridge.

With two million people officially unemployed, thousands more employed just enough to class as being as ‘in work’, and graduates countrywide serving tea and coffee just to scrape together an income, here were a dozen recent university-leavers who were already signed-up members of the London elite. There are people who would kill for a skip under a tarpaulin in Zone One, let alone a flat, a graduate job in a big company and the kind of ready-made support network that your average young professional could only dream of. But for London Friend and her buddies, it had been almost laughably easy – because they were rich. Only one of them was from the 93% of the population that gets state-educated, and all but one was from the south-east. And as pleasant as many of them seemed, the Bemolution started to feel a bit ill.

From spending too long at Cambridge, we learned that most rich people do realise they’re rich. But they also tend to massively underestimate how wealthy they are compared to the majority of the population. Many will claim to be middle class, despite coming from households bringing in double or triple the average UK income. Others, if you ask them, assume they’re in the richest half of the population, or the richest third, when in fact they’re also in top 10%, 5% or, in some cases, the top 1%. People, ultimately, like to think that they’re ‘normal’. And by only mixing with rich people, including rich people who are richer than they are, they’re able to delude themselves into thinking they’re Ordinary Joes. When you know people with their own helicopters, it’s quite easy to feel relatively hard-up by comparison, even with a six or seven-figure household income.

But that comforting illusion of normality needs social segregation to keep it going. Get out there and mix with all kinds of people and you’ll quickly realise six or seven-figure household incomes aren’t normal at all. Neither are thirty grand a year educations.

Coming to one of the most diverse places on earth could have provided the Cambridge clique with the kind of eye-opening collision with reality they urgently need. The wrenching injustice that lurks in the most neglected areas of the capital might have woken them up to their ludicrous privilege. Sadly, if predictably, it hasn’t.

As the graduates chattered about the petty ins-and-outs of life as a London professional, it became quite difficult to keep the ol’ righteous fury in check. Nice people as far as we could tell. Had absolutely no say in which womb they came out of, or the culture they were brought up in. But it was clear that having spent three years in a trivial, reality-insulated bubble at university, they were now living in a trivial, reality-insulated bubble in the most grotesquely unequal city in the developed world.

They bitched, whinged, and gossiped about the office, they talked about Game of Thrones, films they’d seen, restaurants they’d eaten at, and went all Hoorah Henry about one imminent rugby match or other. All fairly standard features of the modern conversational repertoire.

But they also compared the share prices of their respective employers and tittered at one of the less well-paid of the bunch having to contemplate moving into Brixton. One expressed intense irritation at potentially having to move out of Zone Two because the people they wanted to live with couldn’t afford central London prices. Another vented their embarrassment at being innocently asked who they flat-shared with by a colleague, and having to respond that they lived alone subsidised by mum and dad. A third let slip that their parents had a yacht in Cyprus which ‘they hardly ever use’, as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

They didn’t have anything to say about the areas they lived in, or people they’d met in the community, or anything, in fact, that wasn’t related to working or mixing with other rich graduates in wealthy enclaves of central London. Because that’s all they do – hop between the super-affluent bits of the capital they work in and the ones they sleep in. They couldn’t last one round of basic neighbourhood tittle-tattle with an old lady in a bus queue, let alone tell you anything meaningful about the stifling poverty down the road.

Of course, this is being written from a viewpoint that a lot of people won’t agree with (especially a lot of rich graduates) – that on a planet with limited resources and incredible poverty, people shouldn’t be rich. And that if people are rich in a world like this, they have a moral obligation to try and bring about a situation where they aren’t, and people don’t have to endure life-ruining deprivation or starve to death in ditches or keel over from preventable diseases – or at least a duty help the less fortunate as much as they possibly can.

Starvation and death by preventable disease might be all-but non-existent in London, but the city’s got more than its fair share of life-ruining deprivation. And the graduates are very far from stupid – they know perfectly well it’s there. But, somehow, it doesn’t feature on their cultural radar. It’s not that London Friend and co are explicitly callous towards the poorest – far from it, in many cases. None came across as flaming Tories or enthusiastic neoliberal foot-soldiers. LF herself is loudly progressive on a lot of issues, and the bloke with the family yacht is a known Labour supporter – evidence of how far the Labour Party has fallen, perhaps, but he’s clearly enough of a humanitarian to identify there’s quite a lot wrong with the Conservatives.

Again, the culprit seems to be an unsettling detachment from reality, and a values system that, somewhere along the line, concludes that social injustice is ‘nothing to do with us’. But it is to do with them. They and people like them have been major beneficiaries of the socioeconomic vandalism of the neoliberal years – the three decades of upward wealth redistribution, and the ejection of anything vaguely egalitarian from the political mainstream. They’re some of the most educated, most privileged, most confident people in society, completely untouched by austerity and better placed that practically anyone to make a fuss about the social scandals you could find in spades a short walk from their doorstep.

And there’s so many to choose from. Micro or macro, they could take their pick of issues. Southwark, as we’ve mentioned, is gripped by a housing crisis. So is the city as a whole. As rents and house prices skyrocket, 1 in 10 Londoners are on the council house waiting list. In some boroughs, like Newham, it’s 1 in 4. The graduates could lead the charge against exploitative landlords and spearhead campaigns for more, high-quality council housing. They could tackle Boris Johnson’s life-threatening cuts to the fire service, or resist moves towards unmanned tube stations. They could help the capital’s most vulnerable grapple with Atos, the DWP, and punitive benefit cuts. Or they could go large, and bang on about austerity, the criminal excesses of the financial sector, or the resource scarcity and climate crisis that will probably end civilisation as we know it without radical action. It’s the children of the elite’s meek acquiescence to all this that helps keep a disastrous status quo propped up, after all.

But they don’t. As nice as some of the rich kids are as individuals, it wouldn’t even cross their minds. Presumably, while they’re working hard in the day and there’s an HBO box-set to watch of an evening, they can convince themselves they’re too busy to try and do anything about it.

Part Two – to Tower Hamlets.

And here’s some lovely politically-charged, horribly appropriate Paul Weller.