London Isn’t Very Equal (Part Two) – To Tower Hamlets

London remains scandalously unequal
London remains scandalously unequal

Click here for Part One

From London and its most gentrified and fake, we go the city at its poorest and most raw.

Leaving gentrified Bermondsey, we went to visit another friend. We knew Compadre #2 from school days in Somerset, when she was a warm, caring, alternative type who wrote and sang her own songs. She still is warm, caring and alternative, thankfully, but has chucked in the guitar and the lashings of emo-standard black eyeliner for a job in a small music promotions company.

It’s laughable to look back on now – especially given where we’d just come from – but at school we called her ‘posh’. She lived in a slightly nicer part of town and her dad had a reasonably well-paid job. In truth, they were just about middle class, and probably didn’t bring in a whole lot more than the average household income.

Now she lives in Tower Hamlets, one of the most glaringly unequal parts of the country, let alone London. It’s hugely deprived – 42% of its children are impoverished, the highest proportion anywhere in Britain, and its richest inhabitants live about 11 years longer than its poorest ones. But it’s just a few minutes east of the oligarch’s den itself, the City, and the gleaming phalluses of the bank buildings dominate the horizon. A relatively small number of super-rich residents pull the borough’s average income up to £58,000 a year – the second-highest in the country – and its proximity to the biggest financial hub outside Wall Street gives it an economy worth £68bn. Its house prices have gone up a mind-bending 43% since last year.

It took us about twenty minutes to rattle up the District line from Southwark to Stepney. It’s startling to think that hundreds of the richest people in society do the same kind of journey twice a day, almost every day.

We’ve seen stifling poverty, we’ve seen ridiculous waste, but we’ve never, ever been anywhere where the two are as tightly packed together as they are in London – or where so much deprivation proves so perversely ignorable. You know it’s there, but the Tube trains don’t plough through the capital’s ghetto-estates, serving up a jolting dose of reality every commute – they dispassionately rumble under them, making them all too easy to forget. It’s the most obvious observation in the world, but crucial to the weird psycho-geography of the place.

Now’s probably the point we’re supposed to gasp at how shockingly impoverished it all was when we bounded off the train at Stepney Green. It was deprived, no doubt about that. But to be honest, it looked just like our uncharacteristically urban and impoverished bit of the West Country, only much, much bigger and infinitely more diverse – the kind of place society dumps the people it’s decided it’s not going to invest in, then acts surprised when they start smashing windows and drinking cider in underpasses.

London was being battered by the tail-end of the flood-bringing storms we’ve been enduring back West, and the grey depressing concrete looked greyer and more depressing in the rain. The narrow, bohemian streets back in Southwark were old, clearly, Victorian or older, but the ones here were emphatically twentieth century – great wide roads sweeping through grid-like assemblages of houses and grey apartment blocks. Just like on the estates back home, there are only a few kinds of shops that seem to thrive – mini-supermarkets, bookies, the odd launderette, and, on the plus side, gorgeous-smelling takeaways (curry is basically our religion, and we lingered outside one Indian for several minutes too long dreaming of lamb biriyanis).

Friend #2 lives in a shared house on a sprawling, labyrinthine estate. The garden hadn’t seen a pair of secateurs since Mrs Thatcher resigned, and the front door looked one good kick away from flying off its hinges, but it was quite nice inside. It looked like an ex-council house, probably built in the ’50s or ’60s, of the kind that were sold off in droves under Maggie’s Right to Buy scheme – blocky, outwardly charmless, but actually quite generously sized, and, shock horror, designed with the welfare of its inhabitants in mind.

The private landlord had clearly torn out the original kitchen to use the space as another bedroom, then stuffed the new one into some kind of repurposed broom cupboard – there was only about a foot and a half between the cooker and the sink, and our chum gamely demonstrated the contortionist-grade flexibility required to get a pizza in the oven. But it had nice-sized bedrooms – crucial when you’re living with people you possibly don’t know and/or don’t get on with, and your room is the only place you get to yourself – a reasonable bathroom, and a cosy little lounge. Really, it had everything you needed to get by. And slumping into the geriatric brown sofa in a living room stuffed with guitars, amps, PA equipment, a TV playing I’m Alan Partridge on mute and a cardboard effigy of Aladdin Sayne-era David Bowie, we felt right at home.

Ms #2 told us about her life in London. She’s been in the city for a while now – she was at the University of Westminster for three years before starting work – and seems to like the lifestyle. She was always the type who felt stifled by post-industrial Somerset and couldn’t wait to get out. Now she’ll admit there are things she misses about the West Country, and that while the opportunities for budding creative were practically non-existent, it wasn’t as bad as her angst-ridden adolescent self would have protested. It’s certainly a lot cheaper.

As much as edgy city life suits her, she’s having to hold down two jobs and work six days a week to keep afloat. Job number one is with the small music promotions company. It’s the kind of thing she wants to do for the foreseeable future, she loves her colleagues, and it’s provided her with a crucial first break in an industry that’s notoriously hard to get into – but the bottom rung of the music biz ladder isn’t especially glamorous, and after two years of fairly basic office work she’s bored.

Eager to progress, she’s stuck in a frustrating situation familiar to thousands of recent graduates – trying to progress in an industry that’s all about who you know. Alas, like almost everyone else in the country, she has to pain-stakingly build the network of contacts that might eventually yield a precious job opening, and can’t just bag a favour from someone she went to school with.

Job number two is in a call centre. Manning phones for hours on end, not to mention having the same exasperating conversation a hundred times a week, is tedious, soul-sapping work. In her case, though, it’s made slightly easier by being for an extremely worthwhile cause – she’s not just sat having her ear-chewed off all day by irate consumers whose freshly unboxed kettle won’t switch on, she works for a company that specialises in raising money for anti-poverty charities. And if you have to do tedious, soul-sapping work to bring home the bacon, it might as well be for a cause that’s incredibly worthwhile.

With years of experience in an organisation with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them employee turnover, Ms #2 has become thoroughly clued-up about the world’s myriad preventable human catastrophes, which wins her a big, meaningless but nonetheless heartfelt Bemolutionary seal of approval.

During our visit, unusually, her boss at the call centre walked in – apparently they have an exceptionally cordial working relationship, because he’d been sleeping on her sofa after a messy-sounding relationship malfunction. And with us all in the same room, conditions were perfect for a rambling discourse on wrenching poverty, ridiculous inequality, and the social and economic gulf between where we’d just been and where we were now.

Full Journalist Mode, Activate

Call centres are about making money as efficiently as possible – even when they’re servicing the charity sector. Ms #2 and Mr Boss Man work for a company. Charities hire the company to work on fundraising drives. They have to compete with similar companies for big contracts, and we’re sure a lot of the people that work for them couldn’t give a damn about where the money goes at the end of the day as long as they get paid. But fantastically, in this case, whether they care or not, they’re using their working lives to help the most vulnerable, disadvantaged people on the face of the planet.

We were intrigued, and grilled the pair about work, which people generally love on their days off. Both very graciously put up with our probably overzealous questioning.

Essentially, they ring people up, tell them about one crisis or another – a lot of effort goes into writing the ‘script’ the staff read from – and ask them to donate. As you can imagine, they get a lot of phones slammed down on them. But there was one fact Ms #2’s endearingly mellow boss quoted at us that was initially very striking – and then, after a bit of thought, wasn’t very surprising at all. Of the people who donated as a result of their calls, about 50% didn’t pay tax.

How does he know they don’t pay tax? Because, when asked, the givers chose not to add Gift Aid to their donation. Gift Aid is a government scheme to encourage charitable donations. If you’re a taxpayer and give some money to charity, it means that HMRC adds 20% extra – equivalent the basic rate of taxation – to your donation. Give a tenner, tick the Gift Aid box and your tenner becomes £12.50.

If you pay tax, there’s no reason not to say yes. Now, a small percentage might just say ‘no’ simply because they don’t understand what Gift Aid is – but the call script explains what it is with scrupulous clarity. There are obviously other conceivable reasons why a small minority might say no, too. But after three years on the job, Boss Man was in no doubt that the vast majority of that 50% were just too poor to pay tax.

He went further, though – claiming that, in his experience, the richer a person was, the less likely they were to donate. In a culture that fawns over rich philanthropists who do the morally obvious thing and give over chunks of their abhorrently huge incomes to worthy causes, that seems baffling. But he said he thought the public exposure we lavish on the few that do have a bit of moral conscience mask the many, many more that don’t.

We asked the Boss and Ms #2 why they thought this was – why the people with the least disposable income were more likely to donate. They said that in their experience poorer people were a) straightforwardly more generous, and b) had a much greater appreciation of how far relatively small amounts of money could go. They knew that, at a push, they could feed their kids on a fiver, and could understand how the same amount could go even further and make a difference in impoverished parts of the world.

A plethora of psychological studies have yielded results to the same effect – rich people are more uncaring and aloof, poorer people are more compassionate and pro-social, not to mention better at empathising and reading emotions. The rich are more likely to be selfish, prioritising personal advancement, monetary gain and their own life-objectives over the welfare of others. Compounding this hard-heartedness is the fact that they’re also very likely to be isolated from needier sections of the population, as our trip to Southwark aptly demonstrated, and think that wealth distribution is far more equal than it actually is.

Poor people often live with disadvantage all around them. That in itself seems to engender more compassionate, communitarian attitudes. You help others out, knowing how much difference relatively small acts of generosity can make, and knowing that one day you may well need the same in return. And all this seems to translate to rates of charitable giving – in 2011, for example, the richest fifth of Americans gave away 1.3% of their income. The poorest fifth gave 3.2%, more than double.

Obviously, it’s not completely black and white. You get some poor people who are very selfish and lacking in compassion, and quite a few who are incredibly prejudiced against the neediest, both at home and aboard. And yes, there are some very altruistic rich people too, and we’re all made very away of the ones who do the only decent thing and give lots away.

But there’s no arguing with the general trend – and regardless of the whys and wherefores, it’s a mad situation. The people with the least to give are giving away more than the ludicrously wealthy – at a time when the poorest have got steadily poorer and the richest have got grotesquely richer.

Over the last 35 years, British income inequality has grown by 40%. The richest tenth of the population are now over a hundred times wealthier than the poorest tenth. From 1979 to 2002, the share of the national income that went to that same poorest tenth nearly halved. If you ignore inflation, the average worker’s wages are lower now than they were in the late ‘70s – a fifth lower for the very poorest. The poorer 90% of British people now have an average weekly income of £250. For richest one in ten, it’s £1,520, six times higher.

So much for ‘trickle down’. The economic insanity of the last three decades has made life harder for the vast majority to benefit an already affluent minority. While a disastrously financialised economy enriched a small elite, millions starved and suffered and needlessly died in developing countries – the kind of everyday human disasters that rich Westerners have made more than enough money to prevent. Instead, the kind of people who’ve had their economic stability ripped out from underneath them, who’ve been politically abandoned and demonised as lawless and feral in the press, who’ve been compelled to work, harder, for less, for longer hours or too few to scrape by on, are the ones giving away their pennies to try and make the world a bit less rubbish.

It’s one of many, many things about the modern world that leaves us in need of a long, lie down in a darkened room. Alas, Boss Man had already bagsied the sofa.

And it was dwelling on that kind of thing that we left the pair of them to the Crystal Maze-style ordeal of cooking tea in the tiny cupboard-kitchen, and wended our way back out of the concrete warren. It was still grey and miserable-looking in the rain. Undoubtedly, it would’ve been miserable-looking if we were skipping between bistros and gastro-pubs on Bermondsey Street in the rain, too, but we were still struggling to compute the objective, undeniable fact that the bit of London where we brunched with the plutocrats’ offspring occupied the same plane of reality as the bit of London we were trudging out of now.

We used to naively think that if you just bundled all the rich people on coaches and brought them to places like this, they might begin to understand the life-ruining flipside of their privilege. In actuality, all of us, not just the rich, have been reared by governments and the press to be callous and hard-hearted towards the poorest over decades. Bring a lot of people here, not just Home Counties oligarchs, and they wouldn’t see anything beyond the ragged tower blocks and the scowling kids – all the bad without any of the good, or the merest hint of the underlying injustice.

Whether they’re stuffed down the back of the national sofa in Somerset or near the heart of one of the richest cities in the world, we find places like these fairly heart-breaking. The people that just happened to be born in them, or ended up living in them, aren’t just numbers on Whitehall spreadsheets, funnily enough. They’re human beings starved of investment, then demonised as thick, ignorant, criminal scum who are where they are because of some kind of in-built inferiority – something in the blood, or in the genes.

In fact, it’s because they’ve had as little as the state can get away with spent on their education, been chucked into unstimulating minimum wage jobs, largely because the sectors of the economy that would’ve paid and trained them more were left to die by successive governments. If they’re lucky, they’ll toil their lives away for faceless companies that don’t give a damn about them. If not, it’s the Job Centre, and the stupidity of a system that punishes people for not finding jobs that don’t exist. Either way, the only lives they’ll ever have are squashed by elite greed and society’s callous indifference.

Part Three – Canary Wharf and home.

More unrelentingly chipper, anything-but-subtly socialist ‘80s Style Council – where the political message might be fairly bludgeoning, but, horrifically, arguably just as if not more relevant today than it was 30 years ago.