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I HAVE now lived at all four ends of London. Near the end of the Holloway Road, in Jeremy Corbyn’s north London constituency, which sweeps through a borough where two in five children are in poverty.
Kensington and Chelsea to the west, where life expectancy can drop a decade over the course of a zebra crossing. In the East End, where Canary Wharf bankers overlook condemned housing estates. And Lambeth in the south, a short walk from Parliament yet synonymous with deprivation since the days of Oliver Twist.
All are teeming with life and culture and community and a defiant, driven spirit. All are so much more than their grim data, which is exhibited in Trust for London’s newest London poverty profile this week. And yet that data gives a forensic portrait of how crippled our city is.
Take any bus — perhaps the 453 from Deptford through to Marylebone — and you will spot yawning inequality. The figures have become commonplace.
We have accepted housing horror stories and foodbank queues as inexorable; almost normal. Yet in doing so it’s easy to miss the pace of change.
The new figures show the top 10 per cent owning 295 times the wealth of the bottom 10 per cent. That’s not just an obscene figure in and of itself: it’s double what it was in 2010.
Overall poverty has actually dipped slightly — 29 per cent to 27 per cent. But it’s still 6 per cent up on the national average, even after housing costs and social housing rents are actually going up faster than private rents.
Housebuilding is happening of course, but not for us. I am writing this on a crowded, delayed, suburban rail service out of Waterloo.
From the viaduct and at this speed the jagged changes of urban terrain on the ground are more muted, but at rooftop level one feature becomes clear: crane upon crane, hovering over our city like crows, to pluck the jewels from our nests and sell them to overseas speculators.
The targets for affordable home delivery (affordable, of course, being an Orwellian redefinition meaning nothing of the sort) have gone unmet in 60 per cent of housing delivery.
Sadiq Khan’s modest attempts to bring this under control are being met with fierce resistance.
Below those cranes, the cartoon evils of Charles Dickens’s London is back, from malnutrition to unliveable wages (six in 10 poor Londoners are in working households.) This city is choking (perhaps literally; air pollution has been steadily worsening).
A poor kid in London, of course, has advantages that their counterpart in say, South Yorkshire, does not. Growing up as one of the three in five London children in poverty didn’t stop me from travelling to free museums on free, regular buses and enjoying a wealth of free opportunities at free well-endowed youth services, while benefiting from a well-funded school system with a higher educational attainment rate than anywhere else in the country. But while better infrastructure may be the result of financial capital swilling around London, our access to it is not.
Every inheritance a Londoner has was fought for and won in struggles past. And now those inheritances are being rolled back, just as they are across Britain.
Education funding inequality between regions is being tackled by cutting London’s provision, not raising everywhere else’s. We’ve lost children’s centres and fire stations, physical and social infrastructure — while welfare changes and insecure work have pushed more Londoners into extreme poverty, the new figures indicate (something elided by the overall drop).
Failing to understand this is part of the reason most of Britain’s political and pundit class suffered a collective shutdown during the snap general election.
In the most metropolitan elite households, someone was slicing the focaccia as they lamented that the Labour Party is now led by focaccia-munchers who don’t understand “the working class.”
Round the corner from them, Labour campaigners were turning up in their hundreds at houses the pundits would never visit and turning their anger into action. From Kensington to Croydon, the capital’s working classes revolted.
This is not to belittle a genuine point about the need for Labour to think seriously about rebuilding in mid-size towns, Leave-voting areas or post-industrial landscapes where their vote wavered (and it’s not as if London is devoid of Brexit supporters.)
But it is to remind commentators that in every discussion of post-industrial England the razing of the Docklands for banks should be engaged with alongside Thatcher’s destruction of our coalmines.
It is to remind them that the Labour vote in London is being held up not by imaginary legions of middle class socialists, but by the people and communities that recognise they are being held back, defunded, displaced and forced into shit jobs.
Where a middle class layer of support exists, there is a material reason for it doing so — the slightly better-off are now being forced to accept a level of insecurity that is seeping into white-collar employment.
The new London Poverty Profile is a wake-up call. It shows how this government has not only completely forgotten about vast swathes outside of its cherished financial capital, but also the millions who actually have to live in it. They have been forced to watch the money of financial capital swirl above their heads, never trickling down. And it shows how those campaigning for a fairer balance of wealth and power can succeed.
Labour has City Hall, the majority of local councils, tens of thousands of members, and 49 of 73 parliamentary seats. It has local elections coming around the bend next spring. It has defied the Establishment electorally and is in a strong position now to defy it politically — winning local political battles, learning from councils like Salford and Preston which have found creative ways to hand power to local people and mitigate austerity, resisting the developers’ carve-up of the city and organising relentlessly in communities, street by street.
If such a mass participatory politics can be built in this bizarre sprawl of millions, it can be built across Britain.
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