Boris has made a playground for billionaires, and ignored homelessnessby Ben Judah / February 18, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read an extract of Ben Judah’s new book This is London here
There are huge figures in British politics, and then there is Boris Johnson. Enormous, hilarious, stupendous—every word that comes to mind is huge. Now listen carefully. London’s mayor is the true sloganising heir to Tony Blair. Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron now sound little like New Labour. But Johnson keeps dropping Tony’s capital message—“London is the greatest city in the world.” Blair’s Olympics, became Boris’s Olympics. Blair’s Cool Britannia, became Boris’s Billionaire Chic. It’s one and the same thing—London boosterism.
Boris has made the London of Mayfair boutiques, luxury apartment sales in Asia, and organic-eating cyclists his own. But there is another London—a city of Nigerian nightcleaners, Polish scaffolders and Romanian beggars. The city where nearly one-third of Londoners live in poverty—as do nearly four-in-10 of its children. There is little discussion of politics here in this mostly migrant London. Instead, Boris cuts an enormous, eerie, absence.
For my new book, This Is London, I spent two years in this city. To understand the new London, I lived it—sleeping rough with Roma beggars, living in Romanian doss houses, and working on Polish building sites. Building sites teem with chat. But never did the name Boris Johnson come up. Putin, Ukraine—the scaffolds are witness to never ending debate. But British politics, especially the London mayoralty, was never raised.
Sitting for lunch around the paint pots, it dawned on me that the London underclass I worked with was one on which the British state impinged only faintly. Regulation—health and safety, minimum wage, insurance, overcrowding regulation—hardly applied. The regulations of the authorities were so little enforced, London’s Mayor was an abstract figure.
Rules that protect the poorest are little enacted. But this hardly features in the campaign literature of either Zac Goldsmith or Sadiq Khan, the Conservative and Labour candidates to succeed Boris. People don’t discuss Boris or politics here, as Boris or politics has failed them. Take life on the Eastern European black market. You can see it in the dozens of DIY suppliers in outer London. Outside the Wickes and the B&Q, an Eastern European labour market trades in plain sight, ignored by City Hall. In Barking, up to 200 Romanians, Poles and Balts, stand on the kerb outside the…