London's skyline ©David Holt

London, 2016: where people cling to prayer, not politics

Boris has made a playground for billionaires, and ignored homelessness
February 18, 2016
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 Wickes every working day waiting to be picked up by a white van. The moment a van pulls up, the haggling begins.

This is a London Boris ignored for receptions in the Shard. But ask any building boss. Black market labour is an open-secret of the London trade. Who was picking these men up in Barking? I found the foreman usually Polish. Calls go out for languages—“Polish, Russian, Romanian… who speaks what?” English-only builders can just forget it.

I learnt a simple lesson touting for work on the kerb. The minimum wage does not exist. Nor does training, insurance, or the rest of health and safety. On the Eastern European black market, the minimum wage is what you can get. The lowest wage I ever saw was one chicken and chips for a day’s work. At the Barking Wickes it would be dead easy to enforce the minimum wage and insurance violation: mount a camera and snap up licence plates of the white vans that come each morning. But Boris’s mayoralty has pushed its energy in other directions—like the campaign for £175m Garden Bridge in heritage London.

Boris has used the mayoralty to campaign for living wage. But this is meaningless when minimum wage enforcement is not fit for purpose. In immigrant London, minimum wage prosecution is unheard of. The Centre for London estimates that at least 300,000 people are not paid the minimum wage in the UK. But from 2014 to 2015, only 735 employers were successfully prosecuted. And a police source told me this was heavily skewed against native, not immigrant, employers. Boris has made a lot calls for action, especially on overcrowding. He has castigated criminal landlords with extraordinary language.

But these words could have been uttered in another country from the one I saw on the ground. I lived in a Romanian doss house in Barking. There are dozens of them in this borough alone. Scanning online and making a few calls, I got the impressions there are hundreds of them in outer London. They advertise as “share-beds.”

In my dosshouse Romanian builders slept two to a bed. There were 15 of us in a two bedroom council flat. Cramped up in shallow sleep, it was clear that overcrowding enforcement was purely notional. And there was talk of bribes. Just how normal this is has been backed up by research. Ian Gordon at the London School of Economics calculates that 40 per cent of London immigrants from poorer countries have been accommodated through an increase of persons per room.

Homelessness is another problem Boris has turned into a photo-op, posing in a sleeping a bag on a street corner with Evgeny Lebedev, the multi-millionaire owner of the Evening Standard. Forget the picture. This has been one of his biggest failures. London’s rough sleeping has doubled in five years: and roughly half of the 7,500 out at night are European. When I slept rough in the tunnels under Hyde Park Corner with Romanian beggars, I kept meeting victims of the black market: Polish men who’d worked for a month, only to be beaten up by Albanian gang-masters and chased off site. Romanians, robbed by Polish bandit scaffolders, now sleeping in make-shift hovels by the canal.

I found a third-world labour market in African London too. Figures for illegal immigration are always hard to estimate, but even in 2009 there were thought to be between 417,000 and 863,000 in the UK, with London thought to have had 70 per cent of this total—the number is surely now much higher. It is technically illegal to employ irregulars, but once again, enforcement seems notional. Tube cleaners, shelf-stackers, bin men, security guards—these men, and they are mostly men, find work through agencies, so whoever they work for doesn’t directly employ them. The more crooked the agency, the bigger its cut of the wages. But mostly they end up exploited by other migrants: kitchen-boys, fat-fryers, plasterers, cleaners—the list goes on. Without the right papers, a Londoner can forget £6.70 an hour (the current minimum wage). But illegals, unlike the Eastern European black market, are a problem Boris is highly aware of. As Mayor he made loud calls for an amnesty for long-term illegal immigrants but didn’t push for government action.

Bandit landlords and crooked employers blight London’s migrant poor. But with such big Boris words, and such little Boris action, they are left in the political cold. The unsettling apathy I found there reflects how little politicians focus on enforcing the regulations that could improve their lives. The indifference to who becomes London Mayor mirrors the fact no candidate is campaigning on the issues that matter to them—an amnesty for illegal immigrants, or a new minimum wage enforcement agency. It should come as no surprise then that Boris Johnson, Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith—these names felt as distant and irrelevant as those of Liberal and Tory grandees must have been in the rookeries Charles Dickens explored.