"The last thing we want to have in our city is a situation such as Paris where the less well-off are pushed out to the suburbs. I'll emphatically resist any attempt to recreate a London where the rich and poor cannot live together.
We will not accept any kind of Kosovo-style social cleansing of London. On my watch, you are not going to see thousands of families evicted from the place where they have been living and have put down roots."
I once responded to a meme about what one would never do by saying I would never vote Tory. However, if I was forced to vote between Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson as mayor of London, I’d be severely tested.
Ken Livingstone seems to me to be a despicable human being, arrogant, self-aggrandising, unable to apologise for his errors. The whiff of corruption, cronyism and nepotism around him his overwhelming. His palling about with fascist, theocratic, antisemitic Islamists is hard to stomach. Everything I’ve heard about his personal practice, including from people that worked with him back in the GLC glory days, reflects very badly, and I have evidence of him being incredibly abusive and offensive to close friends of mine. Most recently, his stirring of the murky waters of Tower Hamlets politics places him clearly in the Bad Guys camp.
On the other hand, he was an extremely effective mayor of London, with generally very good policies on more or less all the issues that actually matter to me, as a London resident, on a day to day basis: creating a transport infrastructure that is actually able to move masses of people around the capital every day, making our streets safer, making some contribution to alleviating the crisis of affordable housing, promoting economic development.
Boris Johnson, in contrast, seems like a very pleasant person: charming, witty, intelligent, fun, self-deprecating, erudite. But he has been a very ineffective mayor, and his policies have been far weaker than Ken’s. He has some policy strengths (on immigration, for instance, he is extremely positive), but most of his successes have been where he has continued Ken’s work rather than where he has changed it.
How are we to view Boris’ recent “Kosovo style social cleansing” comments about the Coalition government's housing benefit reform plans? Obviously, his choice of words is deeply offensive. The Serb nationalist forces didn’t move ethnic Albanians to B&Bs in Hastings (although Boris’ pals at Spiked probably think they did); they murdered them on a massive scale. The gaffe generated a fair bit of political capital for the government (witness their aging and increasingly desperate errand boy Vince Cable seizing on it, possibly the taste of cold vengeance to get over the taste of humble pie Nick and David made Vince, but not Boris, eat over the ridiculous immigration cap policy). But was what Boris saying fundamentally right?
I think that, yes, it more or less was. A policy that will drive a large amount of the poor people out of the richest boroughs of London at risk of homelessness will undoubtedly seriously intensify the drift towards social segregation that the capital’s insane housing market has been driving for a couple of decades.
On the other hand, and I admit this is a heretical statement in the company I keep, the government’s housing benefit reforms put their finger on a gross inequity in the current welfare system. It simply cannot be right that the public purse is paying for a handful of families to live in properties that most of us cannot dream of affording. There are only 139 families to whom we are paying over £50,000 in rent a year – but that’s a tiny number of families taking an awful lot of tax bills. And there are plenty more in the £25,000 a year bracket. I am also not convinced of the arguments for richer families getting universal child benefit, although the arbitrary way the government has drawn the line is clearly unfair. And I have a great deal of sympathy for the cap on the maximum benefits non-disabled families can claim – again, it quite simply cannot be right that some claimants (again, a small number) should get significantly more than the average working family. Further, and this is even more heretical in the company I keep, the main victims of these particular changes will be those with excessively large families, and I don’t see why people should breed on such an extravagant scale if they are not able to support their progeny.
However, these arguments for reform miss a number of things. First, by focusing on the claimants, we deflect attention away from those who profit from their claims. Thus my earlier statement that there are 139 families to whom we are paying over £50,000 in rent a year was an inaccurate one: they hand that rent over to private landlords, and it is the private landlords we are actually subsidising. The housing benefit system drives the most unscrupulous landlords (and unscrupulous people, in my experience, seem to me disproportionately represented in the population of landlords) to charge the highest rents they can get away with, and more to the point the current scale is based on a market rate that is grossly inflated by property speculators, corporate landlords and all the other afflictions that have made London's housing situation so unjust in the last couple of decades. If housing benefit reform will exacerbate social cleansing from inner London, it will only intensify what the market is already doing.
Second, focusing on the claimants points to the insanity of a fiscal and political climate in which the building of affordable, and in particular social, housing has been so constrained, starting with the Thatcher government’s ideological assault on social housing, including the prevention of councils from borrowing on their capital assets and the promotion of a Right To Buy policy that decimated the affordable housing stock, but continuing through Labour’s failure to address those issues. For each of the 139 landlords’ £50,000, you could build a house in London.
Third, by concentrating taxpayers’ anger on the relatively small number of abusers of the welfare system, the government is deflecting attention from the many, many more households, including working families, who are being thrown into destitution by the austerity measures, the thousands of people being cast into unemployment by their assault on the public and voluntary sectors, while they burn away what safety net that the less fortunate rely on.
I am also concerned at the back-of-a-fag-packet way the government seems to be proceeding with its welfare reforms. If they were genuinely concerned about fixing the injustices in the welfare system and in creating a system that incentives work and de-incentivises dependency (the type of reforms the Tory thinktank the Centre for Social Justice has been proposing), that’d be one thing. But instead we seem to have policies launched by fiat from Cameron’s office without any consultation or thought, one after another, totally contradicting each other. One week (with universal benefits) we are told that the justification is that those with the broadest shoulders must take on a greater share of the pain; the next week (with housing benefit) we are told that it’s because the feckless over-breeding poor people need to be social engineered into better citizens. One week we are told it’s all about “fairness”; the next we are told these are difficult decisions that need to be made to avoid public debt.
So, on reflection, I will probably not be voting Tory any time soon.
Further reading: Phil Dickens: Quote of the day [I read that after I wrote this, and although Phil would radically disagree with a lot of what I've said, some of the things we say are strikingly similar.] History is Made at Night on the back to the 1980s vibe.
Local campaigns against the cuts: Transpontine on Lewisham's libraries and on the impact of the cuts in South London, including on higher education.