The Westminster you don’t see

For most people, when they think of Westminster they think of Parliament, Downing Street, and the Royal Courts of Justice. But in reality, the borough strongly resembles a microcosmic example of the north-south social divide.

Parliament may be one week into its summer recess, but the City of Westminster is still buzzing. Whitehall and Downing Street continue administering government policy and churning out one press release after another, the Royal Courts of Justice and Supreme Court proceed with handling the highest cases of the land, and Buckingham Palace remains thriving, especially since its latest royal arrival. Westminster enables the Queen, the Prime Minister and almost the entire British elite to function within the vicinity of one London borough. All sounds rather splendid. Except it isn’t. If ever there was a prize for the London borough that could closest resemble a microcosmic north-south social divide, my hometown Westminster would win all day long.

While south Westminster consists of some of the UK’s most important and iconic landmarks, north Westminster (which consists roughly of all tube stations on the Bakerloo Line between Paddington and Queen's Park) is a mere shadow, devoid of any such institutional or touristic significance. Instead it has come to be known as a place rife with child poverty, youth unemployment and gang-related crime. As someone who lives and has grown up in the north of the borough, the affluence and prosperity of the south has always felt a world away – never the stone’s throw away it actually is.

When telling people I went to school in Westminster, they often reply, “What, you mean Westminster School?” I wish. The differences between Westminster School and schools in Westminster are unfortunately far greater than syntax. In Westminster state schools, 40 per cent of students are entitled to free schools meals, while the fees to send your child to board at Westminster School is £10,830 per term. That is to say, the entire annual household income of many parents living in the borough would not be enough to send one of their children to Westminster School for just one year.

While their private school counterparts are getting places at Oxbridge at the highest rate of any school in the UK, Westminster state schoolers are getting their Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) abolished and their university fees trebled. Although the fee rise affects everybody, it’s poorer students who are reconsidering their university applications. For young people who are used to free school meals and (were used to) EMA, £27,000 of debt is an immense burden. Nick Clegg (appropriately, an alumnus of Westminster School) can try to justify the fee rise using as many jargon-filled caveats about repayment rates as he likes, but the fact remains: £9k a year is much higher than £3k a year. And it is those headline facts and figures that resonate with deprived 17 and 18 year olds in north Westminster, not minute specifics involving repayment. Such financial thought processes are rather less overwhelming for Clegg’s old friends south of the borough, who have been paying fees all their lives.

The strife from austerity in the City of Westminster is by no means restricted only to young people. Westminster City Council revealed earlier this year that it would be cutting its entire £350m arts budget by 2015. St James’ Library was closed in 2011, while Westminster Adult Education Services announced it would be selling off its site on Amberley Road, where 12,000 adults currently study. Perhaps worst of all, north Westminster’s "Jubilee Sports Centre" – where generations learned to swim and play badminton, and which is used for multi-functional purposes such as Muslim Friday prayers – is also set for closure. It is surely ironic that in the year that south Westminster was so lavishly hosting the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, we in the north were being told that our Jubilee Sports Centre’s days were numbered. Quite some Olympic legacy.

With austerity comes a lack of both occupation (unemployment) and preoccupation (nothing to kill time). And with that, north Westminster’s deep-rooted problem with gang culture (something which London Mayor Boris Johnson admits) intensifies. The territorial rivalry between gangs "SK" (South Kilburn) and "Mozart" (on the border of Queen's Park and Harrow Road) has resulted in a 13-year-old boy being kidnapped and pistol-whipped with a handgun, and three teenage girls being shot in a drive by, among countless other distressing incidents.

Most other incidents don’t make it into the headlines. Regarding my own experience, despite steering clear of "SK", "Mozart" and all things gang related, I have been held at knifepoint on no less than three occasions – once when I was as young as twelve years old. All three incidents happened not far from my own home in Maida Vale and were instigated by large groups late at night seeking valuables from which to make quick sales. A petty crime, yet knives (which, if local rumours and stories were anything to go by, gang members would certainly not be afraid to use) were deemed necessary. Such episodes are something I’ve had to concede is part and parcel with Westminster life. I doubt however, that it’s part and parcel with most outsiders’ conception of Westminster life.

The word Westminster can mean a lot of things to whom it may concern: a general term for UK Parliament, a constitutional framework of governance, or indeed one of the most well to do areas in the country. Yet there is another side to Westminster that exists, and its connotations are rather bleaker. If the influential folks south of the borough continue piling on their proposed programmes of austerity and hardship, that bleakness will only continue and the microcosmic divide between north and south will unashamedly deepen. 

There's more to Westminster than the Houses of Parliament. Photo: Getty
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Here’s everything I learned this weekend at LibDem conference

Fear and loathing in the Bournemouth International Centre.

I spent my weekend in Bournemouth. It’s a lovely place for a weekend away, with gorgeous sandy beaches, beautiful parks and unusually good weather for an English seaside resort – but I didn’t get to enjoy any of that because I spent the weekend shut in a conference centre with a bunch of Lib Dems. Here’s what I learned from the experience.

There are people who think that EU flag berets make a stylish addition to any head

Almost the first thing to catch my eye on entering the Bournemouth International Centre was a cluster of women with EU flags on their head.

I’m not entirely clear whether there were a lot of these guys, or a small group I just happened to notice a lot because an EU flag beret is the sort of thing you’ll almost certainly be able to spot across a crowded conference hall, but either way I kept seeing them all weekend.

Vexingly, they were always women of a certain age. Do young women not love the EU? Do they not make the hats in men’s sizes? What?

Anyway.  If you want to show your support for Britain’s membership of the European Union while looking a bit like one of the mushrooms from Super Mario Bros 3, now you know how. 

You can buy laminated pictures of Tim Farron for £4.25 a throw

Something I would like to know is who exactly the market is for this particular product.

Something I would not like to know is why this product is laminated.

Vince Cable wants to bring house prices down...

The reason I was at LibDem conference at all was because the Young Liberals had wanted someone who wasn’t a politician to join their panel about intergenerational inequality and, basically, shout at everyone about housing. This is how I spend most Saturday nights anyway, so I agreed.

The thing that stays with me about that discussion was something the new(ish) party leader Vince Cable said. I’m paraphrasing, but it was along the lines of: We need to explain to homeowners that house prices have to fall.

At the time, I thought perhaps this was a comment tailored for a young and angry audience – but he said something similar when taking questions from the party at large the next day. He also said that the party needed to take on the NIMBYs that oppose house-building. 

All of which I’m quite in favour of, on the whole. Except...

... but his party night not let him

...at least some of those NIMBYs are members of his own party. One of them is the MP for Oxford West & Abingdon, Layla Moran, who was elected in June on a platform of protecting Oxford’s green belt from the housing development she says neighbouring Tory and Labour councils are threatening to build. 

During our panel debate, Moran explained that she favoured meeting Oxford’s housing need by building in neighbouring Bicester (not, as it happens, a part of her own constituency). She also argued that building on the green belt should be the “last resort”, although since the city already has the most expensive housing in Britain relative to wages it’s not clear to me what the last resort might look like if not this.

At any rate: LibDem policy is set by the members, not the leadership. And Moran will be far from the only LibDem politician who wants to protect their patch from development. For those who favour housebuilding, Cable’s support is A Good Thing – but that doesn’t mean his party will follow him on the issue. 

Political tribalism is personal

Why, I asked people in a panic whenever conversation palled, are you a LibDem? Sometimes, when people seemed particularly annoyed with the party around them, I’d instead ask: why are you still a LibDem?

One of the answers I was given stays with me, because I’d not considered it before. You might hate the leadership, the policies, the coalition. You might not know many LibDems back home. But twice a year you go off to a conference somewhere, and you spend four days with friends from all over the country who otherwise you would hardly ever see. 

Leaving the party doesn’t just mean cutting up a membership card: it means abandoning those friends. 

This, I suspect, goes some way to explain why, even when the party is very obviously in a hole, everyone in the Bournemouth International Centre this weekend was so bloody cheerful.

Shutting a couple of thousand strangers in a badly ventilated conference hall for several days is a great way to incubate all sorts of exciting diseases

I’m a man on the cusp of middle age and I’m sitting here with freshers’ flu and no free drinks parties, how the hell is this fair.

Just because you agree on Europe that doesn’t mean there’s no excuse for a fight

The Brexit debate on Sunday morning was, I was assured, going to be the fight of the conference. I’m a big fan of both pointless political rows and the European Union so I went along.

The funny thing, though, was it was a remarkably difficult fight to understand. Both sides wanted Britain to remain in the European Union, of course (they’re LibDems; they have hats). But one faction wanted to commit the party to an “exit from Brext” referendum on the final terms of Brexit, while the other just wanted to stuff the whole thing. Okay.

It further transpired that actually both sides would probably accept another referendum (either the first or the third, argued former MP Julian Huppert, depending on how you count, but definitely not the second). The argument was really about the meaning of that referendum: if that was lost, too, would the LibDems accept it and back Brexit? Well, obviously not, but in which case what was the point of supporting a referendum? Why not just be clear that you oppose the whole thing as a mess?

Moreover, LibDem policy is meant to represent what a LibDem government would do. In the event of a LibDem majority – pause here for hollow laughter – it’s probably safe to assume that the mood of the British public towards Europe will have changed so radically that we could cancel Brexit without bothering with another referendum. So is LibDem policy a guide to the policy of a majority LibDem government? Or is it a guide to what it would fight for without said government? And since nobody outside the party is likely to read the thing does it actually matter?

Just as I was getting my head around this, someone requested that conference suspend standing orders, the chair said that would be a vote on whether to have a debate about this request, someone else said that standing orders had already been suspended, everyone began muttering, and my nose began to bleed.

In the event, after a long and exhausting debate that left everyone in a terrible mood, the LibDems voted overwhelmingly to keep policy pretty much the same as it had been before. Which, ironically, is a good description of the party’s position on Brexit.

The LibDems love a good singsong

“Oh you have to go to Glee Club,” people kept telling me. “You’ve not seen LibDem conference until you’ve been to Glee Club.”

I promise that whatever you’re imagining right now, the reality is worse. 

It works like this. People rewrite the lyrics to popular songs to make them about British politics, and then a roomful of LibDems sing them like they’re hymns. Here’s a topical one about David Cameron and a pig, sung to the tune of English Country Garden:

Sadly I didn’t make it to glee club – I was back in London before the glittering night – but just so I didn’t feel left out a crowd of LibDems demonstrated the concept to me by singing several verses to the tune of American Pie outside a pub. And just for me. Lucky old me, eh!

Despite the lyric “Tony Blair should fuck off and die”, this, I’m told, actually dated to before Iraq, all the way back to talk of a Labour-LibDem pact in the mid-1990s, long before many of those singing were even involved in the party. The lyrics are printed in a book that expands every year, and you can buy your own copy. So it is that people can confidently sing along with satirical songs dating back to the 90s or beyond. Amazing scenes.

If you ever tweet anything nice about LibDem conference, they will start sending you membership forms

No.

Apart from anything else you people give me the flu.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.