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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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change