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
Photo: Getty
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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.