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John Bird: “I have never lived through anything else like this – and no one else has“

The Big Issue founder says that if homelessness is not prevented and jobs are not secured, the UK could slide into chaos.

By Samir Jeraj

In 1991, when John Bird founded the Big Issue with a mission “to help the homeless help themselves”, the street magazine almost didn’t survive its first year. Nine months in, with the publication losing thousands every month, Gordon Roddick, who put up the money up for the project, gave Bird three months to turn things around.    

Fast-forward to 2020 and the Big Issue is celebrating its 29th year. On 6 July, after 15 weeks of lockdown, the magazine’s 2,000 homeless or precariously housed vendors were once again selling copies, kitted out with PPE and card readers.  

At the time of its launch, the innovative social enterprise revolutionised support for the homeless. Vendors buy the magazine for £1.50 and sell it for the cover price, keeping the money they make. Now aged 74, the magazine’s editor-in-chief is focussing his energies on a potential surge in homelessness. It is predicted that hundreds of thousands will lose their homes in the coronavirus-induced recession. In July, Labour warned that some 250,000 people were at risk of eviction and homeless as protection for renters in force under lockdown ends in August. “This is our Hitler that is coming down the line”, he told me in a recent phone call as he wrapped up his editorial duties on the magazine, “I’m a post-war child, I have never lived through anything else like this and no one else has”.     

Bird, a crossbench peers since 2015, believes the projected spike in homelessness could tip society over into an era of chaos, racism, and fascism. “The white middle class liberals of Germany lost their prosperity, and moved from being liberals to being anti-liberals and became the backbone of the Nazi Party,” he says. The best way to prevent this is to “keep people as prosperous as they can be.”     

To this end, in July Bird launched the Ride Out the Recession Alliance, an initiative supported by Shelter, Generation Rent, Unilever and the National Skills Agency. The role of the Alliance, Bird explains, will be to bring together organisations to hold government to account and champion positive steps to address the causes of homelessness. Bird cites the example of the Nationwide Building Society, which has committed to a moratorium on repossessions until at least next May.   

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The government has failed to match this in their protection of renters, who face evictions from 23 August in England and 30 September in Scotland. The Alliance is calling for this to be extended by at least two years and matched with job creation schemes. Around 600,000 people have come off payrolls since lockdown started in the UK.    

When Bird gave his maiden speech to the House of Lords, he said he had gotten there by “lying, stealing and cheating”. He grew up in a poor Irish family in London, experienced homelessness for the first time at six, was institutionalised in an orphanage and later spent time in prison. His life was marked by substance abuse, violence and poor mental health. He learned to read and write, draw and paint, in a boy’s reformatory school (a forerunner of Pupil Referral Units). Painting, he says helps “sanitise your sanity”.    

In the Lords, Bird has been challenging the government on the coming wave of homelessness and unemployment, while welcoming action taken to get rough sleepers off the streets during lockdown. “I was saying [to the minister of housing] ‘it was really, really good that you lifted those people off the streets. Do you swear on a stack of Bibles that you are going to ensure they don’t end up back on the streets?’”    

Bird, who called himself a “working class Tory” in 2010 and now describes himself as a “Catholic Marxist” – “largely to piss people off” – has a vision that is radical, but not revolutionary. “Politically, I believe in a complete transformation of society from top to bottom,” he says, “but the first thing is we have got to keep chaos away.” He has long since moved on from an earlier stint in revolutionary politics, “made up of lost souls who couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery.”    

Now he believes in working with government to make it better. “Ordinary Tories”, he says, are quick to impose austerity with a narrow-minded view of the effects on society, promoting a “grab for profit”.  “Extraordinary Tories” will keep public spending up, cease to protect profiteers and take positive social action. Bird believes the public and civil society have to force the current government to spend more and take “fuller and deeper” action. But “whatever they [government] do will be pusillanimous, it will be a stab in the right direction, it won’t be the full chop.”  

Decades of lobbying for action on homelessness have left him disillusioned. Too often government responses are “half-arsed…gestures”, throwing a small amount of money at part of an entrenched and complex problem like homelessness, he says.  It’s a cross-party issue. Bird talks about being hurt and helped by governments under Labour, Tories and the SNP. When people join a political party they “take on a kind of hymn sheet, and you have to sing certain songs.”   

But what will this new campaign do that other well-meaning initiatives are not already doing? How is it more than a gesture itself? Bird explains that is unusual in terms of its tactics. The Alliance will not be seeking to “change the government or in any way inconvenience the government.” He insists this can work, with this new initiative “aiding and abetting” the government through negotiating with businesses to create jobs and housing associations to stop evictions. He insists this is possible, even with the reservations he has about the competence of those currently running the country. It is in some ways a “desperate act”, he admits. If it fails “we will be using all the tools of protest”, including he says eviction resistance, where hundreds of people effectively block bailiffs from carrying out an eviction. 

Conservative friends have told him this plan to spend now is passing a debt onto future generations. He has no sympathy with the argument. It was his generation, he says, who paid for the debts incurred fighting the Second World War. “We have to mortgage the future otherwise we won’t have a future,” he says. So far, he adds, the government’s response to the potential increase in homelessness has been akin to watching a dam break.  

Earlier this year, Bird introduced a Future Generations Bill to the House of Lords, intended to embed long-term thinking and planning into decision-making. Modelled on legislation passed in Wales, the Bill would establish a future generations commissioner with a remit to test and challenge policy on whether it will have an adverse impact on future generations. Setting it out in the Big Issue, Bird recounted how as a child his parents struggled to make long-term decisions, particularly about money, something that stayed with him as an adult. Would such legislation have made a difference in the current crisis? He believes so, highlighting the stress the NHS was under pre-pandemic under austerity cuts.    

Recounting his own past as an avowed racist and anti-Semite, Bird says he was raised to hate anyone who was not an Irish Catholic. “Britain is a racist country”, he says. “At the moment we’re trying to absorb and digest what we have done in Africa,” he says, “but there are so many other things that we have to absorb and digest”. Nor is Britain alone in having to face its racism, he adds, “we live in a racist world”. The Black Lives Matter movement and the way young people have rallied behind it is a “great encouragement”.    

More than anything, Bird believes it is imperative that government find a way to “keep the social glue together”. If it does not, he says, “we will have turmoil and we will have anarchy and many, many, more people will die of poverty. Many, many, more people will die of violence. I’m talking in an Armageddon sort of way.” 

Samir Jeraj is a special projects writer at the New Statesman. He is also a voluntary board member of Generation Rent, which is a member of the Ride Out the Recession Alliance. Samir has no direct say in the operation of Generation Rent, including which campaigns it supports. 

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