I don’t make predictions often, but I do recognise that what’s happening elsewhere might presage changes that could happen here in the UK. For reasons of language and its domination of popular culture (plus the growing impact of social media on elite opinion), the United States might present us with something of that future.
We used to think that we were somehow above the culture war politics of the USA and the slightly bizarre national significance of issues like abortion, guns and saying prayers in schools. Of course, we shouldn’t dismiss such concerns, but next to economic or broader social issues – health, crime, jobs, pay, taxes – they should fall further down the list of concerns. Part of the problem here is that the people who control the agenda for political debate see abortion, guns and prayers as important and personal whereas the problems of working class life (can I feed the kids, is there a job to be had, oh shit my husband just got laid off, can I afford to buy that) are outside the lives and experience of those agenda setters.
The UK’s agenda setting class (or “people with blue ticks on Twitter” as I like to call them) take their line from their equivalent in the USA and that counterpart class doesn’t live in Texas, Oklahoma or Alabama, it lives in New York, Chicago or, most often, California. This California:
…61.5 percent of our voters choose Hillary Clinton for president; we made Kamala Harris the first Indian-American (and second African-American woman) to be elected a United States senator; we reaffirmed overwhelming Democratic majorities in state politics; and we voted to legalize marijuana, ease parole for nonviolent criminals, raise taxes on cigarettes, extend income-tax increases on the wealthiest few, boost school spending, restore bilingual education, encourage the reversal of the Supreme Court’s noxious Citizens United ruling and ban single-use plastic bags.
California, the wonderful progressive paradise. A progressive paradise where the biggest losers are black and Hispanic residents, most of California’s middle- and working-class:
Since 1990, Los Angeles’s black share of the population has dropped in half. In San Francisco, blacks constitute barely 5 percent of the population, down from 13 percent four decades ago. As a recent University of California at Berkeley poll indicates, 58 percent of African-Americans express interest in leaving the state—more than any ethnic group—while 45 percent of Asians and Latinos are also considering moving out.
On any measure of equality you care to choose, California comes out badly: it has some of America’s worst schools, the gap between rich and poor is widest, the numbers of homeless people is highest, and the levels of job and business creation are shamefully low. On any objective measure California is failing. Yet the people who preside over this failure continue to enjoy power, indeed the control of California by the progressive wing of the Democrats is a solid as the racist wing of that Party’s control was in Georgia or Alabama in the 1950s.
My prediction is that, if you want to see the future for London (and its satellites – Brighton, Bristol, Oxford, Cambridge) then look to California. Watch as politicians appeal to their elite neighbours with cycling schemes, junk food bans, sugar taxes and planning controls all coupled with a patronising indulgence of identity politics – Black Lives Matter, LGBT++ Pride, quotas for women, cosplaying as Muslims or Sikhs, frowning concerns about “hate speech”, and almost daily warnings about the “far right”.
Meanwhile every lobby that arrives at city hall’s doorstep is indulged with promises of protections and controls (especially if there’s a useful contribution to the mayor’s re-election or the MP’s campaign fund). Portentous statements about the housing crisis will be followed by attacks on efforts to reform planning. Virtue-signalling about refugees won’t stop the same people then making sure those refugees are dumped as far away from their nice central London life as possible. National government is lambasted for homelessness or the lack of jobs while ‘public space protection orders’ move on the street sleepers and licencing rules or advertising regulations clobber small businesses.
Right now, London is about 50% non-white and, for all the problems that go with this diversity, can be proud of this. But most of those non-white people are the folk doing the lower paid jobs – cleaning, driving, clerking, guarding – and they really can’t afford to live in the city. Places like Brixton that used to be dominated by the black working-class are now filled with youthful sorts – fully signed up to California’s progressive, righteous agenda until (just like in San Francisco or Los Angeles) it comes to working-class jobs and housing. Want a new housing development or new industry and you can’t move for wealthy white actors, tech company owners and journalists with a thousand reasons why those homes and that industry have to be somewhere else.
My prediction is that London will become more like California, and especially urban California. Some of this will seem great and it will certainly sound progressive, but it will be accompanied by the steady sound of people leaving. And, just like with San Francisco, the people who leave will increasingly be black people as they head for places where the cost of living gets a little closer to the money available.
Only four of London’s 32 Boroughs have a non-white leader and the Labour leaders in inner city boroughs are all white middle-class professionals (mostly male). Such leaderships will take the black votes in their area for granted and will play the “we care” card by accusing opponents (and the national government) of racism without doing much to change the real life problems of those black communities – high crime rates, expensive housing, lousy bus services, dirty streets. Their councils will tell people – black people – they smoke too much, drink too often and eat the wrong food while doing nothing much to provide affordable homes let alone a route into home ownership and a real stake in their city. Then raise a flag on Haile Selassie’s birthday as if that helps anyone.
The middling sort of black person, hard-working, a decent education and something of a career isn’t staying but is looking for a job and a home elsewhere – in North Kent or South Essex, in Swindon or the few remaining affordable parts of the South Coast. Some will commute back into London to work in hospitals, drive trains or administer insurance claims but many will find, especially in these post-pandemic work-from-home times, that they can make a fine, happy family life somewhere other than London.
The result is that London becomes a place dominated by the guilty rich and the once young doing trendy well-paid jobs that let them eat out a lot while living in a pokey little flat they can barely afford. Plus people – mostly black people - stuck in overcrowded, badly managed social housing who clean up after the rich and the young, ferry them about town in cabs and tubes, serve them breakfasts, and man the bar doors to keep them safe. If you want what London once was – diverse, full of opportunity and affordable – then it needs a different sort of leadership, one less taken by Californian culture wars and more bothered with building homes, controlling crime and encouraging small business. One less fussed by how you get to work than with the work being able to make ends meet. And one that puts the interests of London’s workers ahead of London’s elite. I don’t, sadly, think London will be getting any of this any time soon.