The first time I met prospective Conservative candidate Tim Archer I boarded the Docklands Light Railway at Bank station in the City of London and sailed on the noiseless, driverless vessel into Canary Wharf, the heart of the futures market, where imaginary trading and abstract finance are raised up to be revered in totems of steel and glass. In the shadow of skyscrapers, I followed Archer, a thirty-five-year-old banker, to an Italian deli framed by open shelves of truffle oil. He sat amongst the business lunchers and spoke to me about the strange world of Poplar and Limehouse, a freshly carved constituency straddling east London’s polarized extremes, a perfect test-bed for the Conservative Party’s urge to heal what is known as ‘Broken Britain’.
The Conservatives take ‘Broken Britain’ very seriously; seriously enough, at least, to appoint a man named James Brokenshire as their Shadow Minister for Crime Reduction. Yet even this commitment to nominative determinism has not silenced complaints that the Tories are manufacturing fear of crime and a ‘social recession’ to get elected.
In February 2010, the Economist decided to interrogate Tory claims that Britain has become a broken society. They found that violent crime had almost halved since 1995, while crime generally fell by an extraordinary 45%. The figures for teenage pregnancies – a favourite of those talking about social decay – remain constant since Labour came to power in 1997; so too do those for teenage abortions.
So when Tory leader David Cameron declaimed in October 2009, ‘It’s time to mend our broken society’, where did he notice the cracks? Constituencies like Poplar and Limehouse are the perfect test-bed for the former ‘nasty’ party’s conversion to social healing. Contested for the first time at this general election, following boundary changes, it’s a seat which hyperbolizes Britain’s widening national class divide: from the riverside luxury flats feeding Canary Wharf to the estates of Bromley-by-Bow, where 70% of residents live in social housing. Around half of those residents are in social classes D and E – the poorest members of society, mostly unskilled manual workers or those reliant on the state – and one in five were born in Bangladesh. The population turnover rate for Tower Hamlets borough as a whole is nearly 19%; ever since the Romans created the docks here, the area has been underscored by transience. Transience and unassailable Labour electoral success. Until 2004 the Conservatives had never held even a council seat here, let alone a parliamentary one.
The Conservatives take ‘Broken Britain’ very seriously; seriously enough, at least, to appoint a man named James Brokenshire as their Shadow Minister for Crime Reduction.
On 6 May 2010, Jim Fitzpatrick, a fireman-turned-MP and Minister in Gordon Brown’s government to boot, will seek to reassert Labour authority on the new constituency; remarkably, Archer will only need a swing of about 5% to win it for the Conservatives. It would be a tremendous scalp for the Tories in the Labour heartlands, and an indication that the ‘broken society’ message had cut through to Britain’s poorest. For what it may be worth in such an unpredictable election, Archer is narrow favourite with the bookmakers. In the deli he divvies the constituency up into three broad groups – Bangladeshi families (approximately 37%), white working-class families and wealthy young professionals (mostly bankers) who are dotted around Docklands in what he called ‘gated communities’. This invocation of the super-rich of Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires speaks volumes about how divided British society has become – only four European countries have more unequal distributions of income. In Britain, swanky new-build luxury-apartment blocks are required to contain a certain number of social housing units, yet, Archer says, the two groups rarely interact and the young professionals will move out to the home counties when they’re ready to raise families. So, I ask him, if anyone’s letting down the idealized East End sense of community in 2010, it’s not the ‘broken’ working-class poor but the bankers – the one group who are instinctive Tory voters? He nods. Theirs is the kind of antisocial behaviour that’s never going to warrant an ASBO.
‘Everyone says it’s the gated blocks that are helping the Conservatives, but these people don’t vote,’ one of Archer’s team, another local councillor, tells me later. The wealthy transient are often only around for six months, or they’re foreign nationals, or they’re working from six a.m. to nine p.m. ‘As long as the short walk from the tube station or DLR stop to their gated block is clean and crime free, they’re fine,’ Archer says with more than a touch of frustration. ‘That’s the limit of their interest in the area.’ That’s the limit of their engagement, too – a corridor from capsule to hermetically sealed capsule.
Search Hansard for references to the Barley Mow Estate, which sits just north of Canary Wharf, and you will find just one entry, from 1990, in the dying days of the Thatcher premiership. The full parliamentary question reads as follows:
Ms Gordon: To ask the Prime Minister whether she will visit the Barley Mow Estate in Limehouse.
The Prime Minister: I have at present no plans to do so.
The Iron Lady may have turned her nose up at it, but Tim Archer can’t afford to – the gated blocks are locked off and Limehouse is the most marginal part of the constituency. It’s January, it’s freezing, it’s wet, it’s ten a.m. on a Saturday morning – and behind a massive billboard of David Cameron’s airbrushed face sits Westferry DLR station. Under the railway arches the Tory activists begin to gather, hands in pockets, dodging rusty drips and finishing Diet Cokes. By coincidence, the local Labour team are arranging themselves directly opposite. Jim Fitzpatrick and his activists are outnumbered thirteen to five by the Tories. This baker’s dozen comprises one woman, a few councillors and a lot of white males between the ages of thirty to fifty. Clipboards are handed out and we shuffle back out into the rain.
On the Barley Mow Estate, things don’t seem broken. Half drowned by the British winter, perhaps, but not broken. The staircases are clean, painted an Art Deco white, the gardens are lively, well kept, adorned with trees and bushes and fresh paving. It’s low-rise, it’s pretty – and it’s seemingly deserted. Councillor Ahmed Hussein is allocated to call upon any flat occupied by someone with an Asian-sounding name. Sabrina, a trainee solicitor, speaks five languages and seems to know everyone in Tower Hamlets. We run into a Labour councillor for Bromley-by-Bow in the street at one point, who it turns out is Sabrina’s uncle. Everyone stops to chat; he and Tim exchange awkward words. ‘This is . . . the politics,’ he says in broken English, which Tim repeats with a bemused smile. The activists and politicians are everywhere, but the electorate are staying inside; hardly anyone answers the door.
‘I may be poor, but I am a Conservative,’ says one of the first people both to open the door and keep it open – a woman in her fifties wearing pink fluffy slippers. She’s got the kind of resilience that would make her an icon for working-class Toryism. Her mum died last year, her husband left her, her dad’s deaf, she’s a cancer survivor and her son’s in a wheelchair, so she had to get rid of the piranha tank, because he kept bumping into it. There’s still a sign reading BEWARE OF THE FISH on the front door. Sabrina does a lot of sympathetic nodding. ‘Well, let us know if there’s anything we can do for you,’ she offers brightly at the end, taking down contact details.
At the next door we discover that Labour have been canvassing this block already, an hour or so earlier. ‘Why do you all come at once?’ a middle-aged man named Hugh asks. He knows Archer already from his involvement in the Limehouse Community Forum. He gestures to the Tory leaflet: ‘This fear of crime thing you’re pushing – it’s too much populism.’ They nod attentively – Hugh’s views are clearly important, influential.
After a few hours, time is called on the day’s campaigning and we retire to one of the activist’s houses for lunch, with its thick white carpets, immaculate upholstery, mantelpiece trinkets and cut glass, veggie lasagne, roaring central heating and woolly jumpers. The rain still hasn’t eased off, the whole of Docklands is liquid; outside, through French windows with a riverside view, the Thames merges with the sky into an infinite battleship-grey.
Next time I hit the streets, only a month later, sodden winter has changed to blinding spring sunshine. Mediterranean men sit outside Mediterranean cafes on Burdett Road, as bustling school kids of all hues carry their library books to swimming lessons, sashaying happily past an idle pair of police officers. The cracks aren’t showing in this part of Broken Britain.
Around the corner on West India Dock Road the David Cameron poster outside Westferry DLR has been replaced with another Conservative billboard, reading, ‘I’ve never voted Tory before, but we’ve got to mend our broken society’ over a picture of Danielle from Brighton, a cheery-looking thirty-something black woman. The sunlight reflecting off Canary Wharf behind it is so bright you can’t read the words on the poster. Finance overpowers everything in this part of the world.
Walking south towards the Isle of Dogs, the atmosphere intensifies from sparse commuter-land to the churn of commerce and construction. In the foothills directly beneath Canary Wharf and its neighbouring towers, it’s impossible to walk more than twenty paces without accidentally trespassing, buying something, or running head-first into a cement mixer. If you’re not careful you’re suddenly in Credit Suisse’s PRIVATE car park, with two hoggish security guards bearing down on you. ‘I’m lost!’ you cry. Which you are.
Britain’s empire was constructed via London’s docks – it has been the conduit for British wealth since the Romans took a look at the Thames and decided something could be made of this septic isle. But as always happens at the arrival points for vast sums of money, the glittering haul is adorned with a local halo of grime, crime and insobriety. Violence, drunkenness and prostitution were commonplace in the area historically – especially in the less salubrious districts of Wapping, Silvertown and the Isle of Dogs.
Things are calmer now. The Second City of Canary Wharf is a life-size artist’s impression, rendered in three dimensions; free from clutter, free from litter – and free from heavy explosives, you presume, if the police presence is anything to go by. Five minutes away, in a part of the Isle of Dogs that used to be known as ‘The Land of Plenty’ during Britain’s colonial heyday, the Hope and Anchor sits boarded up, unloved, its business presumably swallowed by the two-storey Thai restaurant next door. The architecture on the island is mostly a mixture of eighties superhigh-rise flats like Topmast Point (twenty-one storeys and over six hundred dwellings) and five- or six-storey new-build compromises. One such block is called The Quarterdeck, with a curved blue roof to add to the nautical theme. Outside it children play happily, making their own entertainment; it’s not just the seagulls: it really feels like a seaside town.
Halfway down the promontory lies Millwall Outer Dock, a sort of inland lake bordered by houses and warehouses. Chained-up canoes sit stacked by its side, buildings lie dormant, one light in every ten turned on. The spring gloaming casts a beautifully dim light over the water as dusk falls, and to my amazement the only sound is a very distant murmur of traffic and the somnolent squawking of seagulls – literally hundreds of them – drifting off to sleep on the water. Not one person passes me in half an hour sitting by its shore. For a place teeming with the ghosts of empire, hard labour, hard liquor, sailors and prostitutes, it’s almost unbearably tranquil. This Britain isn’t broken: it’s just quiet to the point of being unsettling.
Back on the main drag, Westferry Road, a converted church called The Space is hosting both tie-dyed ‘Psychic Readings’ and a modern-classical performance by the unassumingly named Metapraxis Ensemble. Next to it sits a real, non-converted house of worship, St Edmund of Abingdon church, which seems like a good place to ask about social collapse. If there’s one group other than the Tories that’s always ready to tell us how badly we’re behaving, it’s the Catholic Church.
Inside, the parish underlings are overcautious, seemingly scared of what they might let slip out. ‘We’re not allowed to talk politics,’ they say. ‘No comment,’ they say. ‘The Dean of Tower Hamlets will be here in a minute for the service . . .’ one priest tells me, teasing, before shaking his head. ‘But . . . but he’ll tell you the same thing. We can’t talk about politics.’ Two seconds later Father Peter Harris, Dean of Tower Hamlets, strides confidently through the door and, brilliantly, he has not read the memo and launches into a detailed, heavily editorialized social history of the Isle of Dogs.
‘These days, it’s a strange place, but it’s fascinating. All the way around the edge you’ve got new wealth; in the top right you’ve got a large Asian community; in the middle you’ve got a spine of big council blocks. They used to say “no blacks, no dogs, no Irish” round here, and some of the older parishioners, Irish Catholics, do say to me, “Oh, the council is so corrupt, it’s just Asians helping each other out.”’ He raises an eyebrow a little and laughs. ‘But if you go back to the sixties you had the Irish mafia running the council. So I just give them a wry smile and tell them, “Well, you’ve had your turn.”
‘There are pockets of real poverty here even now though, mothers without shoes and so on – meanwhile you have something like a third of Britain’s gross domestic product passing through Canary Wharf.’ We talk about crime on the estates – things aren’t so bad, he says. Not lately, anyway. ‘Two years ago the police wouldn’t even answer 999 calls from some estates on the island. We had to get Jim Fitzpatrick to come in and give them a kick up the backside.’ Back on West India Dock Road, the Oporto pub has acquired a score of post-work drinkers, and I join a few regulars at the bar. It’s a locals’ pub where cockney is still an accent, rather than ‘an area in London where criminals live’, as Alan Partridge memorably put it.
When I ask about the election they give weary-faced sighs and make they’re-all-the-same noises. Eventually, once the quiet anger has been worked through, they concede they’ll definitely all vote. ‘You have to vote, otherwise what’s the point?’ asks a man called, simply, ‘Sumo’. What’s the point of what? I ask. ‘Democracy!’ says Sumo. ‘You’ve got no right to complain otherwise. Another lot will get in, but it won’t make a blind bit of difference. We’re in a global recession – it doesn’t matter who’s in charge, we’re screwed anyway. It really wouldn’t have mattered who was leading the country in the last two years – if the Asian economies aren’t recovering, ours won’t either.’
Incredibly, for a pub directly facing it, not one of them has even noticed the Conservatives’ ‘broken society’ billboard – the barmaid and landlord included.
‘You see kids walking to school in the morning and nine out of ten of them have fags hanging out their mouths already,’ says Vicky, leaning on her beer taps. She points to a decline in levels of respect from young people, even since her relatively recent adolescence. ‘School ties hanging round their ankles, giving it all the YES BRUV, ALL RIGHT BRUV,’ she mimicks lairily, waving her hands. Beyond the pre-election slogans, there is no expectation that any party has even noticed the problem, the estates, let alone that they will do anything about it. And what could be done to bring school ties up from around kids’ ankles?
Epigrams don’t win elections – and in any case probably alienate more people – but I did encounter one phrase, in the Museum of Docklands next to Canary Wharf, that neatly sums up Poplar and Limehouse. It was the title of an 1885 W.L. Wyllie etching depicting river workers shovelling coal against a backdrop of distant trade ships: Toil, Glitter, Grime and Wealth on a Flowing Tide. Whichever way the tide flows in the election, some things will never change. We have always been a little broken.
‘So, what are they saying, Britain’s broken, is it?’ Vicky finally asks from behind the bar, her pitch raising in tandem with her incredulity. ‘What does that even mean? That there are scrubby estates full of single mothers? Oh well, thank god they spotted it!’ There is laughter around the bar. ‘Tell us something we don’t know.’
Walking back to Westferry DLR, via the ‘broken society’ billboard, I pass commuters power-walking heedlessly underneath, as the cloudless night sky turns cold. The march of progress may be relentless, but it pays to stop and look up once in a while.