In London, an inflatable giant condemns inequalities

Blanche Pautet, Translated by Gemma Kentish
28 Mars 2015

An independent and self-managed group of Londoners, My Fair London, is protesting against the growing inequality at the heart of their capital city. With the upcoming general elections in May 2015, the issue of poverty is more than ever a focal point of discussion.

Credit My Fair London
Credit My Fair London

“London's economy may be doing better than the rest of the country but that obscures the fact it has the highest poverty rate”, states Bharat Mehta, Trust for London chief. According to London’s Poverty Profile, a study published at the end of 2013, 28% of the London population is living below the poverty line. In other terms, 2.1 million people earn 60% less than the average income rate in the United Kingdom. Poverty does not affect the entirety of the population. It is women, people who work part-time and older workers who are suffering. These are sections of society whose situations are already precarious. The main affected sectors are retail, maintenance, hospitality and the catering industry. There has been a 23.7% wage decrease for the poorest 10% in London. As rent is increasing and benefits are decreasing, these inequalities are have huge consequences for the physical distribution of poverty in London.

A map of poverty

In April 2013, the government introduced the Bedroom Tax, a reduction of benefits for those living in houses that had one or more spare rooms. Intended to free up space by encouraging those receiving benefits to live in more suitable sized housing, this tax is the evolution of wealth distribution in London. The city is divided into two parts: Inner London includes the central districts, and Outer London stretches across the periphery. The price of housing in Inner London is now unattainable. Today the average rent in Inner London costs £1300 a month, compared to £950 in Outer London and only £475 in the rest of England. As a result, there has been an exodus of poorer families towards Outer London. Similarly, richer Londoners are settling in Inner London, which is more attractive for the wealthy. Hannah Aldridge, co-author on London’s Poverty Profile, comments, “The London most visitors see - the West End, Westminster, the City - has ever less of its poverty. The London they don't see has ever more”.

Beyond the housing price increase, it is the wage differences that disadvantage the middle and working classes. The Green Party of Wales and England are proposing a living wage to reduce inequalities. The general elections in May 2015 are approaching and the minimum wage is at the centre of the Nathalie Bennett’s discourse, the leader of the party. “The living wage aims to provide a sense of security ”, she stated to BBC1 last January. The situation in England is such that the minimum wage is below the living wage and cannot meet a person’s daily needs. According to Bennett, who discussed the subject in a debate for World Finance, insecurity is linked to overconsumption and thus lack of resources. Creating a sense of security would thus contribute to a social wellbeing and to environmental protection.

Combatting income disparities to reduce poverty and recover from the crisis is also what the ‘Fair Pay Fortnight ’ militants, are advocating. Until March 1st, the group organise events aimed at informing the public on a national level about the problem of income inequality. In the capital, the group ‘My Fair London ’ sets up camp on the road, a less unusual place to condemn salary disparities. 

A symbolic exclamation

Credit My Fair London
Credit My Fair London
This is a symbolic exclamation”, a passerby declared in front of Westminster Abbey in May 2013. And for good reason: the inflatable giant, standing 5 metres tall, does not go unnoticed. As the mascot of the ‘My Fair London’ organisation, the plastic business man is a striking tool that visually illustrates wage disparities in London. The size of the giant corresponds to the salary of one of the highly paid executives from the FTSE100, the largest hundred companies in the London stock market, equal to 4.5 million pounds a year. In comparison, a nurse would only stand a few centimetres high. Since his debut, the giant has become the emblem of this independent organisation in their battle against poverty. Their main argument is that reducing inequality is the best way to recover from the crisis.

The Spirit Level: Why more Equal societies almost always do better, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett is the inspiration for the members of the group. Emerging in 2009, the study explains how societies with reduced inequality do better, even though they may perform worse in terms of economic wealth. It would thus be more profitable for London to reduce the gap between wages, at the risk of generating less wealth. In his July 2011 TED talk, Richard Wilkinson shows that the wealth of a country is not necessarily proportional to the quality of life, which takes into account life expectancy, education and crime. 

Social inequality has nevertheless one undeniable influence: it creates insecurity and tends to exacerbate violence. As Sean Baines, My Fair Lady activist, put it in 2013 at the London Z-DAY, “In developed countries, the more inequality there is, the more social and healthcare problems there are”. 

Credit The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone
Credit The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone
Although the capitalist system has allowed our Western societies to prosper throughout the past century, My Fair London considers it to be obsolete, in an era where relative inequality is as worrying as absolute poverty.