Boris Johnson speaks a fundamental truth this morning in the Daily Telegraph. Labour needs to be taken on over the lies. Boris begins “The thing about Lefties is that they need to be taken on. They need to be confronted with the facts of life – or else they will continue, in their Lefty way, to talk the most terrible nonsense. Let me give you an example of an interesting statistic that flies in the face of current Lefty rhetoric.It is a huge truth about modern Britain that you will never hear from the lips of Ed Miliband or any other senior Labour figure. That is because it conflicts with their central “narrative”, namely that our society is becoming ever more unequal and unfair. Now, before we come to the fact in question, we must accept that the Lefty narrative – of widening inequality – is not wholly foolish or ill-founded.
It is a powerful story; it has, as they say, “traction” – and that is because there are some important respects in which, alas, it corresponds with reality. It is certainly the case that in many British companies and public bodies, the pay gap is at an all-time high. It is unquestionably true that in London and the South East the cost of housing is now a shocking and unprecedented multiple of average incomes. It is true that we need to address these imbalances. We need to level up low pay by expanding the living wage – and there are many companies that could frankly afford to pay more to their most junior staff.
We need to discourage the endless mutual back-scratching of the corporate “remuneration committees”, who always seem to discover that “market forces” mean they must regretfully pay each other colossal sums of money. We need to solve the housing crisis by building far more homes, and helping people’s deep and reasonable desire to get their own foot on the housing ladder. Yes, we need to help those on low incomes to buy, rent, or part-buy their homes.
Yes, we need to tackle those symptoms of inequality. But we also need to be able to take pride in our achievements, and the progress that society is making; and sometimes I find the general pessimism of the Lefties to be ludicrous and not a little nauseating.
Let me quote from a work by the late Tony Judt, a British historian based in New York, which I mistakenly bought at an airport bookstall. It is called Ill Fares The Land, and is drenched, front and back, with praise. It turns out poor Professor Judt was terminally ill when he wrote his book, and I am afraid he has allowed his suffering to affect his analysis. In his verdict on the current state of America and Britain, he speaks utter drivel.
Here is a typical paragraph: “Poverty – whether measured by infant mortality, access to medicine or regular employment or simple ability to purchase basic necessities – has increased steadily since the 1970s in the US, the UK and every country that has modelled its economy on their example. The pathologies of inequality and poverty – crime, alcoholism, violence and mental illness – have all multiplied commensurately. The symptoms of social dysfunction would have been immediately recognisable to our Edwardian forebears…”
Never mind that Judt has got it 100 per cent wrong in virtually every assertion; the whole sentiment is wrong. I remember this country in the Seventies, and I remember London in particular. It was poorer, greyer, drabber; it was the scene of really nasty and violent racism; the economy was in thrall to the unions; the food was terrible; and to say that it was somehow a safer place to live is, I am afraid, a complete and utter lie.
Crime is certainly an index of inequality, because crime hits the poor hardest. But by any measure, crime has fallen since the Seventies – in spite of a massive increase in the size and diversity of the population. Last year London suffered only 94 murders. That is not only an astonishingly low number for a city of 8.6 million (and less than a third of the murder rate in, say, New York). It is the lowest number of murders since the Sixties – and in a city with about two million more inhabitants than there were 40 years ago.
But it is in his remarks about life expectancy and the “pathologies of inequality” that Judt talks the most total tosh.
As it happens, life expectancy has increased massively since the Seventies, and indeed life expectancy in London has continued to increase in the last seven years – to pick a period entirely at random. In fact, the last figures I saw suggested that life expectancy has increased for both men and women by about 16 months, just since I have been mayor. There are parts of London where life expectancy is now more than 97 years.
But of course the capital also has pockets of poverty – four of the six poorest boroughs in the UK; and it is here that the statistics are most counter-intuitive. Who would you expect to be gaining the most in years? You might assume that it was the rich – gorging themselves on monkey glands and royal jelly, jetting off to America for blood transfusions. You would be wrong. Eight years ago the gap in life expectancy between Kensington and Chelsea on the one hand, and Barking and Dagenham on the other, was about six years; now it is about four years. Everybody is gaining in years – but it is the poor, proportionately, who are gaining the most.
No one knows the exact reasons, though we may speculate: better diet, better health education and health care, better air quality, and so on.
No one would want to be complacent. There is still a yawning gulf; there is still far more to do. But according to this fundamental criterion – of how long you are blessed with the ability to enjoy this life, how many glorious English springs you get to see – our society is actually getting not just absolutely richer in years, but fairer, more just, more equal – and therefore, in my view, better. That is a tremendous achievement, to be ranked up there with record employment and record growth.
We should shout it from the rooftops – because I don’t think we will hear much about it from the miserablists on the Left.”