In his 20 years as a youth worker he claims to have taken on drug dealers to defend young people, had weapons pulled on him and worked on the front line helping those with addiction.
He didn’t have it easy himself. His grandparents are of the Windrush generation, he grew up on a west London housing estate and went through “desperate periods” of homelessness as a young man.
“I always tell people I’ve lived the lives that Londoners face,” Bailey told The Big Issue in a video call last week. The pandemic has brought some of his in-person campaigning to a halt, but a benefit of Zoom, he explained, is it allows him to visit many London boroughs in one day.
“I’ve been homeless, I’ve been unemployed, but I’ve also been special advisor to the Prime Minister, and that range I want to bring to the table,” he said, when asked if his background helped him relate to normal Londoners.
“My politics, I would like to believe, is of people who’ve had challenges to face on a social level, on a community level and on a personal level as well.”
But despite his working-class credentials, the Conservative candidate, who is hoping to take control of City Hall from Labour incumbent Sadiq Khan in May’s local elections, has come under fire for his controversial remarks.
In January, he told Inside Housing that homeless people should save for a mortgage deposit and buy a property through shared ownership. People experiencing homelessness can span the spectrum of temporary sofa-surfers to long-term rough sleepers, but when people hit barriers to finding a permanent home they are often past the point of saving for a deposit.
Then in a London Assembly committee meeting in March, he said some people would useUniversal Basic Income to buy drugs. While hypothetically true, critics said it missed the point of UBI: that some people will buy drugs no matter where their money comes from, and that raising the floor of support in society ultimately benefits society as a whole. Both incidents brought a mixture of confusion and condemnation.
Bailey told the Sun in 2010 that teenage mothers pushed people who “do the right thing” down the housing ladder and appeared at a Commons select committee in 2011 saying poorer people with money would buy things that weren’t “always what they needed”.
Labour has been keen to highlight these older remarks, made as a parliamentary candidate for Hammersmith and as an adviser to former prime minister David Cameron some ten years ago, as well as the newer gaffes. He said his comments had been distorted.
“To say I’ve been misrepresented doesn’t get close and what you’ve seen there is the slick, organised Sadiq Khan,” Bailey said.
“Most of those headlines are straight out The Guardian because he literally can write it for them and they’ll print anything.”
A Guardian News and Media spokesperson said it “strongly” rejected Bailey’s claims and described them as “completely unfounded”.
“Our journalism is entirely independent and any claims to the contrary have no basis in fact,” the spokesperson added.
A spokesperson for London Labour said: “These are bizarre, untrue and frankly irresponsible accusations from the Tory candidate about newspaper stories that simply reported things he himself had said.”
Bailey talks quickly in short, sharp bursts, like everything that comes into his head also comes out of his mouth. It is easy to see how he might have developed a reputation for being outspoken, something he believes is unfounded.
His comments were either old or taken out of context, he says, and he has explained what he meant when people actually took the time to question him.
“Some of those comments, forgive me for being rude, are probably older than you. I made them hundreds of years ago,” he added.
True, reporters might have caught him out in the past, he admits. He isn’t a “slick, rehearsed politician”. But he doesn’t regret saying things that caused offence.
“I’ll always do my best to ask the tough questions that poorer people need asking,” he said.
“If you’re homeless, right, you don’t just need me to say warm words, you need me to challenge.
“Have you got mental health issues? Is it a financial issue? Is it a drug issue? Is it all of the above? How do we do a homes first policy review? How do I go back to the drug working community and say look, ‘we’re gonna kind of have to work with people even if they’re using,’ which is a tough thing to say.”
He’s right to point out an increase in people living on or below the breadline, finding themselves without a home.
The Covid crisis has devastated the economy and put many at risk of losing their jobs and homes. This is particularly the case in London, where charities say there are “warning signs” that more people could slip into homelessness.
Unemployment is at a five-year high and, even before the pandemic, rampant inequality in the capital and the country at large has been gnawing at the Conservative promise to “level up” the country after austerity and through Brexit.
Solutions have been floated to take on poverty, including Universal Basic Income, a form of welfare provision which sees every adult receive an unconditional payment. The London Assembly heard from experts in January who said a £75-a-week income could slash child poverty by 40 per cent.
When asked about his controversial remarks concerning the idea, Bailey said he was standing up for disabled people and again accused Sadiq Khan’s press office of planting stories about him in The Guardian.
“So my job in the London assembly is to ask questions, [that’s] literally what it is, it’s literally a scrutiny committee,” Bailey said.
“So I asked the question, if you give people lots of money, right, what would they do? Some people I know would soar like a bird, other people wouldn’t. And I literally used these words: ‘Where is the care? Where is the care?’
“So, of course, they then spun it into ‘Shaun says everybody will buy drugs with the money’. Of course I never said that because it’s not true. Most people don’t use drugs. It’s clearly not true.”
Another “worry” about UBI, he claims, is that it could take existing benefits away from certain groups, such as those who receive disability benefits.
“Our targeted benefit system is far from perfect, but it does mean we look at those who need the help most. And I think that’s the correct model, if you’re a civilised bunch of people then those with a lot should give to those who need something.
“I’m not convinced that [UBI] is a better answer than the one that we have now. As imperfect as [the current system] is, I’m not convinced by that.”
So what does Bailey want to do to help Londoners most impacted by the pandemic? He says he wants a “fresh start” for the capital with safer streets, more opportunities for young people and an easing of the burden on the city’s households.
His plans include recruiting 8,000 more police officers, having a youth centre in every borough and helping young people get on the housing ladder by building 100,000 homes and allowing them to be purchased through shared ownership.
He’s made big promises to tackle homelessness, too, be that supporting rough sleepers or those sofa-surfing without a permanent home.
Rough sleeping in the capital has risen in the past three years but the latest figures from January 2021 show a slight dip.
This may be partly due to the Everyone In scheme, which brought people off the streets at the height of the pandemic and has helped some remain in secure accommodation for the first time in years.
Despite the nine per cent fall, however, experts said some people were sleeping rough for the first time.
Bailey has direct experience of a life without a home. He spent years sofa-surfing and has previously spoken out about the issue of hidden homelessness.
He told The Big Issue he once rode around on a night bus while waiting for a friend to put him up and explained the feeling of “terror” that comes with insecure accommodation.
“I would have to say it’s the most afraid I’ve ever been. And let’s be fair, I’ve had people run at me with baseball bats, I’ve had umpteen different knives and stuff pulled on me – nothing compared to the terror of not having somewhere to stay,” he said.
Understanding that homelessness can happen to anybody and be the result of many different issues is important, Bailey added.
He talked of the need for a “homes first” policy and said he advocates the Housing First model pioneered in Finland, where people experiencing homelessness are given a home regardless of circumstance and provided with wraparound support.
“The first step is to support charities and specialist work but the second step is to just provide enough homes in the first place,” he said, when asked about his own plans to give people experiencing homelessness a home.
“One of the weirdest things about my sofa-surfing, I would say that the entire time I had a job.
“That shows you that we need to provide a decent lower tier of housing from a cost point of view.”
Bailey said he is “seeking the platform” and would lobby the Government to get as many people off the streets as possible. As mayor, he added, he would challenge Westminster to follow the lead of London, where services have reportedly helped eight in ten rough sleepers off the streets for good.
Bailey explained: “One of the failings of Sadiq Khan and where he needs a fresh start and fresh thinking is to go to the Government and say ‘here’s what London’s doing, can the Government please match this?’ and hopefully do more.
”When you just go and bang on the door and ask for money, they tell you ‘no, we’ve given you £18 billion, try and do something with that’.
“Sadiq Khan last year asked for £29 billion in additional funding, he knows that’s unrealistic but he’s just playing politics.”
Bailey also discussed his plans to combat air pollution in the capital after a group of black and brown teenagers from Tower Hamlets, Lewisham and Brixton launched a campaign to raise awareness that deprived backgrounds are more likely to suffer.
Bailey said it was important to attack the source of the pollution and “not people’s wallets”.
He said he wouldn’t extend the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) which forces drivers to pay a charge if their vehicles don’t meet emissions standards.
Instead, he would fill London’s bus fleet with zero-emissions vehicles by using ULEZ revenues, sponsor cabbies to purchase electric cars through interest-free loans and increase the number of car clubs to lower ownership.
“My message to those kids is I have a plan for a fresh start,” Bailey added.
“It’s a practical, realistic plan. I don’t do virtue signalling, I do action, I do impact and that’s why you see me attacking the source of the poor air quality and not people’s wallets.
“If we’re going to have a green agenda in London, we have to bring people with us. If they hear the words green and extra costs every time they’ll start to oppose it.”
The London mayoral election has already been delayed by a year as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Bailey’s listening campaign has, in effect, been extended, affording him more time to get out, speak with communities in the capital and see what they want.
But if one thing is clear, it’s that he won’t apologise for using his own experiences to ask the questions he believes disadvantaged people want answering, even if he offends people on the way.
Polls will open across England on May 6 for local councils and elected mayors in England, police and crime commissioners in England and Wales and parliamentary and assembly elections in Scotland, Wales and London.
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