This article, by David Walliams, originally appeared in GQ.
Not just a platform for future PMs, the office of London’s chief executive has muscled its way alongside New York’s as a major voice on the world stage – so it mattered this year when the incumbent sat on the sidelines. Might that be the opening Tory pretender Shaun Bailey needs to cut through? Written off by pollsters, pundits and even some in his party, he remains an enigma, whose values and history have gone largely unexamined. Ahead of the election, now fixed for 2021, longtime Labour allegiant David Walliams joined the candidate who could be the capital’s first black British mayor to assess his stance on culture wars, crime and Conservative urban neglect.
Who is Shaun Bailey? The biggest problem the 49-year-old Londoner has in standing against Sadiq Khan to be the next mayor of London is recognition. Without a huge public profile, like other previous Conservative candidates, such as Boris Johnson, he faces an uphill struggle to even be noticed. It couldn’t be a worse time to try to be noticed either. The election has been delayed for months, as the nation is consumed with the double threat of Covid-19 and Brexit. All my life I have voted Labour, so I am one of the voters Bailey will need to convince to change allegiances if he wants to become mayor. I had never met him before and was curious as to whether he was a fresh voice or just another bullshitting politician. I didn’t love having my picture taken with a man who, despite being exactly the same age, was considerably younger looking and infinitely more handsome than me. However, I did love talking to him. I found him to be sharp, funny and passionate in his beliefs. So now we know Shaun Bailey’s name, does he have a hope in hell of winning?
David Walliams: Do you think a Conservative can be mayor again in a city that voted Labour in the last general election?
Shaun Bailey: I don’t think London is a Labour city. I think it’s a city of hustlers. I think it’s a city of people who want to be safe, who want to have access to decent housing. None of these things have happened under Sadiq Khan and I think that people are looking for an alternative and I want to give them that alternative. And when I speak to Londoners... I spoke to a cabbie and he said, “I never vote Conservative. Why should I vote for you?” I said, “Well, do you feel safer than you used to?” He said, “No.” I said, “What about your kids? Where do they live?” He said, “At home, the pair of them.” I said, “That’s right. These are the things that I’ve come to solve. I’ve come to make sure that you and your children are safe, that they can move out, that TFL does work. And if you look back over the last four years, what have we done? We’ve wasted that time. We can’t afford to waste that time. Our population is growing. London is becoming more and more international, so our children have to work harder to get more opportunities and that’s what I’m about.” And he said, “Well, you’re my kind of Tory,” and I said, “Thanks, bruv.” It’s conversations like that that keep me going. I’ve been tested 100,000 times: “Why are you a Conservative?”
DW: Is that because of the colour of your skin?
SB: For black people, definitely. I think for some other people as well, they’re working class and they just want to test it. I said to someone recently, “Remember, the Conservative Party is the party of working-class people.” He said, “Is it?” So I went through what happened with the red wall – all working-class people. I said, more importantly, “You’ve had loads of Conservative governments and they need working-class people to vote for them. It’s about efficiency with your tax, not just sending you big bills. [It’s] about giving your children opportunities, about a decent education. You talk to me about the NHS. Who’s given the NHS the most money? Without a doubt, it’s the Conservative Party.” People need that conversation to be had and I’m here to have it. And the other thing I’ve said to them is it isn’t a culture war. I want to make you safe. I want you to have somewhere to live. People keep saying, “What’s your policy, Shaun?” and I’m so proud of what I’ve got coming down the line, because there’s a lot of real stuff for people who have to work for a living to have good lives, because the driver for me is the people furthest from the government... I want everyone to be happy, independent. I’ll give it to you like this. A bus driver said to me, “All I want, Shaun, is to cover my bills, to go on holiday once or twice a year and know the kids are safe,” and I said, “That’s my goal.”
DW: You’re going to take the bus driver on holiday with you?
SB: I’d love him to come on holiday with me.
DW: You have talked about being involved in burglary growing up. So what age were you when you started?
DW: Ten? That’s very early to be a burglar!
SB: What happened was I observed it.
DW: Why were you observing a burglary?
SB: Because when you come from where I come from, crime’s the norm.
DW: So, you are ten years old, you’re still at primary school, and a group of older kids say, “Come and watch a burglary”?
SB: Yeah, they say, “Come, we’re going to get some stuff.” One of the words that gets you as you get slightly older is “Yeah, we’ve got a little manoeuvre – do you want to come on it?” It was a drinks warehouse, getting crates of drinks and all that nonsense. You had people pull knives on people...
DW: Were you witness to that?
SB: Yeah, because people are knifing you. You know people are pulling knives on other people and then you have to make a really strong decision about where you’re going to go.
DW: When did you make that decision?
SB: I’m very fortunate. I had my mum. I had my uncles. I always had the “Shit, if Uncle Dennis finds out about this I’m in trouble!” So I had a bigger tug.
DW: Why is crime on the rise in London?
SB: I think two things. Our children are left too much to their own devices, physically and emotionally. I know young men whose job is to recruit for gangs. They tell them they’re too young to get prosecuted, [that they’ll] give [them] money and then they bully them. Crime has become so normal. You have to make crime risky, hence why I’m always talking about the amount of police.
DW: Didn’t Theresa May cut the numbers of police when she was home secretary?
SB: You may have noticed I’m not Theresa May.
DW: I have indeed noticed that. But how can you as London mayor influence the current government to give London the police it needs?
SB: First, the mayor pays for the police that London needs all on his own. He has full control of the police. Second, the government have already given him an extra 1,300 police as we speak and they’ve pledged to make it up to 5,000. The government and I are on the same track as that. Crime in London is becoming more and more sophisticated.
DW: How organised is it?
SB: There are international businesses that would like to be as well organised as crime gangs in London.
DW: Is the organised crime mostly centred around drugs?
SB: Drugs are a very big component of it – maybe the single biggest component – but it’s [also] car theft, burglaries. But the big money thing in London is fraud. Fraud is off the chain.
DW: Do you think Sadiq Khan is taking crime seriously enough?
SB: I think he has a blind spot about it. He’ll talk about the causes of crime, but he won’t talk about how it’s cool, often, to be a criminal. He won’t talk about the trauma of knife crime.
DW: What do you mean by the trauma of knife crime?
SB: Imagine seeing people being murdered. There’s a large number of young people in London who have seen a person being murdered. That’s traumatising. Imagine having someone pull a knife on you. When I was a youth worker, one of the boys told me to come out the front. It turns out the kid’s got a knife. He wanted to stick the knife in me.
DW: Why did this boy want to knife you?
SB: He’s feeling bad about the universe. I sat him down and I said, “Why do you want to knife me,” and he told me all kinds of things that were wrong in his life. The focus was to get him to give me the knife. Once I could see I was getting through, I said, “You should probably chuck that away, bruv.”
DW: How do you stop knife crime on a much bigger scale?
SB: First, you make people who carry knifes have the impression that they could get caught. Scan and search. Imagine you got off the train at King’s Cross... the police could scan that whole crowd.
DW: Like going through a scanner at an airport?
DW: Is that being used at the moment?
SB: No. The amount of times I’ve asked Sadiq Khan why he doesn’t do a thing... He says nothing. He never replies. I asked him why he doesn’t use... We all talk about using a public health approach to crime in general. He goes on about it now. I’d written to him maybe a year before he even heard about it. He didn’t do anything about it. That’s why I want to be mayor of London. You can take action. You have the budget. You have the statutory and moral right. You can do things; get the police to do something!
DW: Presumably they’re doing something.
SB: Yes, but they could do more. More, more, more. It is literally a matter of life and death.
DW: When I read about these horrific stabbings in London, I feel terribly sad for the victim, but I also have empathy for the killer. Their life is ruined as well.
SB: It’s funny what you just said. I attended an event of mothers who lost children to knife crime. A woman stood up and said that she was with the woman whose son had stabbed her son and that she was here to let everybody know that not only is [her] son dead, [her] life is over and his life is over, but so is [this other mother’s].
DW: You told me earlier, when we were having our photo taken, that you’ve been stopped and searched by the police hundreds of times. I was shocked. I am white and I’ve never been stopped and searched by the police once in my life.
SB: That’s your good fortune, but do you revolve in the communities that need that stop-and-search?
DW: No... but it still shocked me that you have been stopped hundreds of times.
SB: I used to walk the streets for 20 years as a youth worker. I’d walk up and down the streets talking to people. I’m a unique case.
DW: Are the police racially profiling people to stop and search them?
SB: There’s no doubt they profiled people before and they’ll do it again, but that’s again about leadership, isn’t it? That’s about if the police are racially profiling people. Where was the mayor? Because he’s in charge of the police. That’s what I am saying: the police are about leadership. They are not on their own. So when he first got involved he said no stop-and-search. Now, he can’t make his mind up. I’m very clear about what you do and how you do it.
DW: But is stop-and-search ruining the relationship between the black community and the police?
SB: Not as much as the amount of death in our community.
DW: Is the community looking for the police to solve that?
SB: Yes! It’s terrifying. Our children are dying. We will take anybody. If you get Santa Claus and he can stop the amount of knife crime on our streets we will be into Santa Claus. The thing I always say to people if a knife is caught by the police or someone is stabbed is, “How many other times has that knife been used? How many other people have been shown it and terrorised?” and, believe you me, it is terrorising. Come on, we want that to stop. We absolutely want it to stop. Ask anybody you know if their children have been robbed. The robbery rate for children to and from school is massive. It’s not acceptable. And, let’s be clear, people talk about racially profiling a black community or estate... Our biggest relationship with Khan is as victims. We are aware of that. We are aware that our children have seen other people die. We are aware that our children are so tough because they have to be.
DW: Do you think the police are racist?
SB: The whole idea that they are all in a room together planning to be racist is wrong. I don’t think they sit there with the intention of being racist, because if they do two things have gone really wrong: one, what’s happened to all of the activism we have done over the years to repair that and two, what are we all working for then? The police are better than just all being racist. Could they do community relationships better? Yes, and that’s another place that the mayor has failed – he should get in that conversation. There are tough, complicated and sometimes unpleasant conversations that need to be had. I will be having them.
DW: What did you think about the Black Lives Matter protests in London?
SB: Everybody else was surprised it happened.
DW: Surprised that we had protests in London?
SB: No, that George Floyd was killed in that way.
DW: It was absolutely horrifying.
SB: Yes, but if you are black, it’s not the first time. It wasn’t one horrifying event, it was a sequence.
DW: How much do you equate what happened in America to George Floyd and so many others to the situation in the UK?
SB: Our police are simply not as aggressive as the American police. Our death in custodies – there is a lot to look at but nowhere near the [same] level. Our police are simply not as aggressive as American police. They are not armed like the American police. They are just not the same beast. I felt sad and I felt worried about London, because a man had died and it leads to such anger in the black community. My whole ethos is to bring people together. I think as a species there’s nothing we can’t solve. We put a man on the moon, because we all sat in a room together and figured it out. It’s the same rule with our social problems. If you drive wedges between communities the wedge just grows. I was worried that the historic struggle of black people for equality was now going to be hijacked and turned into something political.
DW: So, what are the two other issues you are campaigning on?
SB: Housing. Housing. Housing. I’m going to have a centrally backed City Hall-based developer whose only job it is to turn out appropriate housing. I’ll take away TFL’s housing function and put it in there. I’ll get together all the housing plots – council, MOD, government-owned housing plots – and prepare them to be delivered on and I’ll enter joint ventures and get those houses built. I will become a housing provider. The mistake Sadiq’s made is that he has engaged developers. I will become the developer.
DW: It will be a commercial proposition?
SB: Yes. Anything we make, we will just fold back in and keep going.
DW: Crime, housing, what’s the third?
SB: Transport and environment.
DW: That’s two.
SB: They are one and the same. When we clean up our transport systems, we will also clean up our environment. If you want people to stop using cars you have to give them a decent alternative to a car.
DW: Do you think the government are doing enough to work closely with the mayor? Is there personal acrimony between him and Boris Johnson?
SB: I think even if there was, and I don’t sense there is, he deals with different ministers... When you as mayor have a conversation with a minister and come out and tweet about it – the justice minister told me he did that to him – it’s nothing to do with Boris, it’s nothing to do with the justice minister. That’s on Sadiq Khan.
DW: So are you saying the government don’t trust Sadiq Khan?
SB: No, I’m saying the government can’t trust his behaviour. If you’re in that high level of office you’ve got to behave like a grown-up. Come on, you’ve got to be able to meet with a minister and have a conversation. Ministers shouldn’t be reading about agreements you’ve made with them in the press, you know? He reinstated the congestion charge – the first thing the minister heard about that was in the paper.
DW: You work with Sadiq Khan in the London Assembly. What was the atmosphere like when it was announced that you were the Conservative candidate for mayor?
SB: Now he won’t even look me in the face. Any chance he gets to belittle me he tries it. He did something to me in the chamber that was such a bullying manoeuvre.
DW: What did he do?
SB: When you’re on the street, one of the things that people who recruit in gangs do, they’ll say, “Are you frit?” Are you afraid? And that’s to humiliate you, because on the street you are not allowed to be afraid, you always have to be tough. In the chamber Sadiq said to me, “He’s frit.”
DW: Are you going to be debating one-on-one with each other on television?
SB: I imagine so. I asked him for a debate around crime and he avoided me.
DW: When were you first aware of politics as a child?
SB: My earliest memories of politics are Spitting Image.
DW: Me too. I learnt a lot from Spitting Image.
SB: I would say Spitting Image and Public Enemy are what made me aware of politics, but, more importantly, social issues, and then many, many, many years after that I was invited to a youth work event. I told them they were all wrong about everything and this is what it looks like from the street. David Cameron heard me speak and said to me, “You should get involved in the Conservative Party. You’d be great.”
DW: Before that you never thought about entering politics?
SB: Hell, no.
DW: What did you think of Margaret Thatcher when you were a teenager?
SB: I didn’t.
DW: Did you know who she was?
SB: I was busy trying to make ends meet.
DW: What did you make of Theresa May as prime minister? I am thinking particularly about her failure to meet the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. I know that is near to where you grew up.
SB: I think she should have. I think the whole political fraternity can hang their heads in shame. Theresa May not going there was a huge injustice. But, more importantly, why you go there is not because you get to look kind, it’s because you get to learn. And what she did was to deny herself the learning.
DW: Do you feel Boris Johnson was a successful mayor of London?
DW: What do you think was his biggest failing as mayor?
SB: Not making me deputy mayor!
DW: Do you think Boris had been a successful prime minister?
SB: He’s in the job – I think, yeah. He won the election.
DW: But that’s not being a successful prime minister. That’s just being good at winning an election.
SB: It is until you’re not the prime minister any more. Because how you judge a prime minister in my estimation is from the whole thing. I think he’s done well so far.
SB: Yeah, coping with Covid.
DW: It’s been an absolute disaster!
SB: I disagree. It’s been tough. I will give you that. I would switch to the fact we are living with Covid. It is not just a house fire. You have to deal with it going on. We have got to keep our economy going.
DW: Do you want to be prime minister?
SB: I’d never say never.
DW: I’ve spoken to other politicians and they say any politician who doesn’t want to be prime minister is lying.
SB: What I want is to be effective. What I want to do is help the people I’ve always tried to help from my earliest days.
DW: Why wouldn’t you want to be PM?
SB: Because I want to focus on this. Look, I’ve spent a lot of my time overcoming people’s low expectations of me.
DW: Why have people had low expectations?
SB: In school I was very dyslexic. When I started my youth work charity, everybody told me it won’t work. It turns out they were wrong. When I ran for the London Assembly, people said I wouldn’t get it. When I stood to be mayor of London, people said, “Shaun, are you sure?” But it was a resounding victory for me with 53 per cent of the vote. I won.
DW: That people have always underestimated you means you think you can win this election?
SB: Yeah. Because it is doable.
DW: Have you encountered racism in the Conservative Party?
SB: I’ve encountered some misunderstandings. I’ve encountered some people I’ve had to call out.
DW: You say “misunderstandings” with a smile on your face. A misunderstanding or racism?
SB: The level of offence that I’ve taken. I remember someone saying to me, “[Are you] English?” Another person, in the same conversation actually, said to me, “Who do you cheer for when England are playing the West Indies?”
DW: What’s the worst experience you’ve had of racism?
SB: Running away from the local NF. But there are more subtle forms of racism: people saying things like, “You spoke really well for a black man.”
DW: What do you think is at the root of racism?
SB: Ignorance. One hundred per cent. Ignorance and fear.
DW: Why do you feel black people have had a worse experience of racism than other races?
SB: Largely because of how we are portrayed in the press. Black men in particular are either sexy or dangerous. Nothing in between.
DW: Do you find that other black people are surprised to find you’re a Conservative?
SB: Yeah, but it is as much linked to class as colour. So if I was perceived as being a very posh black man, it would be less of a surprise. So it’s about your class, being a Conservative, and I think the black community hasn’t always associated Conservatism with the working class, [which is] quite different to working-class white people, who can see Conservatism as theirs.
DW: Do you think that Boris Johnson is racist?
SB: I don’t. I’ve never thought that. I would never have worked for him if I thought that. I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near him. One of the things you get as a black person is a bit of an antenna for racism, definitely.
DW: Is it like “gaydar”?
SB: [Laughs.] It can save your life. You can walk into a club and be like, “Yeaaaah.”
DW: There’s a heavy atmosphere? The wrong atmosphere?
SB: Wrong pub.
DW: Have you ever had a racist thought?
SB: There’s not a person on the planet who hasn’t had a thought that’s based in race, but I’m very fortunate that I grew up in a place where racism wasn’t one of the things we traded in. I mean, I have a mixed house – my wife’s white; my children are mixed race – so racism is very different for us. We talk about it more. We are much more open. We challenge why a person might speak a particular way and where did that come from and why they are wrong and why they are right, you know? It’s, I think, when you just label people racist and you rattle that cage, you’re not going to get a resolution and I need a resolution. A lot of people are racist out of ignorance, out of not knowing anyone.
DW: Now, your drugs policy of testing people in their places of work has been controversial.
SB: I tell you what it has done: it has started the conversation. The point is this: we talk about crime in London and communities being affected, but we do not talk about the causes. Where is this big drug situation coming from?
DW: From people buying drugs. But many police say that the war on drugs is unwinnable and that the sensible thing to do would be to legalise them.
SB: No, the police would definitely not say that.
DW: Some have told me that. And I wonder if it is part of human nature to want this other experience, to get high, to escape.
SB: If you want to escape, read a good book or watch a film. Why I have launched this policy is to get the conversation growing so that people can make a personal input into making London safer.
DW: So, you are trying to make the connection that the person who is at the middle-class dinner party on a Saturday night snorting a few lines of coke is funding knife crime on the streets of London?
SB: Yes. Most people are decent. Ninety-nine point nine per cent of people are decent. Confronted with the wrong or right thing to do, they will choose the right thing.
DW: But how the hell are you going to stop millions of Londoners from taking drugs?
SB: I’m not trying to stop people. I am giving them the opportunity to stop themselves. American companies test all the time, if you drive a crane or a bulldozer.
DW: That’s different.
SB: It’s not different from a moral point of view and it’s not different from a safety point of view.
DW: But they test people who drive bulldozers because they don’t want them to crash the bulldozer!
SB: And I do not want you to crash my pension if you are a banker! I just want people to have the debate. I want them to have that little bit of knowledge, that little bit of awareness. Because what it does is it starts a conversation where we are all involved in solving the issue. Remember, my key contention in life is that when you bring people together they solve problems – it’s the intelligence of the swarm. If 15 people are thinking about something, you get much better and more creative answers than if four people thought about it. This is a way of making sure the debate happens.