Caught up in Brexit blockage? Try Lambeth Bridge

by Joshua Neicho

With politics in disarray and the Brexit process stalled in Parliament, there’s a resounding call from across Lambeth to think again, on both hard-nosed business and humanitarian grounds.

Pimlico Plumbers founder Charlie Mullins has shifted from backing the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats

Marketing-savvy Pimlico Plumbers founder Charlie Mullins, whose HQ is in Sail Street, Kennington, embraces fighting Brexit with gusto. His giant rooftop “Bollocks to Brexit” sign that greets Waterloo commuters plus electronic billboards around the capital have delighted many and infuriated others, with Mullins gamely retweeting critics. He was planning his own Bollocks to Brexit bus until a crowdfunded campaign got theirs out first (rather than yellow, Mullins’ would have parodied Vote Leave’s red and white graphics).

Mullins, a 66 year old multimillionaire who grew up in poverty in Camden and Southwark, tells Lambeth Life that “common sense” about the costs of leaving the EU led him to passionately support a People’s Vote, and that Leavers’ desire to end freedom of movement to protect public services and boost employment prospects for British workers is “short-sighted”.

“As a country I don’t believe we can survive without immigrants” he says. “London construction sites are going to come to a standstill. It already is massively [affecting] the NHS”.

The former Conservative donor bluntly tells Leavers who argue EU migrants are squeezing out established workers – “No – the benefits system and the Jeremy Kyle Show are stopping you guys going to work”. His position isn’t self-interested, he explains, as he employs few non-UK nationals: he needs plumbers with top qualifications and excellent English language skills to serve his high-value customers.

While Theresa May isn’t a bad person, he says, her anti-enterprise views dismay him so much he won’t make his mooted run for London Mayor as an Independent if she’s still PM – he couldn’t do business with her. Lambeth Council rapped him over his Bollocks to Brexit sign for not having planning permission. But he’s convinced he has the tacit support of the authority, which has endorsed a People’s Vote. “They sent an email to me to remove it, and now they’ve backed off. I think in the real world they’re not that fussed about it. And let’s not kid anyone, they wouldn’t want to take on that fight”.

Parents at the Wheatsheaf Hall Community Centre in Vauxhall

Lambeth is home to many of those most directly affected by Brexit: the local authority with the sixth highest proportion of people born in Western Europe and the biggest Portuguese community, plus a significant Polish population. The impact of the vote to leave has already been felt in last year’s 38% drop in ‘in-year’ primary school admissions, including not one Eastern European child. Ewa Kwasniewska, who directs a South Norwood choir, says Poles are returning home now not so much because of resentment but to enjoy a much better quality of life, thanks to the fall in the pound. She’s worried who will treat her father in hospital, where his care is administered by Spanish nurses, a Greek cardiologist and a Polish anaesthetist.

Portuguese lawyer Marco Pires at the Stockwell Partnership

Portuguese lawyer Marco Pires is contacted “daily” by families who intend to return to Portugal. Other members of the community have moved to countries including France, Luxembourg, Germany and Switzerland. In West Norwood, Cristiane Lebelem found SMEs losing heart over advertising in the Portuguese community newspaper she used to edit.  Pires has begun to fear speaking openly on his mobile in Portuguese after being threatened on a call to his mother. Both he and Lebelem lament the effects of uncertainty: “Who invests in a country at the centre of a political and economic typhoon?”, Pires asks.

John McCay of community support organisation Stockwell Partnership worries about poor communication of EU citizens’ residency provisions to marginalised groups – and cut-back bureaucracy unable to cope with ever-changing regulations. One staff member was told they had no access to continuing British residency based on an incomplete form 14 years ago. Low-income EU citizens face more difficulties in the roll-out of universal credit, with ambiguous form questions a nightmare for non-native English speakers. Unison official Katia Widlak warns that in the event of No deal, the sign-up period for residency may be reduced, and future governments may change eligibility criteria for accessing public services.

The effects reach everyone – food importers, cafés and bars struggling to find staff, tech and digital businesses who have seen a hike in the cost of remote coding teams, business reliant on the finance industry ecosystem, where many firms have moved departments to continental EU countries to prepare for possible regulations changes. In healthcare, King’s College Hospital saw EU27 applications for consultant roles fall from a third of the total before the referendum to zero by October 2017. The hospital is keen to point out it has the lowest nursing vacancy rate in London, and both it and Guy’s and St Thomas’s have agreed to cover securing settled status costs for employees, such is the concern about retention. The cultural scene stands to suffer, as the borough with the UK’s biggest arts centre faces the prospect of a burdensome visa regime for visiting performers.

Britain’s international reputation is at stake. On the Southbank, Chilean Alvaro Badilla, a Londoner for the past six months, fears post-referendum Britain “is not giving proper back-up in the rest of the world”; in Chile, he reports, some politicians are using Brexit as an example to push divisive policies.

People’s Vote campaigners conducting a street survey on the Southbank on 8th December

But there are some tantalising shifts closer to home, as recent polls finding clear majorities for a second referendum and a tilt towards wanting continued EU membership suggest. Since 2016 Lambeth for Europe campaigners have been taking the pulse of the borough, with vote-by-sticker ‘Brexitometers’ showing opinion hardening from strongly to even more strongly Remain (over 90% supporting a People’s Vote in the autumn). It’s when they go to Leave areas that they detect how “the mood has completely changed,” according to Fiona Mackenzie from the group.

Orpington after Jo Johnson resigned was “wonderful”, she says – roughly 70-30 in opposition to May’s deal and in support of a People’s Vote. One previously convinced Leaver said he backed a second vote, because “even when they voted Leave it was a disaster, such a mess”. Back in Kennington, Charlie Mullins’s gut instinct is that “the will of the people has changed” now that “the facts are out there. I think people are entitled to change their mind”.

How much more appealing will this route out of the stalemate seem after the delay to the Brexit vote? And will Lambeth’s coalition of a plumber and public servants, Portuguese, Poles and other proud patriots show the way?

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