Midway through my chat with Shaun Bailey, I joke that he must have been bribing his mates. We’re sitting on the pavement outside a café in Ladbroke Grove — his ‘manor’ as he calls it — and already three people have stopped to promise they’ll vote for him in next year’s London Mayoral elections.
‘I’m not a Tory but, please God, may you be the next Mayor,’ says an Asian passer-by. ‘I’m voting for you, bro. Sadiq Khan [the current Labour incumbent] came to our mosque but he’s done nothing for us. Living is difficult enough, but now he’s put up the congestion charge it costs me £27 to go to work.’
Shaun, 49, whose grandparents were Jamaican Windrush-generation immigrants, is the Conservative’s mayoral hopeful.
As remote from Westminster’s elite as London is from Bradford, he knows a bit about poverty, crime and addiction — the scourges of inner-city deprivation. He grew up in the poor end of the West London borough, where we sit, and was a youth worker here for 20 years.
Shaun Bailey, 49, whose grandparents were Jamaican Windrush-generation immigrants, is the Conservative’s mayoral hopeful
He and his younger brother Dwain were raised in a council house — along with up to eight members of the extended family — by their single mum Carmen who grafted to keep them afloat. Now 73, she still works as a doctor’s receptionist and volunteers with the elderly.
Shaun had spells of homelessness, did dead-end jobs and had brushes with gang culture. But his mum’s ethos propelled him upwards. ‘She always said: “Get an education. Educated people are happier.” She believes in the dignity of work and in giving back to the community,’ he says.
He pulled himself back from the brink, went to university — despite the dyslexia that had hampered his schooling — met his history-teacher wife Ellie, became a Christian and (armed with his first-hand experience) spent three years as a special adviser on youth and crime under David Cameron. Now he sits on the London Assembly.
But he’s still rooted here, munching his bacon sarnie against a backdrop of high-rises, chatting with locals, occasionally lapsing into Jamaican Patois. ‘It’s the dialect here,’ he explains. ‘And when I’m at home (now Romford), I have an English- Essex way of speaking. It’s a white working-class community and I swap in and out. The only accent I struggle with is posh!’ He roars with laughter.
He says he’s glad that his brief is to ‘show Conservatism is for working people’. He empathises with the plight of the bloke who can’t afford to upgrade his old diesel car; with the care worker on the minimum wage who relies on her motor to reach her clients.
When I’m mayor (he says it with confidence, as if it’s a foregone conclusion) I’ll cut the congestion charge, so it’s back to what it was before the recent rises. ‘When I worked here running my youth and community projects, the charge had such a ripple effect on poor communities, not the ones saying: “Let’s have more cycle lanes.” ’
‘There are carers who don’t have money for new, less-polluting cars; there are people who need their car to go to their mosque or church, to collect elderly people; to keep families together.
‘One local church has called the Congestion Charge a worship tax. And Sadiq Khan is virtue-signalling about carbon emissions from his ivory tower. He doesn’t realise that people are hanging by a thread.
‘If you really want to clean up the environment you have to help the biggest polluters, which is why I want every London taxi to become electric by supporting cabbies with an interest-free loan to upgrade their vehicles.’
He speaks from a vantage point of experience. He has witnessed, at close-quarters, the privations of single-parenthood, the challenges faced by carers, the squalor and tragedy of addiction: his brother Dwain’s premature death, aged 43, last November was alcohol-related.
‘Dwain was cleverer than me, smarter, more charming: a great footballer, a talented runner, a nice kid and a really good sport. We had different Dads and were quite different characters.
‘This country has a culture in which heavy drinking is acceptable, but Dwain stuck out in our house because we didn’t drink.’ Shaun is teetotal.
‘His descent was a shallow one, because it took a long time for him to fall apart. It came out of the blue that he had a massive problem, because he was expert at hiding it. But he’d be drinking at lunch time and dinner time, then at breakfast time. Then he lost his job (selling advertising) and, in short order, his flat and his girlfriend, and he ended up moving back in with Mum.
‘I was furious about the effect it had on her. She still works, she’s on the board of a charity, she volunteers and, as my brother’s health fell apart, she became his carer. He would have been on a park bench if it hadn’t been for Mum.
‘She’s tiny — 5ft 2in — and she was carrying him, getting him up in the morning, feeding him. When he had a panic attack she’d support him. When he had a seizure she’d call an ambulance. It was emotionally and physically draining for her, watching him unravel.
‘My three aunties leaned in, too, and helped to care. The country is based on carers, innit? There are 700,000 unpaid carers in London alone, who look after someone for at least an hour a week. And a lot of people don’t even class it as care. They say: “We’re just looking after our own.” My mum would say that.
‘Dwain would have died years ago without her. She kept him going. And I helped her as much as I could. Once, she called me after an argument with him and I came over with my daughter, then aged two.
‘I said, “Mum, put him out”, and she looked at me and said, “Would you put your daughter out?” And, of course, as a parent, you wouldn’t. There were lots of tears that day.
‘I’d talk to my brother and beg him to get help and he’d promise to. But he never did and I felt he was selfish — but he was suffering, too. It was soul-destroying and I felt guilty because I was going home to my wife and kids.
He and his younger brother Dwain (left) were raised in a council house — along with up to eight members of the extended family — by their single mum Carmen who grafted to keep them afloat
‘I felt torn between pity and anger. One minute we’d be arguing and the next, we’d be crying in each other’s arms. One of my real, painful regrets is that I’ve helped so many people with their drink and drug habits, but I couldn’t turn my brother round.
‘The day he died was the first time Mum looked old. She came home from work. She was calling: “Dwain, where are you?” The kitchen was quiet. She found him on the bathroom floor, dead. She rang me and kept ringing, but I was at an event, speaking on stage. I didn’t get the call. The first I knew of my brother’s death was when the son of one of Mum’s friends texted me to say: “I’m sorry for your loss”. Then I drove straight to Mum’s.
‘She was there with the police when I arrived and the copper said: “He doesn’t look good.” But, actually, he looked quite serene. In some ways, his passing was a relief.
‘My children Aurora, 13, and Joshua, 11, adored him because, when sober, he was patient and had a childlike quality.’
Shaun’s experience of his brother’s addiction has informed his belief that ‘an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure’.
He is impatient with what he terms ‘liberalism’ and resists the legalisation of drugs. If he becomes Mayor, he pledges to set up a voluntary scheme for companies with more than 250 employees, to anonymously drug-test employees.
The aim, he says, is to counter the assertion that the ‘polite’ middle class use of cocaine is an acceptable, victimless crime. ‘It harms the unfortunate people in entire communities going back to Colombia,’ he says.
‘There are sellers, runners, smugglers on this estate. And if you’re a drug addict and you live round here you’re done for.’ So what do you do? ‘You have conversations about what it is to be addicted. You talk to anyone who will listen. You set the agenda through policy and policing.’
He sets huge store by self-reliance and, when he was a youth worker, he regularly patrolled the streets seeking out young people idling away their days, trying to find them work. ‘One of the things you learn when you live and work in any poor community is that stopping crime is about giving opportunities and people taking responsibility.
‘The single biggest thing you can do is train young people to work. When you give a young person a job, their whole perspective changes.’
His own route to self-reliance came via Army Cadets and a gym club: ‘The structure and discipline was useful, and part of that was not drinking or taking drugs.
‘Crime is the norm around here. I’ve seen two people stabbed by that chemist shop.’ He gestures to a nearby shopping parade. ‘And a guy murdered by the canal. There were always fights. Someone would say, “Come on a manoeuvre”, and didn’t always give you a choice.
‘But my uncles Dennis and Trevor were all over it. They’d say: “Why are you talking to those people? Don’t.”
‘And I’d hang around in my Army Cadets uniform and it was cool, then gym broadened my horizons and I started competing at international level, and you’re in a different head space.’
His absentee dad James, 74, a tipper truck driver, came back into his life when he was a teenager — his mum got in touch and encouraged the reunion — and, ‘he took me to work with him on building sites. One thing he put very firmly on the table was work. We couldn’t lie around in bed.’
A succession of low-paid jobs followed: sweeping factory floors, working as a security guard, waiting tables. He spent time in a squat, billeted with friends, then went to Southbank University, graduating, aged 27, with a degree in computer-aided engineering.
By the time he met Ellie in a bar he was a youth worker, back on his old patch. ‘We hit it off. I saved her number in my phone: “Ellie The One”.’ He roars with laughter when he remembers an early date when his flash motor broke down: ‘And we just sat in the car eating Muller Fruit Corner yoghurts — I wanted to impress! — and listening to music. I introduced her to Marvin Gaye and she’s a cellist and she introduced me to classical.’
We get on to sex and religion. ‘I wasn’t a Christian when I first met Ellie, so I was up for it (he means sex). But then I started to study the faith. The tenets of the Bible had a real resonance and it was Shazam! I’m in.
‘Then Ellie and I stopped having sex for a good while — maybe a couple of years — because I wanted to save it until we were married. It was a big deal for me. After a while, Ellie was like: “I’m bored with this now.” But I stuck to it.’
He and Ellie — married for 15 years — are raising their children in a close-knit, loving family in which old-fashioned values prevail.
‘I spend as much time with the kids as possible. We’re outdoorsy. We holiday in England, we paddleboard, swim, go on coastal walks. We spend a lot of time with Grandma (my mum) and Nana (Ellie’s).
‘Joshua loves his Lego and radio-controlled cars. My daughter and I read together and we all love board games — although it’s waning now because I never win.’
Dressed in crisp blue shirt and jeans, he is genial, good-humoured; his laughter rich and frequent.
When I ask if he’s experienced racism, he is mildly incredulous that I might imagine he hasn’t: ‘Tons of it. There was a National Front office over there near my (white) friend Gordon’s. He stood up for me. But you took your life in your hands visiting him. Growing up in the Seventies, racism was everywhere. People saw a black kid and said, “Watch your wallet”.’
More recently, he’s been (outrageously) harangued for ‘having a white wife’ and demeaned by the Left as the Tories’ ‘token ghetto boy’. He refuses, however, to be angered by inadvertent racial slights, taking a charitable view of well-intentioned faux pas. When an early employer told him, ‘I’ve never taken on a black geezer before, but you’re all right. You work hard,’ he refused to take offence.
And he tells his mixed-race children they have the best of both worlds: ‘When the West Indies play England at cricket I say, “You can’t lose!”
‘I never wanted my public life to be about race,’ he continues. ‘It’s more about class. I’ve always said I’ve got more in common with a white working-class bloke from Dagenham than a black middle-class one from Hampstead.’
He treads a judicious line on the statue-toppling of Black Lives Matter protesters, insisting: ‘It was wrong on two levels. It’s mob rule, but you’re also erasing history.
‘No one likes what Edward Colston (the Bristol slave trader) did, but you don’t learn from history if you redact it. We should also write new bits in. My granddad fought in World War II. We should know the part played by black soldiers. We should also recognise that no country has a spotless history.’
Neither does he decry the police for racism. ‘I think, by and large, they do a stellar job in London and, ironically, black people need them most.’ If elected, he will boost the Capital’s force by 10,000 officers —funded, in part, by Central Government and, partly, from a tourist levy on hotel rooms. He will also institute a ‘scan and search’ programme, ‘So huge groups of people can be scanned and if criminals are armed they will be found,’ he says.
Diversity in the police force itself is key, he believes: ‘We need more white, working-class, black and Asians joining. We must hold them to account when they do things wrong, but support them when they do things right.’
We’re off, then, to take some photos. We stroll past a weed-strewn playground under a vast, towering council block. ‘We abseiled down there when I was a youth worker,’ he says. I look skywards, aghast. ‘I got the Army in to supervise, so it was safe,’ he adds, laughing.
An elderly white woman hails him, her vowels clipped and assured. ‘I’ll vote for you next year,’ she promises. ‘I think you’ll do a good job.’