What are the difficulties for ordinary Londoners who stand as independent mayoral candidates? Nick Aveling joined hopeful Siobhan Benita as she met voters in Croydon…
In a musty church hall in south London, Siobhan Benita is speaking to a rapt audience of about a dozen teenagers – half of whom are too young to vote. The teenagers are members of Lives Not Knives, a community group which campaigns against knife crime. They meet every week to practise conflict mediation at the Friends Meeting House, a building in East Croydon surrounded by tower blocks.
The group take turns to quiz Benita. ‘Tell me something that annoys you,’ says Kareem Maizi, 17.‘When people tell me I can’t do something,’ says Benita, 40, who left her job as a senior Whitehall official to stand for mayor. ‘And what goes through your mind when someone says that?’ asks Kareem. ‘I’m thinking, you’re saying that because I’m a woman,’ replies Benita. ‘You think I’ve got to be someone from one of the political parties.’
The mother of two young daughters, Benita is a runaway hit with the group today. But in a city of 7.8 million, with only six weeks left before the election, an hour is a long time to spend chasing six votes.‘I’ve done that day-in and day-out on this campaign,’ says Benita. Ken Livingstone already had the weight of Labour voters’ support when he stood as an independent in the first London mayoral election in 2000 but the odds are stacked against independents. Financially, it’s a risky undertaking. Before green-lighting a candidacy, the team that organises the elections, London Elects, requires a £10,000 deposit – returnable only after a candidate wins 5 per cent of the vote (see Face-Off). The last independent to muster that kind of cash walked away with 0.22 per cent in 2008.
So what is she thinking? ‘London deserves better than the mayors we’ve had,’ she says. ‘I think someone with my credentials, and my independence, can do a better job.’ With an independent in the mayor’s office, says Benita, Transport for London, the Metropolitan Police and housing associations can escape the grip of party politics.
Until October, the New Malden resident was a key figure in Whitehall – the star protégé of the country’s then most powerful civil servant, Gus, now Lord, O’Donnell. She held senior posts in the Cabinet Office, the Treasury and the Department of Health during her 15-year career. And she had the conviction to walk away from that career when her disillusionment with NHS reform became too much to bear.
Back in Croydon, Kareem is still firing questions at Benita. ‘What’s your first positive thought when someone says you can’t run for mayor?’ he asks. ‘Different is good,’ she says.But for all her talk about the public appetite for post-party politics, Benita’s policies can sound strikingly familiar – particularly around improved bike safety, reduced traffic congestion and freezing fares on London transport.
‘I don’t mind people sharing my good policies,’ says Benita, pointing out that independent candidates aren’t actually required to be wacky. And besides, she says, there are a number of areas where she differs substantially from the rest of the field.
For one, she wants to establish a youth assembly to hold the mayor accountable and to set up a post of ‘youth mayor’ which would be held by a young person to oversee its work. She’s even willing to pay the young mayor £43,000 out of the mayor’s £143,000 salary to make it happen. She also wants to do more on education, calling for a publicly appointed education commissioner to tackle primary school capacity. She wants to identify five neighbourhoods where the transition to secondary school is most dysfunctional, and re-examine their admissions policies. And she wants to expand the curriculum to include computing skills and ‘entrepreneurialism’.
The problem is, education is a borough concern and doesn’t fall under the authority of the mayor. ‘It should be,’ says Benita, ‘because unlocking kids’ potential will transform London more than a bike or a bus will.’Paul da Gama, Benita’s New Malden neighbour and friend, used to be head of organisational development and corporate responsibility at the Royal Mail. ‘I just really liked what she was doing,’ says Da Gama, who now works for her and has a new title: campaign and strategy director.
More than 70 volunteers have come to Benita through her website. Another 1,500 voters have joined the mailing list. Benita is prepared to pay the £10,000 deposit herself, if that’s what it takes.Judging by her recent response to a would-be donor it might well be. On March 12 Benita’s team received an email from Milan Mehta, a 51-year-old financial consultant from Surrey who’d heard her on the radio. ‘I personally have £10k which you are welcome to use to help you get elected for the London mayor’s office,’ it said. ‘I have been saving it for my son’s wedding.’
Some candidates might have jumped at the offer. Not Benita, who thought it far too much for one person to stake. She responded with: ‘This is an enormously generous gesture for which we are so grateful, but do not feel able to accept. If you wished to make a more modest donation to the campaign then that would be very much appreciated.’ Mehta obliged – and offered his full support as a volunteer.