If your name is Boris or Ken you get automatic airtime because, in the fight to become London Mayor, broadcast coverage is largely apportioned according to political parties’ previous performance.
This means that Siobhan Benita, the only independent candidate and a 40-year-old former senior civil servant with some pretty sound ideas, gets minimal coverage and is excluded from the big TV debates, or in the case of Newsnight gets all of 41 seconds!
Living in New Malden, with Vincent, her IT Manager husband, and daughters Grace (13) and Emilie (11) Siobhan has, however, been coming up on the inside rail, with bookies’ odds on her winning shortening from 500-1 to more like 20-1, putting her in third place.
So let’s hear from Siobhan, whose views are very relevant to Londoners, especially when it comes to social issues and who has lived in a London borough all her life and has had advice from the likes of Sir Gus O’Donnell, until recently the UK’s most senior civil servant.
“Unlike the other candidates, I have an education manifesto,” she tells Women Talking. “ I believe the Mayor needs to play a more active role in education.”
She has three main areas of concern.
The first is London boroughs’ primary school provision. “There’s a severe shortage already and, just going on predicted population growth, 167 new primary schools will be needed within 15 years. There is no plan to address this but in the same way that the Mayor will lobby government on transport there should be equally hard lobbying on children and their education.”
She is similarly concerned about the transition to secondary school. “It is chaotic in London. Boroughs have different criteria, some have a sibling policy, others don’t, boroughs have different boundaries. Criteria are so different and difficult to follow and often it’s vulnerable families who don’t understand and don’t get any of their preferences.
“Every year when parents go through the process adults and children get hugely upset. The satisfaction levels for parents across the boroughs differ greatly and so it’s a case of looking at the ones with best satisfaction levels, seeing what they are doing and sharing good practice.”
She also believes there needs to be a focus on the statistics that show certain groups of pupils, like white working class boys and Caribbean boys, are falling behind.
“We need to look at what we can do to help those groups, to ensure that they are taught the skills for jobs that are available, sophisticated computing skills, creative media skills because from what companies have been telling me London is beginning to lag behind.
“I would appoint an Education Commissioner to set bespoke targets and work with schools and boroughs across London.”
She believes that while the London Mayor has direct power over transport, increasingly Mayors have managed to expand the remit, covering the likes of housing, planning and the Metropolitan Police. There is much that can be done, Siobhan believes, without the need for funding or legislative powers. The Mayor’s voice is a powerful one “so why,” she asks, “has it taken so long for the Mayor to show real leadership on education?”
She is tough on crime. “Those involved in criminal activity need to be punished,” she says. “We need to clamp down on gun or knife crime but if we don’t give young adults better opportunities they will always be angry and frustrated.”
Listening to the young is also a fundamental part of her manifesto and she wants a Greater London Youth Assembly, with a representative from every borough and a paid role of Young London Mayor, which she would fund by reducing her own pay.
“Charities who work with really vulnerable children say the reason they are getting involved with gangs is because they are not getting care and basic needs anywhere else and once they are in a gang they are locked in. We need to show that we care about them more than the gangs do, that this city cares about them from the heart of City Hall.”
Having become increasingly disillusioned in her role of civil servant by Ministers who she says, “mostly come in wanting to do the right thing but somehow the machinery of government and the party political system prevents them saying what they think,” for Siobhan the NHS reforms were the last straw.
She was working in the Department of Health and, although used to implementing policies she didn’t necessarily believe in because it was democratic, “I didn’t feel this was democracy in action, that the public had been consulted.”
Neither did she feel that the professionals, the GPs, nurses and consultants had signed up to it. “Even if you could justify doing it, you wouldn’t in the economic situation we are in, she says.
So she gave in her notice and people began to suggest that she run for London Mayor, especially as she was leaving the civil service, which would have made it impossible.
Being required to work out her three months’ notice meant she couldn’t start campaigning until January, putting her own money in and getting lots of small donations, the biggest being £2,000. And her campaign has taken off in this moment in time when voters are seeking an alternative, searching for something different.
“”People are saying they are disillusioned, that there’s a low level of trust in the political parties,” she says. “I don’t understand what the parties stand for any more, they are all fighting over the middle space and with roles like that of Mayor it’s better to put party politics aside.”
She’s quoted as having Richard Branson among her supporters. “Well, he supports my view on Heathrow Airport’s new runway. It may not be popular to increase capacity but basically, although its location is terrible, Heathrow is the airport we have got and either we don’t increase capacity or we do so there.
“A new runway would bring 60,000 jobs in the construction industry and a lot more in terms of permanent jobs, bring in billions of pounds to the economy - and you can increase runways without increasing noise levels if you force airlines to reduce noise, bring new aircraft in sooner.”
Her biggest supporters are her family. They’ve been out delivering leaflets. “My daughters are very excited about this and I do want them to see women shaping public life,” says Siobhan.
The two major candidates for Mayor have always, she says, “been very nice and very courteous to me, although they have now started paying me a lot more attention than they did in the beginning.”
We paused our interview for her to be on LBC, where the betting odds were discussed and Brian Paddick got a little ruffled on the subject as she is far ahead of him with the bookies. Doubtless Siobhan will be ruffling more feathers in the last two weeks on the campaign trail and maybe voters’ increasing attention will shorten the odds even further,
If you would like to discover more and read her complete manifesto visit her website: www.siobhanformayor.com