Siobhan Benita: Whitehall's candidate for mayor

Siobhan Benita outside former workplace

As a convinced Ken-hater, perhaps I, like so many of my media colleagues, should be hyping up the independent mayoral candidate Siobhan Benita. She’s clearly on the left and will thus take more votes from Livingstone than from anyone else. But I object to the note of entitlement which runs through her candidacy.

Whatever Benita may think, you are not entitled to broadcast airtime and space in national newspapers simply by hiring a PR and printing glossy leaflets. You need either a track record, or genuinely distinctive ideas. Benita has neither.

The track record need not be political. If, say, a major and successful entrepeneur – a British Michael Bloomberg – entered the race, they’d be taken seriously. The same would go for someone who’d achieved distinction in science or the arts, or even showbiz – because they’ve demonstrated the ability to connect with people. (Watch out for Eddie Izzard, my tip as Labour’s candidate in 2016 or 2020.)

But Benita – and this is my fundamental problem with her – has spent the last 15 years as a Whitehall civil servant. In other words, exactly the kind of person the mayoralty was created to rescue London from!

Who can possibly deny that the capital has improved since at least some (though nothing like enough) of our executive functions were given to a democratic politician and prised from Whitehall’s grasp? Well, Benita, perhaps – she told the Guardian on Saturday that she left the civil service because she was losing faith in its power to keep politicians in check.

The journalists praising Benita’s “thoughtful and sensible ideas” before she even produced her manifesto should look at that document, published yesterday. It is a very Whitehall set of promises in which new structures and bureaucracies – an education commissioner, a youth assembly, an office of budget responsibility, an independent review of policing, a requirement for councils to “identify residents’ top five local issues” – often substitute for real action.

And many of the concrete actions which Benita does promise – to overhaul the schools admission system, build 167 new primaries by 2015, limiting new schools to two classes of entry – are simply not within the Mayor’s power.

Her pitch is against the “tired political battles” of the other candidates. But political battles, however little they may be to bureaucrats’ taste, are the essence of democracy – and a real battle of ideas, as well as personalities, is being waged in this election. The alternatives, tax and spend versus fiscal discipline, are clearer here than in almost any recent contest. If elected Benita, too, will have to choose between those alternatives, and it is idle to pretend otherwise. She is democratically obliged to tell us on which side she will land.

Benita’s claimed “media blackout” has so far consisted of 136 separate mentions in newspapers, multiple large feature articles in the Evening Standard and every national broadsheet paper, including my own, and at least 20 TV and radio appearances, including several extended interviews. She has, frankly, had far more coverage than her ideas or poll standing (2%) deserves.

True, she isn’t in the debates – but then neither are two other candidates with far better democratic claims to a place than her, representing parties which have actually won votes and London Assembly seats at previous elections. The fact is that if she were included, so would UKIP and the BNP have to be – and an hour-long debate with seven candidates would actually deny voters their full opportunity to judge the only two who can win, Boris Johnson or Ken Livingstone.

The idea being pushed by her supporters that her betting odds represent a likelier guide to her chances than the polls is clearly wrong. Odds reflect, among other things, the amount of money wagered on a candidate – and Benita’s own supporters have been urging people to lay her to improve her odds. The bookies have also been pushing Benita because they know they’ll never have to pay out. Every pound laid on her is a pound straight into their pockets. And though she is now third in the betting, she almost certainly won’t come third in the election: she may well come sixth or seventh. All the other contenders have better on-the-ground organisation than her.

I say “almost certainly” because the electorate is volatile and could respond to the kind of bandwagon she’s trying to create. But one thing we really can be certain about is that she won’t win. And that’s the real puzzle about Siobhan Benita. Why would an independent enter this of all elections, the one vote that is more dominated by the two major parties than any other for at least the last 40 years? What’s the real agenda here?

I can only think that she is trying to gain visibility for some other job, perhaps at a quango or a charity. But I’m not sure the media needs to assist her in that.

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