Siobhan Benita, Liberal Democrat Candidate for Mayor of London, formally launched her campaign at Paternoster in St Pauls, the home of hit TV show First Dates. A copy of her speech in full is below.
Good morning – and thank you Caroline, Ed and Leroy for such a lovely introduction.
Well, welcome to the First Dates restaurant! I’m sorry that Fred couldn’t be here to greet you, but my lovely French husband is here and this is probably the closest we’re going to get to celebrating Valentines’ Day this year so I have to make it special!
This restaurant is a place of excitement, new beginnings and, if the date goes well, the prospect of a future full of adventures and happiness.
And that’s exactly what I want for London.
My love affair with this city goes back a long way – even before I was born.
It starts in 1949 when my mum arrived in South West London after a six-week boat trip from India. Her dad had tragically died at a very early age and my grandmother bought her to begin a new life in the capital.
It was tough. They arrived with few possessions and only knew two people in London. But local people rallied round. It didn’t matter where my mum’s journey had started, she was a Londoner now. The butcher and milkman gave them spare food and the local residents helped them to find work and accommodation. They made them feel at home.
My mum went on to work as a carer and when she was just 19 she met a young teacher who was also a migrant to London, only he hadn’t come from the opposite side of the world but from a small village in Cornwall!
My parents’ story is a tale of a city that was welcoming. A city where the kindness of neighbours was the norm, where two people from opposite ends of the world could meet, fall in love and raise a family of their own.
That’s the city I still believe in today and it’s the one that I will always fight for.
As I grew up, my own relationship with this amazing city grew deeper and stronger every day.
I roller-skated my way round its parks, ball-girled at Wimbledon, sang along to Wham at Wembley, fell asleep on the night bus from Clapham, got married at Hampton Court, gave birth to my daughters in Kingston Hospital and nearly killed myself running the Royal Parks half marathon!
And in 2012 I had my first date with City Hall when I left my job at the centre of government and ran as an independent candidate in the mayoral race. I met brilliant people in every borough - volunteers, youth workers, public servants, entrepreneurs, councillors, community leaders – the list goes on - who are doing amazing work to make Londoner’s lives better. Their stories have stuck with me. I’m proud of what I achieved in that campaign and that at least two of the things I was arguing for are now a reality – weekend night tubes and a London youth assembly. But there is so much more we can do.
This is not a political game for me. London is the best city on earth but it pains me that so many things are not working. Knife crime is out of control, rough sleeping at its highest level in years, toxic air pollution and commuters suffering every day. These are all areas where the Mayor can make a difference.
I love London. But we can – we must – do better than this.
So, today, I’m outlining my vision for a city that is safer, greener and kinder. I have the experience, the energy and the skills to deliver it.
Anyone who has been listening to Londoners like I have, knows that they want London to step up and be nothing less than the greenest city on the earth.
I’ve debated with Extinction Rebellion in Trafalgar Square and I’ve marched with our amazing school kids calling for more action on the climate crisis. And they are all right to pressure public leaders into action – there is no issue bigger than how we collectively deal with the climate crisis.
Given that we know 400,000 children in London are living in areas which exceed legal limits for air pollution. And given that we know that they key to reducing emissions in cities like ours is reducing our reliance on petrol and diesel cars. It is deeply worrying that our current Mayor has ignored green campaigners and given the go ahead to a brand-new pollution-generating motorway under the Thames in Silvertown.
We must be bolder. My ambition is for London to reach zero-carbon by 2030 but to achieve that we have to put a green lens over everything we do in City Hall.
That means I won’t invest in dirty projects like the Silvertown tunnel and I won’t support polluting airport expansion. Instead, I will protect biodiversity, prioritise investment in walking and cycling schemes, in green infrastructure and move towards smart road user charging.
One particular frustration of Londoners is recycling. Now, I’m in danger here of moving into a classic Lib Dem discussion about bins. But London’s recycling rates are the worst in the country.
This is simply not good enough. I believe better London-wide coordination is the answer so, if I’m elected Mayor, I will make recycling easy, wherever you live.
And we must also do better at reducing waste. Especially plastic.
That’s why I will not only be committing to a zero-carbon future but a plastic-free one too – with a vision to ban all unnecessary single use plastic by 2024.
We need to treat our environment with the respect and kindness it deserves and that kindness must also extend to our fellow Londoners.
For too many people London has become a challenging, lonely and scary place.
London’s diversity is its greatest strength. Over 250 languages are spoken in the capital. With Pride and Notting Hill Carnival, London and its residents celebrate diversity and embrace difference.
But we can’t ignore that hate crimes are on the rise and, without a doubt, recent politics has emboldened those that seek to divide us. Racism, homophobia, sexual abuse, – they all have deep roots - and that’s why, if I am elected, I will commission a review of inequality in London to get to the heart of making London a fairer, kinder city for everyone.
Nothing highlights the unacceptable levels of inequality in London more starkly than homelessness. It shames me every day to see so many people sleeping rough on our streets – we can’t keeping walking past the sleeping bags, the cardboard shelters, the huddles of tents as if this an inevitable part of London’s life.
Part of the solution is recognising that homelessness is a public health issue too. Without permanent accommodation, it is so difficult for vulnerable people to get the support they need on things like addiction, mental health and financial security. Countries like Finland have successfully implemented a Housing First approach and we should looking to them for good practice.
But ultimately we so need to address the lack of affordable housing - and we need to stop relying on the private sector to deliver it. As mayor, I would take direct action by building to rent on TfL land, bringing back into use thousands of empty homes and not hesitating to adopt quick-to-deliver modular builds where the opportunity is right.
This is an issue of compassion. If we keep looking at London’s challenges through a purely economic lens, then we will keep justifying lack of action.
Like on our transport network. Delays, cancellations and overcrowding causes stress and misery for so many Londoners each and every day. The fare freeze – which mainly benefits tourists - coupled with the extreme mismanagement of Crossrail, has meant investment has dried up, bus routes have been cut and much needed upgrades have been put on hold.
We need a transport system that works for Londoners and their wellbeing – green, accessible, reliable and affordable.
There is one issue that Londoner’s tell me they are worried about even more than housing and transport. That’s knife crime.
Sadiq Khan recently admitted that this issue keeps him awake at night. And so it should.
Fatal stabbings of teenagers in the capital are at their highest level in a over decade. But the current mayor’s default response is to blame Central Government and make out that his hands are tied. Thereis so much more a Mayor can do.
In July 2018 I authored the all-party Youth Violence Commission’s Interim report. I understand that solving this knife crime is not easy. But I also know that long-term solutions not only require better enforcement – but also a relentless focus on prevention and early intervention.
On enforcement, we must get back to a model of community policing that works. That means rebuilding trust and mutual respect between the Metropolitan Police and the public they serve. I will re-open neighbourhood police stations, double the number of local ward officers and ensure that every secondary school in London has a dedicated police liaison officer. Tobuild positive relationships and get back to the days when our police were seen as a service and not a force.
Next I will address why so many children are excluded from mainstream school in London and end up becoming victims or perpetrators of serious gang violence.. There are some fantastic examples of excellent inclusion approaches in some schools, but sadly this good practice is not being shared within or across boroughs. I will host a Schools Inclusion Summit at City Hall to bring together heads, academies and colleagues from pupil referral units to develop a London-wide inclusion strategy, with the overarching ambition of eliminating permanent school exclusions.
After the school gates close, young people in our capital enter the most dangerous hours in their day. That window after the bell goes and before parents are home from work, between the hours of 4pm and 6pm, is when so many of our young people tragically fall prey to serious violence – either as a victim or perpetrator.
So many of our youth provisions have been closed over the years. I firmly believe that the UK needs a statutory youth service and will fight for the government to provide it. But in the meanwhile, I won’t sit on my hands.
I would use the significant convening power of the Mayor to create a new, London Youth Service. I have met with so many willing Londoners that want to help. But there is simply no coordinating body to bring the disjointed funds and pockets of valuable work together.
The London Youth Service will work borough by borough to see community halls, faith groups, sports clubs, night clubs, libraries, empty shops on high streets, theatres, companies as well as schools themselves (the list is pretty endless) all put to good use in these after-school hours.
And to mark my commitment to youth-led engagement, I would appoint a Young Mayor for London, paid for out of my mayoral salary, to oversee it.
People often talk about Glasgow in relation to knife crime and the public health model that worked so well there. Well, I spoke to Karen McCluskey about what they did and her insight was powerful – strip it all back and this is about love. Every child needs to be wrapped in hope, love and opportunities so that they can thrive. And that, is at the heart of my approach to tackling knife crime.
Finally, my work on the Youth Violence Commission highlighted the indisputable link between knife crime and the illegal drugs market. The time for tip-toeing around this subject is over.
London is awash with powerful, wealthy and violent drugs gangs, who exploit the most vulnerable young people in our communities to carry out their day-to-day operations. It’s time to undermine these gangs primary source of money and power and take back control of our streets.
I will fight for London to be used as a pilot for a legal, regulated cannabis market. It would also free up police time to deal with more serious crimes and raise millions of pounds through a cannabis tax, money which could be used to fund the London Youth Service and support those addicted to harder drugs.
To show central Government I mean business on drugs reform, if I become Mayor I would hold a high-profile Cannabis Conversation Weekend, bringing together the police, patients, scientific researchers, activists, mental health charities, health professionals and cannabis industry representatives.
Popular opinion is moving towards legalisation, and with the clear link established to knife crime - a grown-up, public conversation on cannabis will be hard for the Government to ignore.
London faces so many steep challenges right now. Rising intolerance, a spiralling knife crime epidemic, toxic air and a creaking transport system.
Londoners have a choice.
Sadiq Khan recently turned up in my backyard to ‘love bomb’ liberal minded voters and to try to make out that this is a two-horse race.
Whilst I’m happy he loves liberal values, he is not writing this woman out of the race.
The reality is this a different election, with a different voting system and any number of candidates could end up as the main contender in this campaign.
What I do know is that London dares to be different. It has so far delivered three very different Mayors, each capturing Londoner’s hearts and minds in different ways. What could be more different than a liberal democrat, female mayor. It’s time.
So, let me tell you how I would be different.
First of all, I make no apology for putting love, kindness and compassion at the heart of my politics. Now I know the charges that may be made against me for this.
But to those doubters I say this: don’t mistake my kindness for weakness – it is my greatest strength.
With compassion at the heart of City Hall, I know that I could achieve better outcomes for Londoners.
Secondly, I understand that this role isn’t ceremonial. It’s not enough to stand up for London’s values on Twitter. It’s about leadership. It’s about taking responsibility. We need more than a mascot Mayor. We need one who knows how to get things done.
My experience operating at the heart of central government means I know how to navigate bureaucracy, drive projects forward and bring people, organisations and businesses together to follow things through.
I offer a distinctive combination of competence, kindness and a collaborative approach.
So, if you believe that it’s strong to put compassion at the heart of politics.
If you believe that there is more a Mayor of London can do to improve our city.
If you believe that we should unite boroughs, businesses and people so that we can tackle our common issues together.
If you believe in my vision of a Safer, Greener and Kinder London.
If you love London but you know it can be better – then you have the choice. Vote for me, Siobhan Benita, a New Mayor For London on Thursday 7th May.