Independent London Mayoral candidate Siobhan Benita is having a very good campaign so far. Despite getting a fraction of the airtime enjoyed by Boris and Ken - and despite her not being invited to any of the major hustings - she's managed to carve out a profile for herself.
So much so that bookmakers William Hill have slashed her odds of winning from 200/1 to 20/1 - third favourite.
With those odds she still appears to have little chance of winning. But they said that about George Galloway, who was given odds of 33/1 of winning the Bradford West by-election. And then look what happened...
Benita is used to success. The 40-year-old mother of two cites her first ever driving test as an example of when she last failed, and she didn’t have many setbacks in her high flying career in the civil service. So why, then, has she given it all up to to run as an independent candidate for the Mayor of London?
It’s all about “trying to provide something different”, she tells Huff Post UK.
“What I am saying is there are different ways here of doing this. You don’t have to be stuck with the same-old same-old we’ve always got but actually it takes some people to take a punt and just go for it,” she says.
“I knew I wasn’t impartial enough any more to stay in the Civil Service, where you have to give your advice and be able to stand back. I couldn’t stand back any longer, because I didn’t agree with what I saw ministers doing – so I knew I had to leave,” she says.
“I joined the public sector to try and make a difference, and I started thinking, well actually from where I sat in Whitehall I see that you can’t make that kind of difference any more.”
The idea to stand for Mayor, apparently, was put to her by a “couple of people in different meetings.”
And after 15 years in the civil service, including stints as in the Cabinet Office as head of civil service governance and communications and in the Department of Health, that was that.
Like most people who run for election, she thinks she is going to win: “I’m entirely, entirely focused on getting into City Hall; I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think I had the chance.”
Benita believes her independence is one of her main attractions: “The Mayor should be an independent Mayor. It should fit above party politics, and should be fighting for people and not for the parties and we ought to have that in a London Mayor.”
She maintains she doesn’t want a world run by bureaucrats, but her experience in government will help her: “One of the things that my experience of Whitehall has given me is that I know absolutely how you bring the right government departments together, the right private sector organisations together, to get things done.
“That’s what I’ve done as a senior civil servant, and that’s what the Mayor has to do in a lot of these issues, because the Mayor only has ultimate power and responsibility over transport, all the other things that the Mayor can affect change in, so housing, education, you know, really big issues, it’s about using your influence skills – so would I be good at facilitating and influencing and negotiating, absolutely, that’s what good civil servants do.”
Unlike most good civil servants, however, Benita is sick of party politics. “People are fed up with the parties at the moment, fed up with the macho approach to politics,” she says.
Her frustration isn’t just with this government, it’s the machine itself, which she labels “dysfunctional.”
“It’s all about how do you get a headline, how many policy announcements can you make in any one week, before they’re probably thought through, before the risks are properly understood. So actually a lot of the time what ministers are putting out to the public is never going to work. And the public haven’t been brought in to shape that.”
She adds: “I do actually think now it’s virtually impossible to know what Labour or Conservatives stand for, I think the messages are so blurred. Having sat in Whitehall I’ve seen how the Commons machine works.
“I just don’t believe or trust many of them any more, and that’s not true of them deliberately setting out to say things that aren’t true, I think they’re so frightened now of turning people off, that they end up coming out with bland things that you don’t really know or believe what they’re saying.”
As for her opponents, who are rarely accused of bland soundbites, Benita believes Boris and Ken have managed to pull off “a very clever trick;” Pretending to be the mavericks while “epitomising” their respective parties.
“You know, you can’t get more old Labour than Ken, and you can’t get more Conservative than Boris.
“If anybody was to argue that they don’t stand for their parties, well I would argue then, don’t run as a party candidate. Don’t take all of that funding off that party. “
Quick fire Q&A with Benita
Why vote for an independent when the race looks like a two-horse race?
It’s exactly that. It’s to show it isn’t a two-horse race, to absolutely show that for London an independent mayor can be much more effective because party politics doesn’t get in the way.
When was the last time you cried?
I cry really easily at films. I cry at the news all the time. The last news story was a poor girl in Afghanistan who had been locked up and tortured. I think she’d been forced into a marriage at 14 and was refusing to do something her new family were asking her to do. She’d been basically held hostage for months and tortured. She was saved by her uncle, I think that told the local council what was happening.
What are your hopes and fears for the Olympics?
I hope the Olympics will be the best show ever in the capital city and I think it will be amazing. Fears for the Olympics, obviously the fear that something might happen security wise. And I know we’re doing everything we can to stop that. But common sense tells you you can’t stop absolutely everything happening in any event so I guess that would be my fear.
What happens if you don’t win, what will you do?
Ask me that question on the 3rd of May!
Who’s your favourite, and least favourite national politician?
Least favourite at the moment is Michael Gove. I think his approach to education is completely wrong, and if you think you’re going to solve all the essential issues in Britain with our youngsters at the moment by teaching them Latin .. I just think he’s so off the wall and out of touch that that’s dangerous actually, what he’s doing.
Favourite? You know, I have respect for Ken Clarke, because I think, he is the kind of softer side of the Conservative party, and I actually quite like some of the things that he says.
When you were in government, what did you disagree with that they were doing?
I disagreed with, I don’t like what they’re doing on education, I don’t like free schools, I don’t like the idea of complete reform of the national health service when the economic situation is so bad.
What’s your favourite thing about London?
Diversity. You know the variety of people that you meet, the variety of food that you eat, the things you can do, the sheer diversity is what I love about London. I‘ve always lived here, I’ve always grown up here.
Have you had media training?
No. Funny, people ask me that. I’ve done a lot of public speaking through work, but I’ve never done media training. I have seen a lot of people that have though - maybe it’s rubbed off.
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