The Brixton House theatre is an apt location for conversations about a city feeling its way towards recovery and renewal. In early 2022, with Covid still kicking around, the smart, purpose-built venue on Coldharbour Lane became the new home of the Ovalhouse, which for decades provided opportunities for emerging acting and writing talent at its base next to the Surrey cricket ground. There, in its ground floor café, I meet Rob Blackie, Liberal Democrat candidate for Mayor of London and for a seat on the London Assembly.
This is home territory for him. Aged 50, he has lived in and around the area for more than 20 years, currently in adjacent Herne Hill from where he runs a business, doing marketing and communications for biotech companies. Other recent initiatives including founding the Breaking Putin’s Censorship campaign, devoted to helping Russians find truthful news about the war in Ukraine.
His prior curriculum vitae is rich and varied. He’s from “a family of Londoners” and has lived in the capital almost all of his life. Though born in Wiltshire, he was brought up from early childhood in Pimlico. His initial career path was in overseas aid, working from 1996 as a civil servant for the government of Namibia, shortly after that country secured independence. He specialised in environmental economics, which he describes as “at the time, a really weird, niche thing to do”.
Blackie’s endeavours included elephant conservation and the development of an apparently now widespread model under which control of wildlife was placed in the hands of rural communities. “It meant they treated it better and were more anti-poacher,” he says. “It was a huge conservation success story,” though it meant “I almost got killed by elephants a number of times”.
Surviving the ingratitude of giant beasts was among a number of “interesting scrapes” he got into in a new nation finding its feet. He also got involved with “helping small farmers who were having land stolen from them by the government” and creating climate change strategies, which he describes as “the biggest thing in my career since then”.
He’d long been a Liberal Democrat but not a politically active one. That changed after his return to Britain when he answered a job advertisement and “ended up working for Charles Kennedy”. Blackie’s duties for the then Lib Dem leader began in 1999 as his advisor on Treasury matters, followed by becoming his director of research. He helped write the party’s 2001 and 2005 general election manifestos.
Blackie says he learned during that period that it is “always much better to be bold and stand up for what you believe in, rather than cowering in fear from people who might attack you.” He cites Kennedy’s opposition to the war in Iraq as the clearest example of this, but also the Lib Dem challenge to the Labour government of that time.
“I think we forget that a lot of the arc of Labour when they were in power was not unlike what Keir Starmer’s might end up being,” he relfects, “which is very, very cautious in order to get into power and then finding out that things don’t magically change just because you’re a nicer bunch of people”. He adds: “One of my great fears with the Labour Party right now is I think they’re about to repeat that mistake of not realizing what a crisis we’re in. And things now are a lot worse than they were in the mid-Nineties.”
Blackie acknowledges that being a Lib Dem means “having to fight for every scrap of interest” in what you’re doing you can get, at national and local level alike. He recounts a successful example of grassroots action following Labour changing laws relating to refugees. This, he says, made “a very specific set of refugees destitute overnight” with immediate impacts in Lambeth.
The Refugee Council, located in the borough, had people in sudden need right on its doorstep. “People locally organised to help them,” Blackie says, and pays tribute to the efforts of a Lib Dem councillor of that time, the late Anthony Bottrall.
In 2005, Blackie decided to try something new. Around that time, there was an NHS proposal to start a drug treatment centre in a building in Brighton Terrace, close to Brixton station. Blackie welcomed the idea, especially as local need for such a facility was high, but says local Labour councillors opposed it.
“They managed to scare people on the street that it was going to be a complete disaster,” he says. With friends, he put together a petition in support of the project, which attracted around 450 signatories. Blackie thinks this helped create the pressure required to get the project through the planning process.
The centre is still there today. Blackie’s interest in the potential of digital campaigning has been equally enduring.
After serving as an adviser to Whitehall communications directors, he became managing director of the Blue Rubicon agency and in 2011 was recruited to the same position at the UK operation of Blue State Digital, the US firm that famously worked for Barack Obama on his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. After that, Blackie moved on to Ogilvy, the advertising giant. Throughout this period, climate change remained a core interest. Not for nothing, it appears, did Ogilvy advise United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres.
Big jobs for a man who chose and has stayed with one of the smaller mainstream political parties. What has drawn him to the Lib Dems? “I think the problems in society come from concentrations of power,” he says, and goes on to argue that many on the Left have legitimate concerns about this in the business world, but forget it also applies to government: “What you don’t want is an all-powerful government, even with the right people in charge, because human are humans. They mess things up. You need to have checks and balances.”
For Blackie, Britain’s most fundamental need is for decentralisation, a principle he thinks should also be applied to the running of London. In his, view, this is particularly true of policing. “Crime is going to be the biggest thing I’ll be talking about in this campajgn,” he says, pinning blame for a lot of the Met’s problems on the creation between 2017 and 2019 of 12 Basic Command Units (BCUs) to replace the previous 32 borough-based organisational structures.
Those mergers were prompted by the Met’s need to save money – it said they would reduce spending by around £100 million a year. But Blackie believes BCUs have created undesirable extra distance between officers and the communities they serve. He also exercised by the state of the Met’s information technology, which, as On London reported, he has characterised as “way behind what we would see as normal practice in the private sector” with particularly disastrous consequences for the investigation of rapes and sexual offences.
Louise Casey’s damning report into Met standards and the Home Office’s Operation Soteria have provided him with troubling seams to mine in a category of crime he describes as the biggest reason he’s standing for Mayor. He lists understaffing, overwork, mistakes and delays all progressing unchecked towards cases going on for four and five years, a passage of time that can render victims less convincing as witnesses. And although lack of resources is part of the problem, some of it could be quickly and cheaply fixed. He mentions Casey highlighting broken down or overfull freezers where forensic evidence was stored: “It’s absolutely shocking and a few hundred pounds to fix.”
Another area in which he wants change is drug policy and stop-and-search, particularly for cannabis and, more recently, laughing gas. “The community impact of that is massive,” he says, leading to deeper mistrust, less readiness to give the police information and and involving a lot of police time that would be better spend on other things. His views are informed by Brian Paddick, the former Lambeth borough police commander, Met deputy assistant commissioner and twice a previous Lib Dem mayoral hopeful.
On housing, Blackie has given the impression of being, very broadly, more pro-development than is perhaps usual for a Lib Dem, whose activists often align with local resistance. After praising Lib Dem-run Sutton Council’s approach, he states his support for his party’s long-term national commitment to building ten new garden cities – “you’ve got to get the whole of the country to build more” – and backs the idea of City Hall becoming a housing provider itself.
On transport, his campaign emphasises improving services in outer London and the need for more, better and more efficient electric vehicle charging infrastructure, particularly for delivery drivers and others who are on the roads for long periods. He criticises Sadiq Khan’s forthcoming latest fares freeze, nice though it will be, as “counter productive” in terms of his relationship with central government, which he has long called on for more funding support. “The question I have for Khan is are you going to maintain the freeze beyond election year?” Blackie says.
Meanwhile, the question Khan has for Lib Dem-inclined Londoners is: Will you please lend me your vote on 2 May? The government’s summary abolition of the Supplementary Vote electoral system and its imposition of First Past The Post is, for all the spin about “strong government”, clearly designed to improve the chances of Conservative mayoral candidates.
Khan’s overture raises the spectre of a minority coup by his Tory challenger pro-Brexit, hard-right, Donald Trump-fancying Susan Hall. Why wouldn’t Lib Dems answer the Labour Mayor’s call? Blackie’s answer is straightforward: “The chances of the Conservative winning are zero.”
To be harsh, if that is so, Blackie’s own chances are even smaller – the most recent opinion poll put him on 10 per cent compared with Hall’s 23 and Khan’s 50. The winnable prize for him is, of course, an Assembly seat. The Lib Dems currently have two of the 25 available, both secured through the Londonwide, proportional representation part of the ballot. With the experienced Caroline Pidgeon standing down this time, Blackie is second on his party’s list, behind Pidegeon’s colleague Hina Bokhari.
He doesn’t want for life experience. Another feature of his biography, dating from 2003 when he lived in Vauxhall, is being attacked by a bunch of kids and struck on the head. “I was quite used to be hit at that time because I did a lot of kickboxing back then,” he says. “So I was probably a bit too relaxed about it.” Twelve years passed before it was discovered that his neck had been broken: “My head was basically floating”. In 2018 he had an operation: “Now I have a titanium neck.”
Blackie is pledging to run a bold campaign. In what, to some, already looks like a one-horse race, it will be interesting to see if he makes his mark.
Support OnLondon.co.uk and its writers for just £5 a month or £50 a year and get things for your money too. Details HERE. Threads: DaveHillOnLondon. X/Twitter: OnLondon and Dave Hill. Photo from Rob Blackie’s campaign site.