If recent opinion polling is to be believed, the result of this year’s delayed election for London Mayor is a foregone conclusion. The incumbent, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, has been comfortably and consistently at least 20 points clear of his nearest rival, the Conservatives’ Shaun Bailey. He may even become the first candidate to win on first preference votes alone.
But if the top end of the race seems relatively unexciting, there is much that is diverting further down. Covid-19 may suppress voter turnout, but it has not suppressed candidate numbers. A record 20 candidates have made it onto the ballot paper, many of them Independents, or nearly so.
The pandemic may have played a part in this, bringing about a rule change that has lowered the number of signatures from each borough (plus the City) required to enter the race from 10 to two. It might also demonstrate a lack of anything else to do during lockdown. But it could also be a sign of the times and the shape of things to come.
The role of Mayor of London was, to some extent, designed with Independent candidates or people who weren’t politicians in mind. Tony Blair, whose government established the mayoralty, had initially worried about recreating the Greater London Council which, when abolished in 1986, had swung far to the left under the leadership of Labour’s Ken Livingstone. Blair hoped the mayoral model’s focus on a single individual might encourage someone like Virgin’s Richard Branson to run and win for Labour.
Things couldn’t have gone much worse from that point of view. Not only was London’s first Mayor a political insider, he was a former Labour Party politician who had left the party to run against it. Even worse, that politician was Livingstone. He won the first maoyral election, in 2000, with ease. In January 2004, Labour were forced to accept him back into the fold, realising he was going to win again.
That hasn’t stopped successive Prime Ministers and party machines hoping charismatic individuals with serious name recognition might run as their candidate: Alan Sugar, Joanna Lumley, broadcaster Nick Ferrari, the late nightclub owner Peter Stringfellow and even former England footballer Sol Campbell have been linked to the mayoralty. But this has never happened. Instead, two celebrity politicians – Livingstone followed by Boris Johnson – have both won two elections. Khan’s win in 2016 represented a return to more conventional politics, and that seems unlikely to change any time soon.
It didn’t have to be this way. Londoners were initially keen on the idea of an Independent Mayor. Polling prior to the first election found more of them anticipating being willing to vote for an Independent than for a party candidate – and in 2000, they did just that. And Independent candidates have had success elsewhere in the country. Hartlepool United FC mascot H’Angus the Monkey, (real name Stuart Drummond), served three consecutive terms as Mayor of Hartlepool before the position was abolished following a referendum in 2013. Independents can win, even if their only policy is “free bananas for schoolchildren”.
However, until this year Independent candidates they have been quite scarce in London. Livingstone was not the only one in 2000: south London pharmacist Ashwin Kumar Tanna managed a respectable 9,015 first preference votes. Since then, though, each contest until this year’s has featured only one true Independent. In 2004, Tammy Nagalingam achieved 6,692, and in 2008, repeat candidate Winston Mackenzie mustered 5,389.
All of those finished last or second to last. But in 2012, Siobhan Benita – originally the Liberal Democrat candidate for 2020 – ran as an Independent, picking up an impressive 83,914 first preferences to finish fifth, not far behind the Green (98,913) and Liberal Democrat (91,774) candidates. The most recent mayoral election saw Prince Zylinski, London-born descendant of Polish aristocracy, achieve 13,202 votes as an Independent and avoiding finishing last after a campaign in which he challenged UKIP leader Nigel Farage to a sword fight.
Former Conservative minister Rory Stewart attracted plenty of attention when he launched as an Independent with May 2020 in mind. Having offered a bizarre mix of sleep-overs, long walks and some genuinely good ideas he dropped out after the virus forced the one-year postponement. But in his wake have come six fully Independent candidates. And in addition there are five perhaps best described as “semi-independent”. Together, they make up over half of the total candidates for 2021. This is new territory. So who are they?
Firstly, the true Independents. Valerie Brown, running under the banner “Burning Pink”, is running to be the “Last Mayor of London”. She is pledging to abolish the role and replace it with legally binding citizens’ assemblies, focusing on addressing the climate crisis. Brown’s aim is for London to serve as an example for other cities, and the rest of the country, to follow.
The wonderfully-named Farah London is perhaps more traditional. The Croydon-born former Conservative activist’s campaign is focused on the capital’s economic recovery. In contrast to Brown’s single issue approach, London has a lot of policies. She is pro-black cab trade and anti-Low Traffic Neighbourhoods. She is also pro-bee, pro-indoor farming and against vets that overcharge. Her manifesto is headlined “jobs jobs jobs jobs”, which is one more “jobs” than Khan.
Nims Obunge is a pastor from Tottenham and chief executive of the Peace Alliance, behind the London Week of Peace initiative among many more. Obunge has a record of campaigning against street violence and seems a very decent man. His social media presence, as it relates to his mayoral campaign, is markedly more muted than that of his rivals, suggesting a focus on in-person and physical campaigning. In what is perhaps less important news, Obunge has previously confirmed that when he was born, at St Mary Abbots hospital in Kensington, he was “the heaviest baby the hospital had ever had at the time”.
Other Independents bring a lighter approach. “Intergalactic space warrior” Count Binface, formerly known as Lord Buckethead (there’s a whole backstory there), is running an entirely surreal campaign in the Great British tradition of the Monster Raving Loony Party. Binface, who has previously run for parliament against both Theresa May and Boris Johnson, has promised to bring back Ceefax and has come up with one of the least appealing pieces of music in the history of recorded sound to promote his campaign.
London-specific Binface pledges include renaming London Bridge “Phoebe Waller” Bridge, and both repairing Hammersmith Bridge and renaming it “Wayne”. There is some overlap with other candidates – Binface is keen for Crossrail to be finished, for London to join the EU, and for a rival, Piers Corbyn (see below), to be “banished to the Phantom Zone”.
He is joined by representatives of a new generation of pranksters in the form of two young YouTubers. Niko Omilana has a huge following and, proudly, no manifesto whatsoever. Max Fosh‘s campaign is focused specifically on beating former schoolmate and semi-serious mayoral candidate Laurence Fox. More on this relatively new phenomenon later.
These five are running under party banners. The parties officially exist but are very small and have little or no footprint beyond the capital’s 6 May elections. However, their creation means their mayoral candidates can also seek seats on the London Assembly through the Londonwide party list route, which return AMs through a form of proportional representation, and other candidates can contest Assembly constituency seats with the advantage a party label can bestow.
Four of the five mayoral candidates also top their party’s Assembly lists:
- Richard Hewison, standing for the Rejoin EU Party.
- Piers Corbyn – Let London Live Party.
- David Kurten – Heritage Party.
- Brian Rose – London Real Party.
The odd one out is Laurence Fox. Although the Reclaim Party he represents is apparently to be established as a wider force, it has not fielded Assembly candidates.
Hewison is almost a single-issue candidate and Rejoin EU is bolstered by support from the pan-European political movement Volt Europa. The nature of the electoral system for London Mayor, with its first and second preference votes, means there is an opportunity for voters to express their support for Hewison’s cause – or that of any other candidate with a very specific point to make – and back a more mainstream candidate as well.
However, there have been a surprisingly low number of truly single-issue candidates for London Mayor. In 2000, saw Geoffrey Ben-Nathan ran against then then upcoming Congestion Charge as the Pro-Motorist and Small Shops candidate, achieving nearly 10,000 first preferences, or just over half of one percent of the total votes. Perhaps his defeat put other candidates off for a while. Not until 2012 did Lee Harris stand on the Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol ticket. He received 20,537 votes, close to a full one percent of the total.
The other four semi-independent candidates in 2021 share a common theme, but cannot quite be described as single-issue campaigners. With lockdown restrictions being slowly but surely lifted, three are standing on explicitly anti-lockdown platforms and one has pledged to be “science led” on the issue, implying that current policy is not.
Corbyn, brother of former Labour leader Jeremy and a climate change denier, is also unsure if Coivd-19 really exists. Corbyn is often, rather generously, described as a “weather forecaster”. It is harder – and perhaps best not to attempt – to describe the multi-talented Fox. His slogan is “free London”, by which he means freedom from lockdown, free speech and, apparently, an entirely unachievable “free transport” pledge. His campaign features a logo of Winston Churchill’s statue with a gag on it. It’s hard to know where to start.
Kurten was elected as a London Assembly Member for UKIP in 2016. His “socially conservative” Heritage Party aspires to expanding beyond London. Kurten is also anti-lockdown, also keen on free speech, and, as a former chemistry teacher, is determined to take on the “red blob” he says controls education. Rose, a fascinating figure, is also somewhat lockdown-sceptic and has a YouTube channel which airs whacky views, as of course is his right. His business model has attracted some controversy, his gym-based campaign videos have attracted some attention, and his expensive-looking billboards and battle bus have (he claims) put him “in second place, and we are moving into first place as we speak”. Sadly, an online Rose event focussed on Waltham Forest was cancelled and hasn’t been rescheduled.
Other candidates are running for smaller parties which have established national operations: the Animal Welfare Party; Renew; the Social Democratic Party and the Women’s Equality Party, whose candidate finished sixth in 2016.
The sheer number of candidates could be seen as a sign of the London mayoralty’s success – a measure of its visibility. This could be welcome, helping to make the case against central government unilaterally abolishing the position in the future. It also means, given the near-certainty of the main contest outcome, there is fun to be had observing what has become a unique mayoral race. Some – and not necessarily just those running with tongues firmly in cheeks – are clearly using the high national profile of the mayoralty to raise their own national profiles. Some are advocating dangerous nonsense. But at least this is the first mayoral election with no British National Party candidate.
There is, though, a less optimistic view. The 2021 ballot paper will reportedly contain two columns, with ten candidates listed in each. A voting process already relatively complicated by having a first and second preference box next to each candidate’s name will appear even more complex. The 2016 election saw nearly 50,000 first preference ballots rejected, the majority for having an X marked by too many candidates. With more potential for confusion there could be more rejected ballots in 2021. And there seems little chance of any Independent making a big impression on the final result. Rather than demonstrating that the mayoralty has become established as a major political office, the sheer number of candidates this year might be seen as reflecting its lack of appeal for serious ones.
That is a cause for concern. A lack of real competition is not good for democracy and a recipe for complacency at a time where the challenges facing the capital are so great. Candidates need to be tested and pushed. Stories suggesting that the Conservative Party has all but abandoned Bailey is bad news for the mayoralty and Londoners. A capital seen as unwinnable by the national ruling party is less likely to have its voice heard by central government, which still holds the purse strings to an arguably disproportionate extent.
This election is a competition to lead an incredible city and become the most prominent English politician outside Westminster. The winner could achieve the largest direct personal mandate in the nation and one of the largest in Europe. Yet Londoners may end up with a Mayor who represents their values and interests, but must deal with a central government with very different priorities from theirs.
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