Election fever is all around; can you not feel it?
Ok, so maybe the election has not quite caught the imagination of the great British public in the way more national elections have done. However, there are always some interesting things going on and one of them is in London.
Now, as someone who doesn’t live in London I found it easy to assume that the battle in our capital is simply between our old friends Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone. Indeed, according to the polls that is exactly what it is and today’s post was almost about their entertaining rivalry.
However, according to one of the same polls I saw the candidate in third place is an independent former civil servant named Siobhan Benita. Admittedly she is languishing on 6% of the vote and in another year might have been just another afterthought on the ballot paper. However, amongst some of my Londoner friends the idea of the independent Benita has really caught on. They look at the sideshow that is Boris and Ken and think that perhaps there is a real need for an anti-politician to run things.
Indeed, apparently this is one of Ms Benita’s campaigning issues, as her campaign says on her website:
She is not a politician. She is a successful working mum who has resigned from her senior Whitehall job to run in the Mayor election.
She believes that the Mayor of London should represent people, not political parties and she will ensure that all voices are heard.
She is independent, honest and inclusive.
I’m sure she is all of the above but in trying to understand why she has only 5% of the vote I’m just not so sure she is right to focus so strongly on her being non-political.
Obviously local government has their fair share of independent councillors but I would argue that the people in these roles are different to what Ms Benita is proposing. These independents ARE politicians and are political. They recognise that despite not having a party they are competing in a political environment and are standing to be elected politicians.
Ms Benita offers something else. She makes great play of the fact that she has worked in central government for fifteen years and managed several high level projects and can therefore ‘get things done’. Implicit in this is an argument that politicians are not good at getting things done for the people and that what we need is an enlightened bureaucrat with a public mandate to implement things.
Perhaps Ms Benita is correct but I can’t help thinking that the whole premise of her campaign misses the point. We do not need more bureaucrats; we have plenty of them already working in Whitehall, London and the rest of local government. Simply adding an elected bureaucrat into the ‘well oiled’ machine of City Hall bureaucrats seems to be asking for trouble or at the very least more of the same.
More to the point I think people want politicians to play a different role than that taken by officers. They want elected politicians who have a belief system they can relate to (even independents in local authorities tend to have a ‘local first’ approach that is a belief system), they want politicians who are, as far as possible, ‘separate’ from the system and most of all they want someone they can to do what they want rather than what might be the utilitarian best course of action. They want their politicians to make tough decisions and they want someone to inspire them.
None of these things really fit with the archetypal bureaucrat.
Thus, trying to win an election by being a good officer is probably not the right approach. A few Governments in Europe have actually ended up with bureaucrats running the country but I wonder whether this is just the last resort of a desperate country rather than anything more long-term.
None of this is to criticise Ms Benita. She might have the skills to transition from officer to political leader. I’m too far away from it to know either way but she faces an almost insurmountable uphill battle to win public recognition and campaigned on her strengths.
To be honest I know people who will be voting for her in London and I can understand why her brand of non-partisan rhetoric and simple problem solving appeals. However, for a true independent to be successful I think their calling card is not going to be anti-politics but different politics. The country is obviously in a receptive mood for change right now but I suspect we want something a little more than just another bureaucrat if we’re going to throw our politicians out.
Nonetheless, Ms Benita’s challenge to the status quo has been an interesting experiment which will be, I am sure, followed by others.
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