Last night saw the University of London Union hosting hustings for the London Mayoral election on June 10th. Tim Donovan, BBC London political editor, was in the chair and candidates from the top 5 parties at the last election were invited.
Ken Livingstone, standing as the official Labour candidate this time after his high profile victory as an independent four years ago, was introduced as someone who hadn?t gone to university. Steven Norris, the Conservative who as Transport Minister set in motion the Jubilee Line Extension, is also making his second appearance in the mayoral elections having finished in second place last time. Simon Hughes, standing for the Liberal Democrats, was described as the ?only candidate with serious experience of student politics? having been President of his Students? Union at Cambridge and in Bruges. Ram Gidoomal from the Christian Peoples Alliance is a businessman who graduated from Imperial College and is now one of its governors. The final place was taken by Darren Johnson, Green Party, a graduate from Goldsmith?s and Leader of the Green Party Group in the London Assembly.
The hustings were due to start with each candidate having five minutes to give a short speech outlining themselves and their platform. However, proceedings were interrupted before they could begin by heckling from the ?RESPECT? coalition demanding to know why their candidate had been excluded from the hustings. Cries that it was an ?embarrassment? and ?undemocratic? to have an ?all male platform? were met with slight bafflement by the chair, who explained that it wasn't possible to have all possible candidates present, particularly since nominations were still open. After a brief interlude of clapping, groans, rolled eyes and pained expressions the interruption came to an end and the mundane business of democracy was able to roll onwards.
Ram Gidoomal was the first to the podium, speaking quickly and enthusiastically about his experience and his view of London. He had seen London ?from the bottom?, he declared, eventually making the choice to go to university at Imperial College because it was only a 5p bus ride from his home. Speaking about his ?Christian? platform, he pointed out that he was born a Sikh, raised as a Hindu before going to a Muslim school and then converting to Christianity. Adamant that ?London doesn?t need a politician to run it?, he urged people to vote for him as a man with proven business experience of getting things done and set out his ideal of making London a ?world city and also a fair city?.
Simon Hughes started out by describing his extensive experience of dealing with students during his 21 years as an MP. He committed himself to ?making London easier?, with promises for later running tubes, pedestrianisation of Oxford Street in stages, affordable housing and a single phone number for people to raise any London-related question. One of his most interesting ideas is to set aside £1m a year of the budget to be spent on something directly decided by London voters, though he was vague on the mechanism by which this might be accomplished and some might suggest that voters have already made this decision by choosing who is to be Mayor. Speaking fluently and clearly but with a barest hint that he was straining to avoid breaking out into a monotone, Mr Hughes promised to make London a ?fun? city.
Darren Johnson began his speech with references to a few ?horrendous drunk nights? at ULU in his memory before recalling that he had received a grant and decrying their abolition, perhaps threatening to establish an association that was not his intention. Commenting about his position as Green Party Leader on the GLA, he joked that ?it?s not been bad?but I would like promotion?. Mr Johnson?s big policy is to scrap the current road building plans, freeing up £1.2bn for investment into public transport and to extend the congestion charge across the whole of London. He promised to use the Mayor?s planning powers to ensure that no new buildings are built without solar panels and described Ken Livingstone (who was looking distinctly unimpressed during the speech) to be ?as Blairite as they come? on some issues. Coming across as enthusiastic, idealistic and young as he promised to ?take a green vision forward?, Mr Johnson did almost appear na?ve at times.
The incumbent, Ken Livingstone, was up next and used the first half of his speech to outline what he felt he had achieved in his first term of office. Noting that he had no responsibility for education and social services, he nevertheless pointed out that he had opposed top-up fees ?throughout four years as a mayor? and would continue to do so. Hammering home his student-friendly credentials Mr Livingstone declared that the London Planning Framework for housing now includes specific provision for student accommodation. His strong and confident performance, not bereft of levity (his description of himself as ?pretty promiscuous politically? raised a few laughs), ended with an impassioned plea to ?keep the BNP out of city hall? ? urging everyone to get out and vote even if they didn?t vote for him.
Steve Norris spoke last, beginning by wholeheartedly endorsing Mr Livingstone?s message to ?get out and vote? to ?fight the evil? of the BNP. Mr Norris avoided talking about policies, declaring that it was all too easy to be pulled into a ?bidding war? on issues such as police numbers which told voters nothing. Instead he spoke about the need for decent public services and for people in London to feel safe on the streets, describing some announcements from Scotland Yard as sounding like they originated in a ?soviet tractor factory?. He spoke in a considered and quite charismatic way about the need to do something ?significant? to address crime in the city.
After the candidate speeches, the chair began to take questions from the floor (after another batch of heckling from ?RESPECT? supporters attacking the ?male, middle aged? candidates present). The issue of the war in Iraq was the first issue tackled, with most candidates expressing broad support for the concept of bringing Britain?s troops home as soon as possible. Mr Hughes said that troops couldn?t pull out now, but should do so at the earliest opportunity and Mr Johnson pointed out that the UK couldn?t ?just pull out and hand over to chaos? but should call in the UN as soon as possible. Mr Gidoomal went further, suggesting that the UK and USA should publicly apologise to the United Nations and request that the UN take control. The issue of oil had always been the reason for the war, according to Mr Livingstone, and the USA would not withdraw until all the oil contracts were ?bindingly delivered? to US oil companies so Britain should pull its troops out now. Steven Norris described Tony Blair?s actions on Iraq as ?always wrong? and supported the assertion that troops should be withdrawn as soon as possible, pointing out that the ?moral case? for war was lying in tatters after the revelations regarding the Abu Ghraib prison.
A comment from Simon Hughes provoked some interesting remarks from Ken Livingstone. When Mr Hughes declared loudly that a vote for Mr Livingstone was a vote for Labour and a vote in support of their policies Mr Livingstone declared loudly that there was ?noone in London politics who is a party toadie?, pointing out that neither himself nor Steven Norris were the favourite choices of their respective party leaderships. Responding to the point that he was still encouraging people to vote Labour for the London Assembly positions as well, Mr Livingstone rounded robustly on the other candidates declaring that ?I want people [in the assembly] who will vote for my budget!? and accusing all the other parties of consistently voting to cut it. If another party could offer a commitment that it would support his budget, Mr Livingstone asserted, he would consider urging people to vote for them.
Homelessness and affordable housing were tackled next, with all the candidates spouting similar commitments on the need for affordable housing in London and action to tackle homelessness. Mr Livingstone?s policy of 50% of new housing being ?affordable? was described as too high by Mr Norris (who maintained that it would reduce the quantity of affordable housing actually being built by making many developments uneconomic) and too low by Mr Johnson (who stated his commitment to 60% affordable housing and reiterated his policy of ?100% solar panels?). Ram Gidoomal appeared passionately opposed to the concept of second homes, describing plans to tax them out of existence.
On congestion charging and transport in general, once again almost all the candidates could all have been reading from virtually identical scripts, with only the odd improvisational moment to tell them apart. Everyone agreed the congestion charge was working, except Mr Norris, who called it an ?interesting exercise? but voiced that its main effect was that you ?meet a nicer class of car these days? and described the detrimental effect it was having on businesses inside the congestion charging area.
With time drawing to a close, the final discussion took place on the topic of personal safety and crime. Darren Johnson called for a more visible police presence on the street and for more pedestrian areas while Mr Gidoomal described ?safer streets? as the ?product of better homes?, describing those as homes were ?values are taught right from the word go?. Simon Hughes called for better street lighting, for police to be accountable to local communities and reiterated his call for later running tubes while Steven Norris focused on the need to shut down illegal minicab operations. Mr Livingstone also committed himself to getting police ?back on the streets? and called for ?neighbourhood policing?. On the topic of illegal minicabs he referred to a successful trial of a free direct line to a registered minicab company that had been installed in Goldsmith?s students? union.
Despite occasional heckling from ?RESPECT?, the proceedings were by and large good natured and the candidates appeared at ease with sharing a stage together. In fact, Steven Norris and Ken Livingstone appeared to be so closely agreeing at points it wasn?t entirely clear which one of them they thought you should vote for. In general, it appeared that most of the differences in candidate policies were a matter of different emphasis, rather than real disagreement ? with the notable exception of Steve Norris?s single-minded opposition to the Congestion Charge. Nominations for the elections are still open, closing on 13th May at 4pm with the full list of mayoral candidates published before 17th May ? it?ll be then that this campaign really starts to heat up.