Siobhan Benita’s sanctimonious and mystifying bid to run London
Ken Livingstone wept last week at the launch of his election broadcast, but when it comes to narcissistic self-pity, he’s been outdone by Siobhan Benita. Benita’s the other candidate in the London mayoral contest, the one who isn’t Boris or Ken or Brian or that Green woman. A former civil servant now running as an independent, she’s spent the last month wailing about lack of coverage. She claims she is the victim of a media ‘blackout’ — excluded from televised debates and banished from the airwaves. So great is her fury that she has even demanded a meeting with BBC executives. ‘I feel I am banging my head against a brick wall of institutions that are averse to change,’ she says.
But Benita’s pose as a British Aung San Suu Kyi could not be more wrongheaded. The mystery isn’t why she’s had so little attention, it’s why her candidacy has been absurdly puffed up by the press in recent weeks. Acres of newsprint have been devoted to her; countless flattering profiles. ‘It’s her passion and sincerity that really radiates,’ said the Guardian. Treated with indifference? Nonsense! Benita has a string of celebrity endorsements: Sir Richard Branson; Tom Conti, former BBC reporter Martin Bell and former civil service head Gus (now Lord) O’Donnell, who was her boss for much of the 15 years she spent in Whitehall.
Never in the field of electoral conflict has so much praise been lavished by so many on such a pointless candidate. Benita has never held elected office, nor has she ever run a major organisation or enterprise. She seems to have spent most of her time working for O’Donnell dreaming up new diversity projects or producing politically correct propaganda, the two favourite activities of the modern British state machine. Despite the fawning interest she has attracted from some of the broadsheets, the level of public support for her remains in the low single figures, according to the latest opinion polls. The Ukip candidate, Lawrence Webb, whose popularity rating is higher than hers, has much more cause to complain about media mistreatment.
Benita has nothing to offer London but platitudes. Her every utterance reflects the boring groupthink of the metropolitan chattering class. What’s her response to the London riots? ‘We should encourage young people to engage with the police.’ What about gang violence on the streets? ‘Gang members need care and support,’ she says. What’s her favourite thing about London? ‘Its diversity.’
She is a hypocrite, too. She drivels on about sexism, yet her key campaign slogan is ‘A Mum for London’. It would be absurd if Boris Johnson or Ken Livingstone ran on the theme of ‘A Dad for London’, despite their exuberant fertility. Just as nauseating is her sanctimonious claim to be above the party fray. ‘People not Politics’ is another of her axioms. Yet in reality she is a New Labour clone full of blather about inequality and social inclusion. ‘I’m definitely on the left,’ she proclaims.
Even worse is her posturing as some kind of outsider. At a youth event last weekend in the Ministry of Sound nightclub in south London, she yelled into the microphone that she wanted to ‘scare the hell out of the establishment’. It is a shame that no one burst out laughing. Benita is the establishment. She was educated at Warwick university, which also numbers O’Donnell among its graduates, and she went on to join the civil service fast stream. She became deputy director at the Department of Health after a spell in the Cabinet Office.
It is precisely because she is such a consummate insider that her campaign has been so hyped. Her team includes figures like Giselle Green, a former BBC radio producer who is her ‘head of news’, and Paul da Gama, formerly head of organisational development at the Post Office. Nor is it a coincidence that Branson is backing her, given that one of her publicists is Paul Charles, a former communications director for Virgin Atlantic. Most important of all is the influence of O’Donnell, the former cabinet secretary with whom she formed a powerful bond during their years in Whitehall. In fact, their relationship is so close that O’Donnell felt compelled to issue a statement last year denying that they were anything more than just ‘work colleagues and friends’ after they were pictured taking part in a charity run together. ‘Aren’t you too old for that sort of thing?’ one of the run’s sponsors had joked to him.
The influence of the civil service extends beyond networking. It is also felt in Benita’s policies. Her manifesto, launched this week, is full of bureaucratic expansionism and procedural tinkering. Her whole mindset is geared towards regulation and intervention rather than freedom and responsibility. She wants a youth assembly, a youth mayor, an education commissioner, an office of budgetary responsibility, a network of City Safe Champions, a 1,000-strong Young Londoners’ support team, liaison committees in all 32 boroughs, a ‘comprehensive and external’ review of the Metropolitan Police, a housing needs survey, a central team ‘to prosecute rogue landlords’ and a new department for the capital called ‘Homes for London’.
That will provide a lot of work for her establishment friends. Out of all the candidates for the mayoralty, Siobhan Benita is the least independent of the lot.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 21, 2012