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Reading between the scripted lines as five candidates from across the political spectrum face questions at a London mayoral election hustings at the London School of Economics


Five candidates for the London mayoral election on May 5 were quizzed about their priorities and policies at the London School of Economics on Thursday (January 28) in a debate hosted by the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Here’s what we learnt.

1. Sian Berry is a seriously impressive candidate

She won the evening, hands down. She was constantly engaged, passionate, strident yet human – she is going to be formidable addition to any hustings. With her clipboard and pen she looked primed to listen and learn. Her Green Party, usually undone by its unrealistic policies nationally, will find that its main concerns coincide with those of Londoners. If I were planning the Green Party campaign strategy it would be simple – find a mic, stick Sian in front of it.

2. Sadiq Khan needs to be less of a political animal

There’s potential for a reverse Cameron-Corbyn dynamic here. In the Commons, Flashman bullies the geography teacher. Here, Khan is up against Zac Goldsmith, an awfully nice chap unlikely to go negative (at least not comfortably). Khan is ahead on points, going for a job as ambassador of the greatest city on earth. The temptation will be to rub Zac Goldsmith’s nose in it, but it’s not a good look and Londoners are too canny to fall for it.

3. We know what the key election talking points will be

Housing. Housing, housing. Housing, housing, housing, housing, housing. Housing, housing, housing, housing, housing, housing, housing housing. Er, Uber.

4. Caroline Pidgeon should turn a problem into an opportunity

The Liberal Democrats are at a low ebb. That doesn’t automatically rule out Caroline Pidgeon who is well-known face. However, Sian Berry is sharing a lot of her political clothes (see 1). As anyone who has seen the London Assembly knows, Caroline Pidgeon is a dogged campaigner with a good command of the facts. But that’s not going to be enough. She needs to find her own space. Here’s a thought, and she mentioned it passing at the debate – the women’s vote. As a young working mother, she can relate. Maternal unemployment, exorbitant childcare, getting women back to work – this has traction and, as she says, “no-one’s talking about it”.

5. Zac Goldsmith needs to get street-wise

Zac Goldsmith always acts like he’s turned up late for tea dance. Bashful, apologetic, low-key. He has some interesting ideas but he has two major disadvantages – he’s not Boris Johnson, and his laid-back monotone delivery feels too much like he’s whispering asides during someone else’s big night. He needs to pick up the pace, get with the game, grow sharper elbows and have some political rhetoric ready. BJ cultivated the charming buffoon persona but he was always a bruiser, always spoiling for a fight.

6. Peter Whittle needs to figure out what he’s up to

The Ukip candidate is not, shall we say, a big vision man. His policy for pushing forward the business agenda of this economic powerhouse was free parking on Saturdays. His thoughts on river crossings in the east was to scrap the Garden Bridge in the west. More importantly, he’s not cut from the Ukip cloth. Ukip have gained traction by rousing the anger of the disenfranchised white working class. Peter Whittle’s Ukip-lite is an oxymoron.

7. All the candidates love London

Surprising isn’t it? The I-love-London-I-love-London-more oneupmanship takes up valuable oxygen. Let’s talk about something substantive. While we’re on the subject, Sadiq Khan needs to ration his my-father-was-a-bus-driver routine. Young voters will be thinking – “enough of the Bagpuss-and-fish-fingers-for-tea, Grandad. I got nowhere to live.”

8. About that housing issue again

It was surprising how many candidates’ solutions had that “never gonna happen” feel about them. Too many new institutions, organisations, initiatives and academies. Lots of publicly owned watchdogs and agencies. Too much process, not enough market. Too much regulation, not enough Nudge. The most realistic idea came from Zac Goldsmith because it recognised how the world works – the key to housing is investment in more transport infrastructure. As east London shows, if you build a rail link, you open up land and that’s where you put the houses.

9. East London river crossings aren’t popular

Unless they’re for cycling or pedestrians. But they’ll probably happen anyway. If London teaches us one thing, it’s that life goes on, regardless.