Siobhan Benita is the Liberal Democrat candidate aiming to become London’s first female mayor since the position was created in 2000. Last Sunday, in the middle of a litter pick on the Thames at low tide, Christopher Sharp went to have a chat.
I’ve never done an interview in a place that is normally underwater before, but there’s a first for everything. Like the waters of the Thames themselves, politics is a dangerous and murky place to swim in at the moment. Benita believes she is the right person with the right party to clear up London. Her mission statement is to create, ‘a safer, greener and kinder capital where people and businesses can thrive’.
But not just people and businesses, the environment too. The litter pick was part of raising awareness of the impact Londoners are having on the environment; something that has influenced Benita since she was a child.
When I was at school, we did a ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ campaign. We had fun doing that and it stuck with us. I bet that every child who was in my class at school who did that doesn’t litter now. It was just something that was in my mind from that campaign.
I would like us to get so much better in London at recycling and just focussing on having less unnecessary plastic in the first place [because] one of my biggest frustrations about London is the amount of litter [mainly plastic waste] that you see lying around .
Indeed, one of Benita’s goals is to incentivise more environmentally friendly behaviour. So, I asked her, how she would go about doing that?
I would start with a big education programme across London to get people thinking, ‘Is it right that I’m dropping litter and plastic?’ I would like to bring in a Mayor’s Charter Mark that recognises good businesses.
Away from the environment, the most interesting feature of Benita’s announced policies is the introduction of the Youth Happy Hour from 4-6pm where each council would organise activities for school children in those hours to increase their safety. This sounds fantastic, but there are thirty-two councils in London, how do you fund all that?
We need to lobby for more funding but there are thousands of charities and organisations and faith groups and private sector companies who want to help. The mayor can play a facilitating role, by looking at each borough and asking what’s available so we can protect people that become vulnerable to organised crime in that period after school.
Whilst organised crime is one of the key factors in making children vulnerable for those two hours in the afternoon after schools shut, it also plays a factor in the drugs trade in London where Benita also wants to see reform.
I would like to have a legalised and regulated Cannabis market. If we are going to tackle serious violence the evidence is clear is that it’s the drugs market that’s fuelling a lot of that violence and a lot of our young people are getting exploited. We need to emasculate the drugs gangs. We need to take the parent wealth away from them and bring in our own legalised regulated market.
Other countries now across the world e.g., Canada, Portugal, Holland and several states in America have their own legalised market. My point to the Mayor and to other candidates is if we’re saying we want to do everything we can to tackle knife crime we need to look at reforming our drugs policy.
Benita is right that other nations already have a legalised and monitored drug market. The question though, is Britain ready? And what about those who are worried that this will open the floodgates?
We have to be real. A lot of people are taking a lot of different substances and what I’m saying is, legalise the cannabis market to take the power away from the drugs gangs. On stronger drugs, on Class A drugs, I would say bring in a supportive approach where you have an educational and public health approach to provide addiction support to move them on to a healthier lifestyle.
The worst world is to have a decriminalisation when you don’t have a legal market because then you are just making it easier for the drugs gangs to sell into that market.
At Shout Out UK we have an AQA Political Literacy Programme. In light of the beginning of the Brexit transition period I asked if there should be more emphasis on political literacy in light of Brexit. I wanted to know if Benita had any plans for any political literacy programmes.
One of the things that has been so shocking throughout Brexit whichever side you’re on is how little people understand of our own democracy, our own systems, how our Parliament functions but also how the European Union functions and I think there is a real lack of political education in our system. I think it’s really important that people understand this so certainly I will be looking at if there are things that I can offer in that regard.
So far over the course of the interview we’d discussed the environment, young people and drugs, but whilst at the water’s edge the issue of the Liberal Democrat’s relevance and whether they were on a cliff-edge came to mind. During the election they ran on a hard anti-Brexit stance. Are they still relevant today, are they the right party to hold the centre ground? I wanted to know if Benita, even amidst her London-election campaign, had considered the liberal future, even briefly.
I don’t think there is any other party at the moment filling that centre ground or talking for those liberal values, so I think we absolutely are. Our stance on Brexit and being very firmly pro-European and pro-Remain, being part of the biggest European movement we’ve ever seen is something to be proud of.
The good thing is that we’ve got time now. We know we don’t have to rush into decisions; we’ve got five years [until 2024].
There the interview ended. Next up then is a soft launch of the campaign within the next fortnight, but it won’t be until the end of March and into early April until we see the manifesto. At the moment we are still at the part of the campaign where policies are neither fully confirmed or costed.
As of early February Benita is fourth in the polls and thinks that she’s the right candidate to make history in London, not just in terms of gender diversity but in terms of a new way of looking at knife crime and societal interaction. Only time, and the beliefs of Londoners, will tell if her faith is justified.
You can read what Siobhan Benita thought of the healing process post-Brexit here.