London Citizens take on the Mayoral candidates

Niki Seth-Smith
26 April 2012

How do you soften a politician's heart and get them to keep to their word? It sounds an impossible task, but last night the power organization London Citizens had a good shot, at their Mayoral Accountability Assembly in the heart of Westminster. 

London Citizens, part of Citizens UK, are an alliance of 243 faith congregations, trade union branches, schools, colleges and other community groups. I had heard much about their work since their foundation a decade ago, but not being a member of an institution that might join the alliance, I had felt at a certain distance from them.  

The atmosphere in the Methodist Central Hall was instantly inviting, opening not with ceremonial words, but a gospel song from a choir drawn from several London schools signed up to the alliance. With more than 2,500 ‘Citizens’ in attendance, it was easily the largest public gathering that the mayoral candidates have faced this election. I say gathering, as we were constantly reminded: ‘This is not a hustings! This is an Accountability Assembly! You are not an audience! You are all Citizens!’

These exuberant pronouncements built up a rock concert-like energy as we were urged to stand up, sit down, clap, sway and holler, in celebration of the gains won by the five London Citizen 'chapters': North, West and South, with East London membership split into two. Together, they represent half a million Londoners, and their varied efforts include creating city safe havens, tackling crime and anti-social behaviour, campaigning for rights for long-term migrants – and their most well-known achievement: the establishment of the London living wage.

After inspirational stories from faith leaders, community champions, shop-owners, schoolchildren and youth workers, it was almost a comedown when the four mayoral candidates (no UKIP, BNP or Siobhan Benita) were invited to the stage.

First up, Mayor Johnson. I was disappointed that Boris wasn’t better grilled on living up to his pledges made at the last Accountability Assembly. He'd approached like a criminal called to the docks, but soon was pushing back his floppy hair and grinning under showers of praise (bar a rogue member near me shouting 'oh come on!', with whom I had some sympathy). But then Boris has done more over the past four years than many had expected. He has increased and championed the living wage, and presided over the creation of Britain’s first ever urban Community Land Trust, in the face of much nay-saying. And perhaps more importantly, the positivity of the event (very much American in style, I thought) superseded the desire for dragging over the coals.

The future was the focus: getting all four candidates to commit to the five points of the London Citizens Agenda 2012, the product of a citywide listening campaign. They are: 

1. A better-governed London

2. A better-housed London

3. A brighter future for Young Londoners

4. A safer London

5. A living wage for Londoners 

The full agenda is worth reading and can be found here.

A presentation was made on each point, with the candidates speaking in between - both responding to the agenda and delivering a general ‘vote for me’ speech. This proved a canny formula, and one that Ken Livingstone played to his advantage, while Boris fell flat.

With figures showing Britain’s slide back into recession released only that morning, Ken had to begin by jumping for the Tory throat. (Tellingly Boris opened his speech by attempting to distance himself from Osbornism with praise for Obama.) But it was Ken’s appeal to a world before we ‘took a wrong turn 30 years ago' and became ‘money obsessed’, to neighbourliness and meaningful work, which struck the right note at a gathering all about togetherness and big hearts.

He endorsed the entire London Citizens agenda, supplementing this with promises to crackdown on rogue landlords and reinstate the Education Maintenance Allowance, drawing one of the biggest cheers of the night. Of course, he left himself wriggle-room, but some of the promises were relatively concrete, and I’m confident the alliance can hold him to them, such as to give London Living Wage Week use of Transport For London hoardings. That Boris tried to brush this off with a joke, ‘only if the messages are sensible’, was symptomatic of a difference in approach between the two main candidates in which the Mayors’ bluff and bluster  - why mention Eurodyces in a hall full of schoolchildren? - lost out to Ken’s seeming sincerity. 

Was it a set-up whn Boris was asked to follow a series of testimonies by skilled, wanting -to-work-hard but unemployed young people? Key to the London Citizens agenda is the Working Future Campaign to get 16-25 year olds into jobs, and the juxtaposition challenged Boris to defend the Coalition’s abysmal record on youth employment. His response was a focus on apprenticeships. This implied there wasn’t any point in creating hundreds of thousands more jobs if young people weren’t prepared to take them up, was simply disastrous. So much for being ‘in-touch with the yoof’. And I could have sworn that the Hilton Hotel cleaner that stole the limelight with her heart-breaking testimony on earning just £3 per room, turned around and eyeballed the Mayor through her tears, before her final plea for the living wage.

What did I take away from the assembly? Faced with real Londoners, with real problems, it’s harder for candidates to lie through their teeth and dodge the bullets. Sound bytes fall flat (take note Brian Paddick, ‘The Lib Dems are the party most like you?’ Anyone?), as do attempts to patronize, which Jenny Jones of the Greens found out to her detriment having lost the crowd while trying to explain land valuation tax. But the Lib Dems and the Greens weren’t going to get a look in either way. London Citizens is a practical-minded alliance. They're not about the nuances of party ideology.  They're about getting results.  And who was most convincing in this context about making the more credible promise that they would deliver?  Despite Boris' impressive track record on the last agenda, it was Ken all the way.

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