Mayoral candidate has no profile, but ambition to spare

Siobhan Benita could surprise a few people. By Oliver Wright

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was an odd, but apt, place to launch a political campaign. Sandwiched between stalls for the Royal Navy and Avon at a careers fair for east London sixth formers, Siobhan Benita could hardly make her voice heard above the din.

Behind her a small overhead projector screen displayed her picture under the simple slogan: Siobhan for Mayor. But if Benita's London Mayoral launch was a little amateurish, just being there at all was an achievement.

Last October, Benita left her job as a civil servant in the Department of Health to embark on a new "career" as an independent candidate in this year's mayoral election. She had no money, no staff, no party, and, frankly, no hope against Ken and Boris.

Today, six months on her chances of winning may still be tiny, but her campaign is generating excitement. Her odds of success in the election on 3 May have fallen from 500/1 to 50/1 and she stands a decent chance of pushing the Lib Dem candidate Brian Paddick into a humiliating fourth or even fifth.

All this has been done against the backdrop of almost no television exposure. She has been excluded from the Newsnight mayoral debate and unless the broadcasters have a change of heart she will be missing from next week's Question Time and other debate on ITV and Sky. It clearly rankles.

"The BBC are steadfastly applying out of date rules to this election," she says."They are applying rules that were created for a General Election to an election which is all about an individual. Their criteria are how well your party did at the last election and that is ridiculous."

The odd thing about Benita is that for an insurgent candidate her background, demeanour and policies are rather too conventional. A 40-year-old mother of two, Benita joined the Civil Service in 1996, becoming head of corporate management in the Department of Health. Her candidacy is being backed by that arch establishment figure, the former Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell, and her policy pledges are generally anodyne to the extent that they would not be out of place in Blairite manifesto.

Her leaflets promise "to work for every child to have an excellent primary school place" (even though education is not in the remit of the Mayor), "support long-term investment to keep London's economy strong" and "put more police on the streets".

Despite only entering politics six months ago, she also has the "politician's patter" down as well as the other candidates. In her opening remarks yesterday her pitch was as a "fresh, modern, alternative".

"The great thing for me is the fact that we are now getting so much momentum behind my campaign," she gushed. "When people know that I am here and when they hear about my campaign they really, really like it. People are very disillusioned by party politicians at the moment and I am reminding them this is the one opportunity they get not to vote for a political party. I can feel from the attention that we're getting that people are really behind us."

So will she attempt to capitalise on her new found exposure to join a political party with the back-up to help her win elections in the future? She may not be like the other candidates but still falls back on the politician's trick of not really answering the question: "I have loved every moment of this campaign and I have met so many fantastic people across London who don't usually get listened to. Someone needs to give them a voice," she says.