Interview: John Bird: From the street to City Hall: the first mayor of London?

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The Independent Online
Until now, the only hat definitely in the ring for Mayor of London has been Jeffrey Archer's shiny topper. His campaign team is already chasing about glad-handing anyone in sight. The rest of the possible party candidates are more circumspect - won't say yes and won't say no. But putative Tory rivals include Chris Patten, Steven Norris, Alan Clarke, David Mellor. On the Labour side candidates may be Ken Livingstone, Glenda Jackson, Margaret Hodge, Tony Banks, and The Independent's own Trevor Phillips. Then there are a few non-party names - Fred Housego, Richard Branson and Peter Stringfellow.

The idea that this could be a non-party campaign is fast fading. There will probably be a Labour and Tory primary - (there'll be an outcry if either party tries an inside fix). That will leave just one candidate each, with the others banned from running against their own. Labour is pondering over how to stop Livingstone sweeping the board in a primary, which their secret polling indicates. He laughs that they are trying to draw up a special London constitution that would ban him from standing ("No one with a nasal voice from south London, for instance," he suggests).

This is not just spite on Labour's side, but good sense: he might win the primary but couldn't win the election. Psephologists reckon the chances are stacked against any Labour candidate, let alone Livingstone who, though still much loved, is the least likely to attract wavering Tory votes. For the first London mayoral election will hit mid-term, in the middle of an as yet unquantifiable downturn in the economy.

The heart sinks at watching this bright new idea already mired in the stale old Westminster mind-set. How are Londoners to be ignited by a new municipal enthusiasm if it's all just a dreary re-run of national politics? What's more, Labour is likely to lose.

The deadly secret that emerges from Labour's private polling is that Londoners passionately do not want a party-political candidate. Almost anyone else is preferred - even Branson, although his record for doing public good is negligible and his ability to clean up streets or run trains is not legendary.

Surely there must be a local hero above the political fray, who could fire the imagination across the increasingly artificial party divide? Yes, there is, and now he flips his independent hat into the ring, a battered old cloth cap tossed in from far outside Westminster. He is John Bird, founder of The Big Issue, the street magazine and charity that helps get the homeless on their feet. Eccentric, extraordinary but worldly wise, his candidacy promises that breath of life in what so far has been a cautious, tip-toe debate.

He is any spin-doctor's nightmare candidate. He has a past from hell, an unconventional life and a political innocence that could trip him up - or be the making of him. How about this for a list of serious disqualifications for winning high elected office? A childhood in borstals, an adolescence on probation, many a spell in police cells for drunkenness, not much education and his only political experience has been 10 years in the Workers' Revolutionary Party.

He has a big knocked-about 51-year-old bruiser's face, (he's broken his nose four times) and he spends every Friday night roaming the pubs, streets and drinking clubs of London, only stumbling home in the morning. He takes exercise on a small trampoline in the corner of his office, which could have him mistaken for a yogic flying candidate.

But Bird is London's closest thing to a saint, and now has an MBE to prove it. He set up The Big Issue as a charity for street sellers to earn their way out of beggary, and it now sells some 250,000 and wins editorial awards. The profits fund an agency that helps thousands of the homeless back into mainstream life.

He has a huge homeless army of supporters willing to do anything for him and no other candidate will ever know London so intimately: its high life, low dives, high streets and mean streets. He's been a cab driver (has the Knowledge), knows the sniff, sight and sound of every inch of the city, is a keen observer, often at night, of its subtly shifting communities and is an avid reader of London history. He says cabbies and coppers and all sorts are telling him to go for the job, so he will.

What does he stand for? An apocalyptic sense that London no longer thrives, but chokes on its own filth and pollution, and is in danger from rack- rent landlords, social strife, and fear of crime everywhere; its street life is dying and, above all, its transport system is a creeking, failing disaster. "Only 13 per cent of commuters come into London by car. Why are they allowed to screw up the streets, the air and the buses for the other 87 per cent? Even if you live in Pinner or Bromley, the well-to- do are suffering from London's ills too. It'll be a paupers' campaign, yet one that reaches out to the suburbs with the same message."

What sort of mayor would he be? "One who knows he doesn't know it all. I'll be the conductor of an orchestra of experts and talents." He talks admiringly of much that mayor Rudolph Giuliani has done in New York. His Marxist past long behind him, he no longer looks to big government to solve the problems, but for communities to rejuvenate themselves and take their own action. He despises Livingstone's empty red-flag-flying posturing, and blames him for the destruction of the GLC, promising that he won't set up a rival empire against the Government, but will work with it.

His approach to the homeless has always been tough. They have to pull themselves up by their own efforts, not be victims waiting for handouts. Everyone, he complains, waits for someone else to solve their problems - dog shit, crime or vandalism - instead of taking control of their own communities. He wants to get people volunteering as never before, ordinary people who've never been asked to help with anything. "Rights and responsibilities", he says, not unlike Blair, but without the preaching.

Some ideas, innocently mooted, could frighten the living daylights out of business: he talks of auditing businesses for how much they use and pollute, expecting them to give back unseen costs, such as transporting their workers. He talks of stopping great building development, in favour of cleaning up the old streets and leaving things as they are.

His love of London is infectious and genuine. His eyes gleam with redemptionist fervour as he speaks of reviving community action. As an earthy, practical, non-preachy character, he might be able to do what sounds like hollow words in the mouths of ordinary politicians. After all, he's done it himself.

If anyone can beat the party machines, John Bird can. If he loses, he will add to the gaiety of the campaign, making the others look like bloodless political stooges up against his stirring rambunctiousness. But if Labour does secretly fear defeat in London, why not stand back from the fray, loudly proclaiming the principle that all new city mayors should be candidates independent of the old party machines?