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Today would have been polling day for the new London mayor. I’m still running – but politics has to change

Politicians often talk about young people, but they rarely talk with them. I want the chance to put that right

Siobhan Benita
Thursday 07 May 2020 08:21 BST
How will a virtual Parliament work?

Today, on 7 May 2020, Londoners should have been going to the polls to elect the next mayor of London. Instead, we are all staying home to save lives and the London elections have been postponed until next year.

The pause has given me a chance to reflect on my campaign and what is really important. Building a better future for my daughters and other young people was the reason I entered politics in the first place. It remains the reason that I will run again next year.

While it’s impossible to know what the political landscape will look like in a year’s time, it’s clear that no sector will emerge untouched. This includes politics itself. May 2021 might seem like a long way away, but it’s perfectly feasible that we won’t have a vaccine by then and could still be governed by social distancing rules. Activists might not be knocking on doors or delivering leaflets. Campaigning will have to be radically different.

To maintain democratic engagement, politics must embrace technology. In lockdown, we have seen how positive this can be: the country has come together for PE with Joe Wicks, Zoom quizzes have become a weekly highlight, schools and universities are teaching online and, for the first time, MPs working from home have tested a remote voting system.

But if we are really going to drag democracy into the 21st century, we have to think bolder still. Hitting the digital doorstep, canvassing with calls and virtual hustings are a given. But what about our elections? I’d like City Hall to look seriously into the possibility of creating a secure, e-voting system in time for the mayoral election next year.

As well as how we democratically engage, I’ve also been thinking about who I want to engage with in this bonus year. In my first campaign, when I ran as an independent in the 2012 London election, I focused my engagement on young people and published a youth manifesto. We called for the establishment of a youth assembly for London, which I am delighted now exists, and a new post of Young Mayor for London, which I am still fighting for today.

Politicians often talk about young people, but they rarely talk with them. I want to put that right. Young people are being hit particularly hard by this pandemic, both psychologically and financially. Whether it’s disruption to their education, the prospect of a deep recession or the sheer mental strain of yet another future-defining crisis to contend with, it is crucial for all our sakes that young people are at the forefront of decisions on a sustainable recovery strategy.

Too many young people are failed by our current systems, especially those most in need of care and support. A couple of years ago, I was a member of a cross-party, parliamentary youth violence commission, looking into the root causes of knife crime. As part of the commission’s work, we surveyed 2,200 young people on the levels of violence in their everyday lives. One of the survey questions asked where they felt most safe. A staggering 16 per cent said they did not feel safe in their own home.

That was terrible enough but, sadly, lockdown will have made the numbers even worse. We have all heard about the rise in domestic violence during this period. In many of those homes, there are children and adolescents at risk of violence too. If these young survivors aren’t helped to overcome the traumas that they have experienced, the cycle of violence will continue. They cannot be forgotten as we emerge from lockdown.

Finally, I’m confident that, with young people’s voices heard, the environment will remain a priority. Students marched in their millions across the globe last year and I was blown away by the passion of the school strikes that I joined in Parliament Square. Our enforced confinement has heightened our appreciation of nature. Trees and birdsong have trended on social media and in London the calls for more cycling and walking spaces grow louder each day. Going back to our old polluting ways is simply not an option and the destruction of our precious planet cannot be the price we pay for a return to traditional economic growth.

Young people are faced with society’s biggest challenges, yet they often have the smallest voice. We owe it to every victim of Covid-19 to learn the lessons from this crisis and to build a fairer, greener and kinder future for everyone. Together, we can create exactly that.

Siobhan Benita is the Liberal Democrat candidate for London Mayor 2021

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