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London is itching for a clean break from party politics – with an independent mayor, there’s no better escape

Ideas for London: The capital has tried things the other way for almost 20 years. Voters need someone who has loyalty only to the city, not to some other leader or manifesto

Rory Stewart
Thursday 16 January 2020 14:18 GMT
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Rory Stewart: What do people in Brixton think about party politics?

I remember so clearly the first issue of The Independent. I was 13 and I was, I think, the only Independent reader in my class. I loved it – the photography, the long essays on foreign policy, the escape from the predictable rants of the other newspapers. But above all I loved the phrase: “The Independent. It is. Are you?”

I was then. And then I wasn’t. Growing older, I became more interested in public service: became a soldier, a Labour party member, a civil servant and finally a Conservative MP. And it is only now – after almost 30 years in different forms of government service – that I have become an independent again – running now to be an independent mayor of London.

But independence, I have learned, isn’t a state – it is an activity, which is hard to achieve and hard to sustain.

There is freedom, certainly. But there is always the pressure or the temptation to accept the conventional wisdom, to lapse back into the old way of doing things. In becoming fully independent, I am also having to change the way I speak, and almost the way I had begun to think.

Decades of exposure to quick-fix ideas and government press releases (and still worse the extravagant and deadly fantasies of nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan) forced me to experience countless failed policies. And pessimism often followed. Too frequently, I found myself telling young idealists exactly why things could not be done. Too many stakeholder engagements and parliamentary debates, and too many media interrogations over the years smoothed too many edges; encouraged me to be overly polite. Even when the better response might be outrage or anger.

It was prisons that freed me. I was made the prisons minister in January 2018. It was a job which no one wanted and no one in No 10 seemed to notice or care what I did in the role; they were transfixed by Brexit.

I had a brave boss, David Gauke, who backed my more independent – and even at times radical – prisons policy. He overruled me on two big decisions but otherwise allowed me to make the big choices and then threw the whole weight of his office behind me. There was so much to be done, immediately: fixing the line of broken windows, and clearing up the filth at Liverpool prison; tackling the drugs and violence that had tripled in five years (there were over 30,000 assaults a year overall). We were able together to renationalise the privatised probation service. And I was given the freedom to put my job on the line (I offered to resign unless we could reduce prison violence in a year). And with the right resources, focus and team we began to succeed.

There is so much we need to fix across the country. So often it is political parties – their grinding bureaucracy, their timidity and message control, which suffocate all action – that prevent anyone from saying simply “this is a disgrace, and we are going to fix it”.

Take adult social care – an issue that hasn’t been resolved for 60 years because any attempt to fix it is attacked by one side or the other as a death tax or dementia tax. I have learned that being strictly left or right wing is not a great recipe for flight; you need both wings to get off the ground. Properly used, real independence can deliver the freedom to get things done – not through lazy centrism, but through permission to be radical in any area regardless of whether it is traditionally the domain of the left or right.

There are good reasons why, when London elected its first mayor, it chose an independent. The same is true for Middlesbrough, where independents have won four out of five mayoral elections, and Bristol (or indeed New York, with Mike Bloomberg).

People often like independent mayors because ideology doesn’t work well in local government – Marx and Hayek didn’t have too much to say about collecting bins, or fixing the signalling on the Piccadilly line. And an independent can work with anyone, challenge anyone because their only loyalty is to the community in their city, not to some other leader, party or manifesto.

So, I believe the time has come for a clean break in London. After three political mayors, an independent-minded London has the chance of electing an independent mayor in May.

True independence is not an individual activity – it comes from being much more than the sum of our parts. London can be a joint enterprise, in which all citizens – regardless of party preferences – work together. And I hope this fortnightly column will be as much about listening to you as about what I write.

A revolution of independent thought can transform London and ultimately this country. So please join me in the conversation. Independent? Well, I am. But are you?

Rory Stewart is an independent candidate for mayor of London in the 2020 election

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