Siobhan Benita stood as an independent London mayoral candidate in the May 2012 elections. She wasn’t bankrolled by any of the major parties yet managed to poll a substantial vote by dint of her clever use of social media and mobilising folk fed up with traditional politics wrangling. (Dare I say, male type stag fighting politics-think Boris and Ken) She did not enter into the adversarial style of canvassing but did things in her own way; a quiet determined, feminine style, tends not to make the news so much so it’s a real tribute to her that she got the coverage she did.
She didn’t win (this time) but she was pretty close on the heels of the well established Greens and Lib Dems!
Jane: Siobhan, first a huge thank-you for taking the time to do this. I am really fascinated by how you ended up in this position, but I’d also like to find out a little more about you too if you’re happy to share some of that. What was your role before this? Were you involved in formal politics at all?
Siobhan: Before I resigned to run in the election I was a Senior Civil Servant. I worked in the Civil Service for over 15 years and had been involved in policy development in transport, environment and local government areas as well as strategic reform and communications of the Service itself when I worked in the Cabinet Office. My last post was in the Department of Health where I managed the departmental Board.
I notice that you’re on record as saying you couldn’t accept the Lansley NHS reforms. I’m spitting feathers about those too but it never occurred to me to stand for election. At what moment did you realise that you had to do something?
As a civil servant there are often moments when you have to work on policy initiatives that you don’t necessarily support but that’s all part of the role you play in the democratic process. What I found particularly difficult about the NHS reforms was the fact that I don’t believe the Government did have a democratic mandate to bring them in – they had never been voted for in any manifesto.
It wasn’t just the NHS reforms though – there are many reasons that contribute to a big life-changing decision like standing for election – in general I was no longer impartial (something you need to be as a good civil servant) and I wanted to be able to voice my views and ideas publicly.
Has anything you’ve done before prepared you for this? Were you an experienced public speaker or given to speaking out when you thought things were wrong?
I had had a fair bit of practise at public speaking during my civil service career. I had devoted quite a lot of my time to improving diversity so was used to speaking on conferences about diversity, leadership and gender equality. I also founded “Tabelle” a network for women working in and with the public sector which involved regular discussions with large groups of women. I used to host the annual Civil Service Awards and I had represented the government and civil service at policy seminars as well as international conferences.
Being an independent candidate however was a very liberating for me because I could say exactly what I thought about an issue without having to worry about what Ministers or my departmental colleagues might say!
What has been the most interesting thing about standing for mayor?
Without a doubt it’s been the people that I have met during the campaign. I visited every borough and spent as much time as possible with young Londoners as well as community groups and charity workers. Despite the challenges of life in London – which for many people are considerable – there are tremendous Londoners full of creativity and generosity doing amazing work every day that changes lives.
What has most surprised you about the political world?
Having worked at the centre of government in my previous career I had quite a good idea of how things worked but it was still surprising to experience first-hand the extent to which the media can determine what information the public do or do not get. I had to battle the broadcasters throughout the entire campaign to get any coverage at all because their guidelines don’t really allow for independent candidates; they are based on a party’s results in a previous election.
It was also surprising to see how little policy actually played a part in the election. It was more about personality – which in itself is not surprising given that Ken and Boris are such well-known figures – but none of the manifestos were really scrutinised or challenged in any detail, which was a shame.
You mentioned motherhood in your campaign several times. In what way do you think motherhood has prepared you for this?
Becoming a mum has fundamentally changed my approach to life. I want my daughters to grow up in a world where women as well as men shape public life and that has certainly been a motivating factor for me in running for a public office. I’m also always encouraging my girls to do what makes them happy. I can see that if they enjoy what they are doing, they are more likely to do it well. The more I heard myself giving that advice to them, the more I knew I should put it into practice myself and that also made me examine my own options and professional objectives.
I think you must be an excellent role model for your two girls but all the campaigning must have been tough. How have your family reacted to this change in direction?
I’m extremely lucky because my family have been supportive from the start. My daughters and I talked about the campaign a lot and it was exciting for them to see me doing so many new things – radio and television articles, debates etc. – and being so enthusiastic about the experience. My husband was fantastic both in his understanding when I said I was going to resign but also on a very practical level. He managed the official website over and above his busy job and he was my campaign agent. My parents who live in Cornwall came to stay with us for last weeks of the campaign which was a huge help with day to day practical issues.
The general view was that you weren’t a serious challenge to the men (but then they said that George Galloway didn’t stand a chance so who could know?) In what way do you think your campaign has changed politics, in London at least?
My campaign did take quite a few people by surprise as some observers were dismissive at the start. Even though I didn’t win, to come so close to the Greens and Lib Dems demonstrated that there are many members of the public who are fed up with traditional politicians and who welcome new voices in the process.
I did raise important policy ideas during the election, including much needed improvements to education and engagement with young people which the other candidates started to talk about. I’m pleased that Boris has now appointed an education deputy.
I also hope that a change to the broadcasting rules, which would mean that all candidates get fair coverage, will be a legacy from my campaign.
Men and women approach most things differently and the world of politics is very macho. If you could change one thing to make it more gender neutral what would it be?
Reform the way parliament operates. Everything about it from the unsocial hours for debates to the punch and Judy set up of Prime Minister’s Question Time make it an unattractive place to be for many people but especially parents with families or women (and men) who prefer a collaborative rather than an a combative approach. It’s out of date and needs serious modernisation.
If you could give your younger self some advice what would it be?
Follow your gut instincts much earlier and take more risks. I probably knew several years ago that I didn’t want to stay in the civil service and it took me too long to actually make the break.
If you could transport yourself to any period in history which era would you choose?
I think I’d rather go forward than back! Technology is transforming the way we live and work at an incredible rate so who knows what we’ll be able to do in the new decade or so. I’d like to think we also have better representation of women and ethnic minority groups in the future in all sectors and organisations – that will be wonderful.
Is there a politician you particularly admire, past or present? Who has been the most inspirational person in your life?
I admire Shirley Williams because she had the courage of her convictions to leave one party and help create a new one. She’s had a very long and honest career and is still very influential, as her recent opposition to the NHS reforms has shown.
My parents are the most inspirational people in my life. My mum came to London when she was just 10 years old – her father had died and my grandmother did a remarkable thing as a young widow by bringing her three children to a new country to build a better life for them all. My parents both worked in the public sector – my dad as a teacher and my mum as a home help and nursing assistant – and their commitment to helping other people has certainly shaped my own professional decisions and outlook.
How do you relax and unwind?I’ve just started jogging again – I didn’t get much time to do it during the campaign – and I like the time I get running to clear my head and listen to some good music. When the weather is good we go cycling as a family on the weekends (we are fortunate to live close to Richmond Park) I also enjoy shopping with my girls and watching films together at home. When we go on holiday I try and catch up on some reading as well and I love getting lost in a great book.
Siobhan, thanks you so much for sharing your thoughts with us – you really are an inspirational woman! I look forward to hearing more from you and your new style of politics; let’s hope those changes really do come about. I’ll check back with you at the next mayoral elections!
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Posted on May 31st, 2012 by Jane