Saturday, 19 April 2008

London Mayoral Elections and Gay Hustings

The local elections are only a few couple of weeks away now and the debate is slowly heating up. It's time for people to finally make there choice as to who they vote for. Londoners have to choose between no less than 10 candidates, although it is widely predicted that the election will be played out between the candidates of the three main political parties; all three of whom are rather strong personalities.

Although I already pretty much knew already who I was going to vote for, I took a short online quiz a few days ago. The results (as reproduced below) given to me by Vote Match didn't yield many surprises (if any):

Ken Livingstone (Labour)
Siân Berry (Green Party)
Lindsey German (Left List)
Brian Paddick (Liberal Democrats)
Boris Johnson (Conservatives)
Alan Craig (Christian Peoples Alliance / Christian Party)
Matt O’Connor (English Democrats)
Winston Mckenzie
Gerrard Batten (UKIP)
Richard Barnbrook (BNP)

In order to help voters make up their minds, many interest groups have been organising hustings around the capital, allowing people to meet the candidates and ask questions.

I am just back from one such hustings. Organised by Stonewall in collaboration with Pink News and taking place in the main auditorium of the British Film Institute, the event brought together what can probably be considered the 5 major candidates for this election and a roomful of LGBT people.

I was pleasantly surprised to see how young the audience was. From my seat on the last row, I spotted a few familiar faces: Peter Tatchell, Kirsten Hearn, the Mayor's LGBT advisor: Neil Young, someone from Kairos, someone, I think, from Imaan and a couple local people I have met at Network events. I am sure there were others.

The two hours that the event lasted were both very interesting and entertaining and felt altogether too short. The candidates present in the panel chaired by Tony Crew, editor of PinkNews, were (left to right on stage) Lindsey German, Sian Berry, Boris Johnson, Ken Livingston and Brian Paddick. After 5 minutes statements by the candidates, the floor started to ask questions varying from the status of older LGBT people, Ken's team members' recent financial problems and his own welcome of muslim cleric Yusuf Al-Qaradawi at City Hall, homophobia in schools and elsewhere, cycling, the funding of voluntary associations, public transport and disabled people or Boris' apparently changed attitude towards LGBT people and whether he ever had any gay experiences. On the whole the debate was very civilised and good natured.

Boris proved is renowned bumbling self and as such much fun for the gallery. He seemed however to have little substance (as expected) and, as Paddick put it, didn’t seem to have much of a clue. His ideas (often unrealistic) seemed to be focused on rather trivial subjects like bringing back a routemaster. He lost his cool once, banging his fist on the table in front of him and declaring that he had indeed voted in favour of the repeal of Section 28 (after having supported the section in writing for years) and that people should stop saying he hadn't (Checking the public whip, it seems that he voted against the repeal first and then for it, in two votes within about half an hour of each other). When pushed further on his past attitude towards LGBT people and Section 28, he repeatedly said that he was in favour of freedom and refused to see the government dictating school what they should teach to children (Lindsey German was quick to point that that was exactly what Section 28 was doing). At the same time he claimed to have gone against the party whip, despite the fact that the Tory party had a free vote on this occasion.

He also ignored a suggestion from the chair that he might want to apology for saying in 2002 about Civil Partnerships that "If gay marriage was OK - and I was uncertain on the issue - then I saw no reason in principle why a union should not be consecrated between three men, as well as two men; or indeed three men and a dog." A quote from one of Boris' books that Ken had used in his opening statement. When responding to the first question, he seemed to stamble on the term LGBT, which made everyone laugh in unsurprised frustration; at which he turned to the chair and asked: "I got that right, didn't I?" More laughter ensued. This seemed to be the most common reaction to him in the audience. There were also a few hisses and some clapping at some points.

Paddick was thankfully not as arrogant as he was the last time I saw him speak. He remained however lackluster and vague. Agreeing in response to questions that things were terrible and or needed to be changed but without apparently offering any concrete solutions to the problems. This was of course a gay hustings and possibly Paddick's core constituency but I felt he was too much the professional gay focusing too much on gay issues and not widening his answer enough to the whole of London. He made a few gratuitous personal attacks (saying for example that Ken had "lost the plot" in the past four years and that Boris would be a disaster for London while not acknowledging the existence of other candidates it seems).

Siân Berry was good. She obviously knew what she was talking but I think she still lacks clout. She is my age and I think this is probably too young to be running such a big and complicated city. She probably needs to relax a little more and gain that assurance that only comes with experience. The green party have asked for people to choose Ken as their supplementary vote.

Lindsey German, the other female candidate, was great. I felt she said the right things in the right way. Although if I had to criticise, I would say that her opening statement focused too much on government policy which is not that relevant to this election, although this is also a sign that she can see the bigger picture. In a repeated attack against developers, she also suggested a moratorium on the building of non-affordable housing (currently 50% of new builds) in favour of affordable housing, which in my view is unrealistic since developer would then loose any incentive to build at all. Together with Ken, she was, I think, the only person to actually mention trans people. On the whole however she certainly knows her stuff and makes sensible and pragmatic propositions. The Left List asked for people to choose Ken as their supplementary vote.

As for Ken, the incumbent, he was, I thought, the most impressive speaker. His opening statement got by far the biggest ovation. He appeared both relaxed and completely in charge of his material and the situation. I think on that occasion he was very much the statesman. In response to a question about the attendance by Yusuf Al-Qaradawi at a City Hall conference, Ken said that he wasn't aware of what tabloid newspapers said where Al-Qaradawi's view on homosexuality but that when he met him he asked him and that he received the answer that Al-Qaradawi condemns the killing of gay people and the beating of a wife by her husband. Ken added that no leader of any of the major religion is actively in support of gay right and that we should therefore not expect Al-Qaradawi to be any different but that it was also important to engage with the more moderate parties in Islam. Ken received the support of Lindsey German in this.

With respect to the charges of corruptions thrown at him, Ken said he had himself dealt with these as soon as he knew about a problem, asking the police to investigate, and contacting a lawyer to check that nothing inappropriate had taken place, let alone anything illegal. In his view this is a right-wing witch hunt conducted by the Evening Standard only. The other candidates present, with the exception of Boris, seemed to support him in this view.

Of course the man doesn't come without a certain whiff of sulfur but nobody is perfect and this is compensated by a really positive record. In my view, he has done some great things for the LGBT community in London and for the city as a whole. I don't think any of his opponents can pretend to be better than him and from that rather motley bunch, he seems to me to be the only one capable of leading a world capital. His plans seem to be to carry on how he started and to focus more on the green and environmental issues.

The event was very useful although it slightly muddled my views as to who would be my first choice. I was going to vote for Siân Berry but having seen Lindsey German for the first time, I am not wondering if I should not be voting for her instead. It might be interest to attend a different hustings not aimed at the LGBT community; somewhere a little more neutral to see how people fare. What I will retain from this however is that whereas I don't think it would be a good thing for higher offices, personality is quite important when it comes to decide who will be in charge of such a big and important city.

See also:
* Video: PinkNews editor takes Boris Johnson to task - footage of the hustings
London Mayoral Election 2008
- Wikipedia
* London Elect - Official guide
* Who's who in the race for City Hall - The Independent

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