Imagine this: the new kid in class asks to audition for the school play. “You can’t,” the teacher responds, “You weren’t in it last year.”
“But I wasn’t at this school then,” explains the child, only to be told: “Tough luck.”
Absurd, you might say. But it sums up the situation that Siobhan Benita is in.
Benita, if you didn’t know, is an independent London mayoral candidate; a former civil servant who decided to stop talking politics and start taking action. But I say “if you didn’t know”, because you probably don’t. As an independent, with no track record and no party behind her, she has not been offered the same platform to express herself as her opponents.
At the Evening Standard’s debate on Wednesday, four candidates – who might reasonably be termed the usual suspects in London mayoral politics – were offered the chance to debate, snipe and put across their vision for the capital. Benita, sitting in the front row, was not – a fact I consider nothing short of outrageous.
Not all her rivals were given a chance – the BNP and UKIP candidates weren’t invited to Newsnight or to other debates – but their party electoral histories mean their track records can be examined and their chances discounted accordingly.
Given the microphone to ask an audience question, Benita calmly challenged the quartet to accept her in the debate. They all agreed in principle, and her presence would have cost nothing, yet she remained barred from the podium.
If this is what democracy looks like, then all I can say is I’ve been sold a lie. Given that our system allows for independents to stand, it is baffling that they are not then given the same opportunity to convince. Over and over the public gets to hear from the same four people, saying the same things and making the same jibes. Yet a new face is persona non grata.
Campaigning is not only about official status; political history is filled with examples of upstarts rising from nowhere to claim the prize. But it’s hard to imagine a candidate in the personality-centric arena of London’s City Hall politics making a lasting impression on voters without strong name recognition.
Barring Benita – or any other independent – from the platform reduces the ability to tell voters there is an alternative. The tuned-in, those who use Twitter and discuss the issues endlessly, know she’s out there. Those who engage only at the sidelines won’t have a clue.
As it happens, Benita is an interesting candidate, with intriguing ideas about youth provision and a vision for her city. She wants to keep tubes running later on weekends, find new uses for derelict buildings and hold back the spate of library closures – ideas that could benefit from further scrutiny. Still, despite better odds than Jenny Jones or even Brian Paddick, she probably has no chance; who can stop the Boris or Ken juggernaut?
But that’s not the point. How can voters dismiss someone when they have not been given a fair chance to see what it is they are rejecting? Elections are about more than frontrunners; they are about giving all those in the running a chance to shape the debate. Contrast this closed attitude with the Republican primaries, where every pretender is given some chance to shine.
When it comes to Benita, as a disillusioned Labour supporter with a vote going spare, I like what I see. It’s wrong not to open up the race and let others have a proper look. She should be allowed her time in the limelight.