Siobhan Benita will not be the next mayor of London. The only independent candidate contesting the May 3 election, she’s currently polling at just 3%. That places her light years behind Boris Johnson, the loose-lipped incumbent, and Ken Livingstone, BoJo’s main rival and the man who served as mayor when London won the right to host the 2012 Olympic Games. Benita is somewhat closer to Jenny Jones—the Green candidate, not the Canadian talk show host—and Liberal Democrat Brian Paddick, an openly gay, former senior officer at Scotland Yard. They’re polling at 6% and 5%, respectively.
Until recently, no one knew who Benita was. Most Londoners still don’t. The 40-year old mother of two had a successful, off-the-radar career as a civil servant, working her way up the ranks in the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health. She quit her job in October, partly to protest the government’s controversial re-think of the National Health Service, and partly to devote herself full-time to her election campaign.
It’s been tough gaining exposure. Benita—along with the other marginal candidates—has been excluded from televised debates aired on the BBC, ITV and Sky News. That’s because the rules—intended to restrict the presence of extremist parties on the airwaves—favor parties that did well in previous elections. As an independent, Benita has no party. “I am not naive, and I know it is hard for big institutions to change,” she told the BBC. “But I think with the strength of feeling against party politics, it is important some media organizations think how their rules restrict politics.”
She may have no chance of winning, but Benita has certainly learned how to play the game. At a time when public anger toward mainstream politics is rising, and in a year that has seen upstart parties capture the hearts and minds of disaffected voters across Europe, she’s smart to invoke the anti-party line. In recent months, Germany’s Pirate Party—a group of rag-tag upstarts with virtually no experience in politics—has won seats in two state assemblies and helped push Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition partners to near extinction. And last October, in conservative Poland, the three-month-old Palikot Party became the third-largest party in Parliament with its pro-abortion, pro-LGBT, anti-clerical stance. Closer to home, Benita can draw inspiration from George Galloway, leader of the Respect Party. Galloway, who was expelled from the Labour Party in 2003 because of his staunch opposition to the war in Iraq, was elected to Parliament in a landslide in March.
It’s still unclear if Galloway’s victory reflects widespread disillusionment with party politics—or whether it’s merely down to his personal charm or the political circumstances in his constituency in Bradford West. Regardless, Benita seems unlikely to pull off a similarly spectacular coup. Yes, betting agencies like Paddy Power have her down as the candidate most likely to win after Johnson and Livingstone at 25-1. And yes, that puts her ahead of both Jones and Paddick, who are currently on par at 100-1. But the same media she criticizes of ignoring her has, in recent weeks, actually given an inevitible also-ran more coverage than she deserves. Keen to explore the “anti-politics” line in a two-horse race between mainstream politicians, the British media has lavished attention on this supposed outsider. The Evening Standard ran an article quoting Benita in its headline: “Electoral miracles have happened before.” The Guardian was even more over-the-top, describing her as “tall, glossy-haired, [and] elegant in a pencil dress with scarlet jacket.” The headline? “Siobhan Benita: a star is born?”
Increased exposure has led to increased scrutiny. Bringing Benita into sharper focus suggests she may not be the anti-establishment figure she portrays. It’s hard to view her as a rebel knowing she’s being advised by Lord Gus O’Donnell, who ran Britain’s civil service between 2005 and 2011 and was Benita’s boss for much of her career. Her celebrity backers include Virgin founder Richard Branson. There’s a connection there, too: One of her publicists, Paul Charles, previously ran communications for Virgin Atlantic.
During an April 26 interview, a BBC presenter suggested to Benita that, despite her posturing, she is actually part of the establishment she rails against. ”I accept that I’ve got very good experience that puts me in good stead to run in this election,” she said. “I understand the machinery of government… for the mayoral roles we don’t always have to have traditional party politicians.” Touché. She even came dressed to defend herself. Her T-shirt read: “I am independent. Get over it.”
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And while she isn’t tied to a political party, she herself has proclaimed to be on the left. One of her more left-leaning, unconventional ideas is to establish a “Free London” day each month when locals can travel for free and take advantage of discounts in stores and restaurants. Thumbing through her frequently anodyne manifesto, it’s clear that is one of her more daring suggestions. Writing in the Spectator, Leo McKinstry served her a particularly acidic reproach:
Benita has nothing to offer London but platitudes. Her every utterance reflects the boring groupthink of the metropolitan chattering class. What’s her response to the London riots? ‘We should encourage young people to engage with the police.’ What about gang violence on the streets? ‘Gang members need care and support,’ she says. What’s her favorite thing about London? ‘Its diversity.’
It’s true that the outsiders who have won seats in Germany and Poland in recent months rode a wave of discontent to get there. But they also carried distinct ideas with them. The Pirates want a guaranteed basic income and are perhaps the only party to tackle issues of Internet freedom in a coherent—if controversial—way. And the Palikot Party is the first in Poland to call for the legalization of gay marriage, marijuana and abortion.
Benita, to her credit, has stepped outside of party politics, and managed to earn a degree of traction with very limited resources. It’s just a shame she’s done so with the same tired ideas as everyone else.