Letter to London
I am writing to tell you — the readers of the Evening Standard — first that I am running to be Mayor of London, as an independent candidate . And I would like your vote so that we can transform this great capital — the most intricate, diverse and astonishing city on the planet, the financial centre of the world, and the cradle of our democracy — together.
We are going to have to work together to lead London through one of the most challenging times in its history, through the uncertainty of Brexit, and in the face of an ever more divisive politics.
And there is so much to do immediately. I felt this in Poplar, when I saw a man who had just been stabbed to death in a park, and when a woman in the neighbourhood led me into a public lavatory, to show me male heroin addicts shooting up in the female cubicles. I felt it in Lewisham, where some people are living with seven people in a two-room flat, and waiting three weeks for a GP appointment.
I feel it through the frustration of tech entrepreneurs, struggling to plan for the future. And almost every day I feel the consequences of the vicious party divisions in Westminster.
So many of our problems in London are blindingly obvious. You don’t need me to tell you that too much of our housing is unaffordable, or that our air is grotesquely polluted, or our streets unsafe. Instead you need someone like me to sort these things out.
And again, the answers are not rocket science. It is obvious that we need to build far more houses and flats — not just gimcrack boxes, but homes we can be proud of. We need more police on the streets — immediately.
It is true that this is a complicated city, and there are no silver bullets, but it is sadly also true that we are suffering from a real lack of leadership, and of strong and thoughtful action. And that is, I fear, because most of our politicians have spent too much time within the political bubble.
I am proud of not being a professional politician. I have been able to apply the lessons I learnt as the deputy governor of a war-torn province in Iraq, as the founder of a charity in Afghanistan, and, back here in Britain, as the flooding minister and prisons minister, and as a member of Parliament.
It didn’t matter whether I was clearing 30,000 truck-loads of garbage out of the old city of Kabul, or whether I was introducing the plastic bag tax or reducing violence in an East London prison — I learned how to understand the problem clearly, grasp the solution, and then have the energy and determination to drive it through. When 10,000 people are dying prematurely each year and toddlers’ lungs are a third underdeveloped due to air pollution, or when we are inadequately supervising criminals in London, we shouldn’t be trying to hide the problem, we should be solving it.
And if we are lucky enough to live in a city that powers the British economy, we need to keep the traffic moving and the city growing.
But we are only going to succeed when we finally break free from the suffocating embrace of our dying party politics. Our leaders have become so bad at listening to the people — who are actually working at the ground level, keeping this city going, on the Tube, or in the police, or with communities.
Our politicians have been taken hostage by public relations consultants, and despite their optimistic promises, they are privately uneasy, pessimistic, and indecisive leaders, who have little experience of how to actually change the world.
Instead, they have retreated to a madhouse of mutual insults in the Gothic shouting chamber of Westminster, and under the bleak lights of City Hall, pitting one group against another — rich against poor, London against the rest, Brexit against Remain. All the time they are getting further and further from compromise, practical solutions, and the centre ground.
And this is why I’ve decided to stand, not for a party, but as an independent. There will always be disagreements over policy — we should often welcome this, otherwise we will just settle into lazy habits, half-baked ideas and pointless compromises. It takes a willingness to challenge others to get houses built in a crowded city, or tackle knife crime. We have to take risks, and sometimes even make mistakes.
But you can disagree about policy without firing political insults about cruelty or cowardice, ignorance or Marxism. As President Obama said about his time as a legislator in Chicago: “We learned to disagree without being disagreeable — that it’s possible to compromise so long as you know those principles that can never be compromised; and that so long as we’re willing to listen to each other, we can assume the best in people instead of the worst.”
I will be spending the coming weeks walking around London — not campaigning, but listening and learning, and walking through every borough.
I am doing it to hear from you, to see problems at their most local, to work through, step by step, all the differences between Ealing and Bromley.
Because I realise that local people always know more, care more and can do more about local issues than distant politicians.
First published in the Evening Standard on 4 October 2019.