Three of the candidates have done this all before. In fact, as Ken Livingstone reminded us, some of them have been doing London politics for more than 30 years. During the run-up to the Mayoral election they spend most nights of the week sparring with each other and fielding questions from experienced interviewers, broadcast to millions of viewers and have their every move analysed by the newspapers.
So why, exactly, were the candidates on edge? Why was this far from the usual experience for them? And why did many of us come away from the evening feeling that the race for Mayor had been injected with a whole new energy and impetus?
Well, simply put, because a London Citizens Mayoral Accountability Assembly is like no other event on the campaign calendar.
For a start, it’s the biggest audience the candidates have addressed. 2,000 people from across London’s diverse communities packed out the Methodist Central Hall, Westminster. Young and not-so-young sat alongside each other. Londoners old and new were represented – those who’ve lived and worked in the city their whole lives and those who’ve arrived very recently. Delegations from churches, mosques, temples and synagogues formed a part of the audience, but non-faith groups were well represented too – charities, social enterprises, students unions and school groups.
This diverse audience made for a carnival atmosphere, a choir sang and we saw amazing football skills on the stage. But that’s only the beginning of what made this a unique experience.
The real difference between this and all the other Mayoral hustings was that this was an ‘accountability assembly.’ We were there to assess how Boris Johnson had performed as Mayor over the last four years and examine his record, based on the agenda London Citizens had produced in 2008. He was praised for the effort he’d put in and the achievements made, but also told where he’d fallen short.
And then, the evening’s main event: the Citizens Agenda 2012. We asked all four main candidates to respond to our agenda, and heard amazing testimony from those whose real life experiences had helped to form it. The agenda began a year ago. London Citizens has 243 member institutions across 24 boroughs of London, gathered in five chapters (North, South, East, West and Shoreditch).
Thousands of one-to-one conversations took place. Members of our churches, parents at the school gate and students at our universities were asked what their main concerns and problems were. These conversations were collated, the answers tallied up and a series of policy areas were identified on which many of our members felt very strongly. Then, our five chapters met in huge assemblies to vote on which of these priority areas would make the final agenda.
Once this democratic process had been completed, the agenda was honed and refined. We were asking for five things from the candidates: safer streets, better wages, more opportunities for young people, housing improvements, and a better governed city. These aims may sound vague, but the agenda was carefully crafted, with specific policies we were requesting the Mayor to carry out, and the commitments we, as London Citizens, would carry out.
Throughout the course of the evening, we heard stories from ordinary Londoners about why these areas were so important to focus on. Barbara, who’s a cleaner for a top hotel chain, broke down as she told us she could barely afford to live on the wage she was paid. Lorriane gave her story – as a mother whose son was cruelly taken away in a violent attack in North London. We heard about young people struggling to get jobs, damp housing conditions and Londoners who can’t afford to pay their exorbitant rent. If this all sounds heartbreaking, it was. In a room of 2,000 people, we could have heard a pin drop at times.
But the testimonies didn’t stop there. We heard about the amazing improvements which have been brought about through London Citizens. Huge corporations have begun paying a Living Wage. Housing Associations have begun to improve accommodation after pressure from local residents working together. We heard wonderful stories of teamwork among different groups who’ve come together to make their streets safer through the CitySafe programme.
The candidates had a tough act to follow. But they rose to the occasion. Jenny Jones, Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson and Brian Paddick were called forward to respond to our agenda. They were given the chance to say how they would enact our policy ideas and then questioned by ordinary people from our member institutions. We were impressed at how many of our ideas were praised by the candidates. Our Community Land Trust programme won universal support from them. The City Safe scheme was held up as a beacon by all candidates. This was politics at its most raw – ideas formulated on the streets of London, being adopted in the corridors of power.
The whole event was organised, presented, chaired and staffed by volunteer leaders from across our City, ably assisted by the team of London Citizens staff. The 2,000 people in the room, the 12,000 people we signed up to promise to vote, the 250,000 people who have some contact with our member institutions and the many who watched the event online are now better informed. They’ll make a more-informed decision when they go into the polling booth.
This, of course, isn’t the end. In fact, it’s just the beginning of another cycle of working to improve London alongside our politicians. Whoever is elected and becomes the next Mayor of London knows that London Citizens will be watching for the next four years and will hold that person to account in 2016. London will be a better place because of it.