Former senior civil servant launches London mayoral bid

By on 22/11/2018
Siobhan Benita, this years Liberal Democrats candidate for London mayor, speaking at the launch of the Women Leaders Index.

The former senior civil servant Siobhan Benita has been selected as the Liberal Democrats’ candidate for London mayor, and says she aims to “offer a fresh alternative to London’s tired two party politics.”

At the mayoral elections, scheduled for May 2020, Benita will challenge incumbent Labour mayor Sadiq Khan and the Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey – a former youth worker and government special adviser now serving in the London Assembly.

Emphasising her opposition to Brexit in the Remain-supporting capital, Benita said after her selection on Wednesday that “Sadiq Khan isn’t delivering the right solutions to violent crime, and only the Liberal Democrats can provide a genuinely public health approach.” She also turned her fire on Bailey, arguing that “the Tories have shown how out of touch they are with London’s values by selecting an illiberal, pro-Brexit candidate.” 

From inside Whitehall to outside City Hall

Joining the civil service in 1996, Benita spent a decade working on transport and environmental issues before becoming the Cabinet Office’s Head of Civil Service Governance and Communications. As a key adviser to then-Cabinet Secretary Gus – now Lord – O’Donnell, she focused on widening the civil service’s diversity, strengthening communications across organisational boundaries, and improving professional development. In 2009, she became the Head of Corporate Management at the Department of Health.

Benita left the civil service in 2012 to stand as an independent candidate for the mayoral role, securing 3.8% of the vote – putting her in fifth place, just 0.4 points behind the LibDem candidate Brian Paddick. The election was won by Tory incumbent Boris Johnson, who stepped down in 2016 to become an MP – and subsequently foreign secretary 2016-18.

In the 2016 election – held just six weeks before the Brexit referendum – Khan defeated Tory challenger Zac Goldsmith, securing 44% of votes in the first round. The LibDem candidate won 4.6% of the vote, trailing fourth-placed Green Sian Berry on 5.8%. But the LibDems have since seen their fortunes revive in the capital, winning control of two councils from the Tories in the 2018 local elections.

Time to try again

Since 2013, Benita has worked for the University of Warwick – setting up the Warwick Policy Lab, serving as Chief Policy and Strategy Officer at the economics department, and leading strategy for its Warwick in London operation. Meanwhile she continues to work on diversity and social justice issues, collaborating with Global Government Forum on our Women Leaders Index.

Speaking to this reporter for Civil Service World in 2012, as she left the civil service for her first stab at the mayoral race, Benita said: “Despite the best intentions of all parties, we still have a growing divide between the rich and the poor; we have unacceptable levels of deprivation and social inequality – and I don’t think that’s acceptable.”

“I’ve spent 15 years getting things done by bringing together a range of people; I know I’ve achieved things by getting the right people in the room,” she added. “If I can replicate that in the mayor’s job, I’ll get things done.

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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