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"The others see it as a career move": Christian Wolmar, the outsider in London's mayoral contest

Christian Wolmar remembers the doubts he had, two and half years ago, when first considering running to be the next London mayor: “Will I make a total fool of myself if I go for this?”

Wolmar is the transport policy expert and party outsider attempting to be Labour’s successor to Boris Johnson. In spite of plugging away at a far-reaching grassroots campaign effort since 2012, he remains in the Westminster-shaped shadow of high profile Labourites like Tessa Jowell, Sadiq Khan, David Lammy and Diane Abbott.

Margaret Hodge, also a contender until recently, gave her views on each of Labour’s mayoral hopefuls in an interview with the Evening Standard. When asked what she thought of Wolmar, she replied: “Who?”

“Margaret has known me for 30 years,” growls Wolmar, when I ask how he felt about this. “I’ve campaigned in the same places, ended up having breakfast with her – I’ve even been on holiday with her in Italy.”

He was at first “angry” about her remark, but then gratified that he’d managed to get “under her skin”.

“By being slightly nasty, I think she’s exposed that she’s actually worried that I’ve got a serious chance of doing this. It was a strange bit of nastiness.”

Although Wolmar, who I meet for breakfast at a café nestled in the middle of St James’s Park, is in a buoyant mood. Wolfing down his porridge and chuckling away, he is disturbed by what her put-down exposes about the Labour establishment.

“For Margaret Hodge to put me down in a dismissive way is a mistake,” he says. “I think it shows that some people in the Labour party are just not open to the idea that we have to change, that politicians today are not very popular, that conventional politicians are being criticised all the time for being out of touch and so on.”

Wolmar, who has worked variously as a journalist, an author, in transport policy and on housing issues, believes he has amassed the knowledge required to take on City Hall. Running his first political campaign at the age of 65, he distinguishes himself from the other Labour contenders who have long been in the political game.

“I think it’s a great shame we didn’t have the mayoral selection process this year”

Jowell, for example, is very much associated with the New Labour years, and he calls Lammy and Abbott “incredibly experienced politicians who have been banging on for years and years”. Khan, a shadow cabinet minister, won’t announce his mayoral intentions until after the general election.

Wolmar believes the party’s mayoral selection contest should have taken place before the election, to stop politicians waiting to see where they’d end up if Labour were to win power. He warns that MPs hoping to run will be re-elected on 7 May, and could be chosen at the selection process six days later, having to trigger a costly by-election.

“I don’t want to be seen to be slagging them off,” Wolmar remarks, “but I do think that they all seem to be putting their hats in the ring because they can, not because they’re bursting with a vision for London. They’re seeing it to some extent as a career move.

“I think it’s a great shame, a fantastic shame, that we didn’t have the mayoral selection process this year… Instead, when Ed came out with the good idea of a primary, the NEC put it back until after the election, because I think these various people wanted to know whether they’ll be ministers or not, or what’s going to happen, and hedging their bets. And that’s a great shame.”

Another of Hodge’s comments that caused a stir was her call for a “non-white mayor” to represent London’s diversity. At present, on the Labour side, Wolmar is the only white man in the running.

“I know,” he laughs, putting his head in his hands. “I know.” Will this be an obstacle? “No. Diane [Abbott] actually answered it much better; I read her piece in theStandard: we want the best person.”

Abbott wrote that although Hodge’s comments were “well-meant”, she was wrong, and that the most important thing about London’s next mayor is a “willingness to fight for their city”.

Wolmar continues: “It’s patronising to say, ‘Oh, we have to have a black, or ethnic minority, mayor’. They might not necessarily be the right person, they might not necessarily have the right ideas, the right politics. It’s the vision, the ability to do the job.

“I thought it was really patronising – and it wasn’t a dig at me, it was a calculated dig at Tessa. I think it was just another bit of political malice actually.”

Insurgent campaign

But perhaps the most crucial way Wolmar differs from his opponents is in his campaign: he is a self-starter. Having watched “Boris and Ken, two old heavyweights, slug it out in a really dull way” in the last mayoral election, he decided he would like to give it a go. So after speaking to a few politicians and commentators to make sure he wouldn’t be making “a total fool” of himself, he asked his daughter to help him ring round the London Labour parties and tell them about his vision for London.

He started being invited to speak by local branches, and picked up some dedicated voluntary campaign officials along the way – including a campaign manager, community organiser and a young designer who is behind the minimalist sans-serif aesthetic of his campaign literature and website.

Wolmar has now spoken at around 80 local Labour party meetings in London over the years he has been running for candidacy, and picked up supporters along the way. His concentration on the grassroots, perhaps forced at first by the fact that he doesn’t have the political presence MPs do, has captured the imagination of some party members.

“The Labour parties we go to, generally they really like both the message and the fact that I’m doing this. The team just gets bigger and bigger and they love working on this campaign; they think it’s inspirational and different. Without that I would not have continued doing it,” he says sincerely.

He was first invited to speak to the Labour party of Muswell Hill ward in Hornsey and Wood Green. It was there where he learnt you shouldn’t make an hour-long speech if you want anyone to listen to you. “People must’ve fallen asleep,” he cringes. Since then, he has been to a variety of Labour bases in London: Islington, Holborn and St Pancras, West Ham, Kingston, Uxbridge, Putney, both of the Harrows, Finchley, Putney, and the Enfields…

This has both worked as a communication method and a fact-finding mission: “I’ve got a very good idea about the local Labour parties are like,” he smiles. “Some are strong, buoyant, and some of them are not and only eight or ten people turn up. They’re no less welcoming, but they do need an influx of new blood, some of them. Given that London is a Labour stronghold.”

Wolmar is “incredibly proud” of his operation so far, and even goes so far as to say he has “loved it more than anything I’ve ever done in my life”. He calls it an “insurgent campaign”, and something “nobody has actually tried to do” before, when running for political office in London.

City limits?

Wolmar’s policy planning comes under three banners: “Affordable, liveable or sustainable”. Any plan he and his team come up with has to fit into at least one of those categories. But this rather dry-sounding holy trinity of city planning doesn’t do justice to some of Wolmar’s radical thinking on reshaping the capital.

He is looking to transform iconic spaces in London. He wants to pedestrianise the south side of the Aldwych, next to Somerset House (something suggested to him by “somebody quite senior in TFL”), to return the western side of the Park Lane dual carriageway to the Royal Parks, and to pedestrianise Oxford Street. The latter, he argues, is a “no-brainer”, because otherwise the shopping thoroughfare – awash with tourists, and losing local shoppers to the burgeoning Westfield empire – will “die”.

Wolmar’s visualisation of a pedestrianised Oxford Street. Photo of campaign leaflet. See the rest at the Wolmar for London website

Underlying this restructuring is his desire to do away with the capital’s reliance on cars. He looks genuinely relieved that London didn’t follow a plan mooted in the Seventies to build a new series of motorways through the city ­ – “it would have just made London like a sort of sub-Birmingham,” he winces. And he supports Boris Johnson’s cycle superhighways and the Barclays Bike scheme, and Ken Livingstone’s congestion charge.

But Wolmar argues that the “next logical step” City Hall has yet to take is to “liberate spaces in London through encouraging people not to use cars in some places: closing places off, pedestrianising, beginning to create a different type of city centre”.

The argument against these grand plans, of course, pretty much boils down to: “But where will all the buses go?”

Wolmar has a rather bold response to the reasonable question about such disruption: “Well, look, let’s consider if the IRA had blown up Oxford Circus and blocked it completely off, we would’ve found a way – or a gas main had blown up and we’d closed off Oxford Circus, we’d’ve found a way to reorganise the buses within a week or two. We have to look at things in a different way. What is a successful city going to look like in 2050?”

“What use is an £800,000 flat in Battersea?”

Although transport is the backbone of his campaign, Wolmar also wants to make changes to policing and housing in London. He is reluctant to label his ideas as leftwing, but does concede, “I suppose I’m to the left of some people in the Labour party”.

He supports the mansion tax, for example, unlike some of the other mayoral contenders. “I completely disagree with Diane Abbott saying some of London’s money might be going to pay Scottish nurses. That is a failure to understand basic Labour values. We’re in favour of money from the affluent areas paying for Scottish nurses, you know! So the principle of the mansion tax is right.”

Wolmar laments wealthy overseas owners of London properties, which means “there are no lights on at night” in some areas, saying it “kills off [communities] economically and socially”. He is sceptical about the benefit to London such investment brings. “What use is an £800,000 flat in Battersea?” he fumes. “Who can live there?”

Having been on the beat with the police around his local area, Islington, he would also like to see an overhaul of the Met. He says the police force in London is “too big”, and plans to “hive off the London bit away from all the diplomatic bit and the terrorist bit, and actually just have one police force for London – you’d have some functions that you’d pass on to the Home Office. That’s perfectly feasible and desirable.”

He finds it “odd” when police say “operationally it’s up to us, we have to have complete control”. He gives the example of police refusing to enforce 20mph speed limit zones, because they assumed it wouldn’t work. “Why are the cops saying they’re not enforcing something?” asks Wolmar. “That’s not actually up to them.”

Asserting authority over the Met, cracking down on developers who don’t build affordable housing, turning Oxford Street into a placid walkway of fountains and picnic benches, and shaking up the Labour party establishment: quite an ask for one man.

Especially one with such a slim chance of becoming a candidate. Wolmar is aware of how tough the race will be, but is buoyed by the political landscape shifting and people voting for smaller parties. Putting on his high-vis vest and jumping on his bike, he says merrily, “I really believe I can do this. After all, [New York mayor] Bill de Blasio started out fourth in the primary.”

This interview originally appeared on the New Statesman’s politics blog, the Staggers. 
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