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How Rory Stewart could win London With a reputation rooted in Cumbria, Rory will have a hard job convincing the capital city. Our contributors offer him some advice.

Credit: Hollie Adams/Getty Images

October 14, 2019   10 mins

After his failed bid for the Tory leadership, MP Rory Stewart has decided to run for Mayor of London. With a reputation rooted in Cumbria and fierce competition from the incumbent Sadiq Khan, he’ll have a hard job persuading voters he’s what the capital needs. We asked our writers to think of one policy that could make the difference for Rory…

Live on an average Londoner’s wage
James Bloodworth, author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain

He announced his intention to run as an independent candidate only a few days ago, but Conservative MP Rory Stewart has already been dismissed by some commentators as not being enough of a Londoner to win the contest.

In this age of identity politics, out-of-towner is not an appellation that Mr Stewart is going to wish to find attached to his name during a mayoral contest. Indeed, Sadiq Khan appeared to win the last contest merely by repeating to Londoners that he was the local son of a bus driver.

So Rory needs some kind of policy gimmick to draw media attention away from any focus on his origins beyond the M25. Fortunately, I have just the plan. Following in the footsteps of former Labour MP Dave Nellist, Rory should pledge if elected to live on the average London worker’s wage.

It’s a gimmick — but it might be just enough of a gimmick to set Stewart’s campaign alight.

As well as being paid an average worker’s wage, Stewart would also have to dispose of his comfy house in South Kensington and live among London’s army of penurious renters. However, his descent into England’s proletariat would be softened by the knowledge that it would only be temporary while he served out his term.

We live in anti-establishment times, and such sacrifice and ascetism would surely be rewarded by the electorate, in whose eyes Rory would be transformed from an effete liberal raconteur to a stolid man of the people. This is a winning formula in today’s political climate.


Let Londoners drink on public transport
Claire Fox, Brexit Party MEP and founder of the Battle of Ideas festival

Rory could do with a bit of an image makeover after that Pret a Manger joke, which makes him look like a healthy-eating stick-in-the-mud. One way he could do it would be to reverse the ban on drinking on public transport.

Firstly, it would be a liberal thing to do, in the classical sense, trusting that the vast majority of people can enjoy a tipple without harassing others.

Secondly, it would be a nice vote of confidence in London’s night-time economy, which has faced many pressures in recent years, yet is vital for anywhere with ambitions to be a “world city”. Let partygoers and clubbers enjoy a drink on their big night out and mark out London as a place that likes to let its hair down.

Last, but by no means least, it would be a poke in the eye to Boris Johnson, who likes to claim he’s a libertarian, but whose first move as mayor was to introduce the drinking ban in the first place.


Make the capital a hedgehog haven
Tom Holland, author of Dominion

Just because Rory is moving from Cumbria to London doesn’t mean that he has to leave behind Mrs Tiggywinkle. Despite all its concrete and tarmac, London can be a surprisingly hospitable place for wildlife, and alongside the foxes nosing around our rubbish bins and the migratory birds who flock to nature reserves like the London Wetland Centre, hedgehogs too provide the capital with a touch of the countryside. Even in the very heart of the city, in Regent’s Park, a tiny population of the animals consistently voted Britain’s best loved wild mammal clings on.

Londoners who want our hedgehogs to be saved from extinction cannot leave the task to conservationists beyond the M25. There is a job to be done in the capital as well. The sheer scale of London means that hedgehogs are unlikely to flourish here without a co-ordinated attempt to link their habitats together.

Councils need to be encouraged to allow herbaceous vegetation and shrubs to grow along the edges of parks; public utilities to sink tunnels under roads; householders to open gaps in their garden fences. As a candidate to be mayor, Rory should back the provision across the capital of what the London Wildlife Trust has called “hedgehog superhighways”. The ambition must be to ensure that no hedgehog habitat in the city is an island entire of itself.

A capital that neglects to save its last remaining populations of these enchanting, iconic and authentically wild creatures, at very little cost and inconvenience, will be a capital that has lost something of its soul. I would love to see Rory put this in his manifesto.


Rethink the green belt
Jonn Elledge, editor of CityMetric

The case for rethinking London’s Green Belt will, by now, be familiar to anyone who’s given a thought to the capital’s housing crisis. Short version: we need more homes; we’re not willing to demolish existing streets so we can squeeze them in there; large chunks of the Green Belt are ugly and next to stations, so let’s have at it.

What is sometimes missing from this debate, though, is that a Green Belt with more houses on it might actually be more green. The farmland which fringes the suburbs, after all, tends to be drenched in chemicals which do untold damage to nature. It’s also far less accessible to the public than, say, Victoria Park.

As perverse as it sounds, redeveloping some of that green belt as homes with carefully planned parkland in between might actually increase both biodiversity and suburban Londoners’ access to green space. By reducing the need to commute from far-flung towns like Luton or Southend, it might be more environmentally friendly, too.

This is a hard case to make, of course, but if there’s any higher purpose to an insurgent campaign like Rory Stewart’s, surely it’s to make the case for important but unpopular measures. And if he wants to play on the easy setting — well, he could always restrict himself to promising to build homes on golf courses.


Get Londoners walking and talking
Polly Mackenzie, Director of Demos think tank

Rory Stewart’s main problem is that his brand — walking about and talking to strangers — is about as un-London as you can get. What works on the fells of Cumbria starts to feel weird when hemmed into a Tube carriage with 120 other sweaty souls.

But he has no choice. A brand is a brand, and his policy platform should be to remake London in his image: the best place in the world to walk, and the best place in the world to make a new friend.

#LondonWalks is the easier proposition. Pedestrianise our high streets. Convert our disused railway lines into strip parks, like New York’s high line. Reward families who walk the kids to school. Ban lorries from the roads between 6am and midnight. Allow people to close off any residential streets on Sundays for children to play outside. We’d be calmer, and healthier, if we all got our 10,000 steps a day.

#LondonTalks will challenge us sceptical city dwellers. But we’d be a stronger city if we made more effort to speak, and listen, to each other. Let’s start with a single day, when every Londoner can pledge to say hello to a stranger. Then a day when everyone who doesn’t know their neighbour pops round to say hello. From there, who knows?

The Mayor doesn’t have to just be a technocrat, pulling policy levers. They can also be a leader of social change. London, Rory-style, might prove a refreshing change.


Introduce an annual London census
Jon Cruddas, Member of Parliament for Dagenham and Rainham

The speed at which people migrate into and within the capital is extraordinary, yet it is barely recognised by the state. This is a critical issue for those living in the poorest parts of the city — those with the cheapest rents and house values. It places extraordinary pressures on public services in these areas of greatest need.

The state is totally ill-equipped to track in real time such movement, remaining captive to a ten-year census cycle. The data is outdated before it is even published, given the velocity of change in a city such as London. The best tracker is the school roll — which is inadequate for effective public policy making.

A new baseline for distributing public resources is desperately required, not least because the poorest communities are disproportionately taking the strain in terms of the escalating city headcount. Such a resource would also be invaluable in lobbying central government over all aspects of public policy from health to education, council allocations and policing.

The Mayor should urgently engage the Leverhulme Centre on Demographic Science at Nuffield College to build a new census model for the capital as an innovative, transparent metric to underscore public policymaking for London.


Take on the absentee landlords
Peter Franklin, Associate Editor of UnHerd

Rory Stewart won’t win on the strength of his awesome Roriness alone — it just gets him a hearing for his ideas. Luckily, as an independent, he can propose whatever policies he likes — so they’d better be bold and brilliant.

To deal with the charge that he’s too privileged to be Mayor, Rory should take aim at London’s most privileged interest group: the city’s private landlords, in particular its absentee landlords. Our capital is a magnet for the world’s money, but if it’s just used to buy into a restricted land supply, it does nothing for Londoners apart from putting up the rent.

Our capital should be a welcoming and dynamic destination for the world’s most talented people, not a series of empty apartments for idle speculators to put their cash into. If they want to use London bricks-and-mortar as a safety deposit box while making no other contribution, then it’s a service that should be charged for.

So here’s the policy: levy a hefty annual fee on every dwelling above a given value. This would be reduced in proportion to UK taxes paid by the owner — or money invested into a qualifying enterprise. Genuine entrepreneurs would pay nothing, absentee landlords and tax avoiders would pay full whack.

Oh and the proceeds would go to the regeneration of London’s rundown housing estates.


Reform political lobbying
Tanya Gold, journalist

I am bored with personality politics, saviours-of-the-day and people who claim to be different but go on to be the same. Ennui and the willingness to close your eyes on television is not enough; nor is obvious cleverness, nor unusual sensitivity. I suggest this, if Stewart wants to be taken seriously as a political reformer: reform political funding and political lobbying.

People beyond the bubble, which is growing larger each day, think Westminster is a closed shop, and, even if it were only a belief — I’d say it’s only moderately corrupt for now — it would be dangerous enough. You should not be able to buy privileged political access in Britain, but you can; and if it isn’t useful why would you do it?

At an event at Tory Conference — run by a PR firm posing as a think tank — I sat next to a monied man who heckled the very idea of taxing capital. In his hand was an itinerary including a private dinner with a senior Secretary of State. He didn’t pay for it, you say? Don’t be stupid.

Stewart should start with this – it would be worth it.


Build some decent social housing
Jenny McCartney, journalist

The most obvious policy that Rory Stewart should vigorously espouse in his London mayoralty bid is the one that so many politicians before him have fudged or failed at: a highly ambitious campaign of building good-quality social housing.

Stewart sounds receptive to the idea, having said earlier this month in a letter to Londoners that “It is obvious that we need to build far more houses and flats — not just gimcrack boxes, but homes we can be proud of.” But others have said similar things before, only for their promises to get tied up in complicated contracts with developers and elastic definitions; during Boris Johnson’s term as mayor, “affordable” was redefined to mean up to 80% of market rents, terminology that has not exactly proved accurate.

The current gross disparity between social housing supply and demand has helped create an expanding category of “working poor” in London — a throwback to the Victorian era — comprising people who are squeezed economically by high private rents but unable to access social housing. The implied contract between the individual and the state — that of work for basic security — has been eroded.

Potential pledges could be to end “right to buy” on London council properties; create a consumer regulator to enforce standards for social housing tenants; campaign for more central government money to reach new annual targets for building social housing; restrict the purchase of London investment properties by foreign buyers and encourage high-quality, imaginative constructions.

Aneurin Bevan — who, post-war, steered the UK’s biggest ever building programme for social housing — would have wept to see the housing difficulties of many families today. Some very radical, or very old-fashioned, thinking is required. Come on, Rory.


Good schools, not gangs
Ralph Leonard, Nigerian-British writer

London is one of Britain’s “hotspots” for the knife crime “epidemic” that regularly crops up in the news. At the moment politicians are frantically searching for quick, short-term solutions, such as increasing police numbers, cracking down on drill music and expanding stop and search. Arrest and convict may be the cheaper strategy, but it isn’t effective and doesn’t even begin to address the long-term social causes of knife crime.

No single policy will instantly “solve” London’t knife crisis totally, but a radical overhaul of the education system will help significantly and begin the long process of addressing this problem. Making education more attractive would be central to all this.

Education needs to be better and be seen to lead to better things; instead many of London’s schools are overcrowded, increasingly dilapidated and deprived of resources. The best chances are only for the rich.

Rory should pledge to raise the quality and standards of both middling and struggling schools, and demonstrate how being in school and learning makes a difference — and leads to greater material and psychological wellbeing than getting involved with gangs and knife crime. In doing so, Rory must recognise the damaging effects of the austerity cuts brought about by his spurned party, and commit to reversing them, through an ambitious long-term plan to providing the capital’s schools with adequate resources, teachers and renovated facilities.


Don’t just preach feminism — practise it
Julie Bindel, journalist and campaigner

During the Tory Party leadership contest most of the candidates, including Rory Stewart, declared that they were feminists (after Dominic Raab said he was “probably not” one). Quite frankly, I doubt very much that is the case, but if Rory Stewart wishes to truly set himself apart from the Tories, including former leader Theresa May, he could put his heart and soul into developing and maintaining services for women and girls who have experienced male violence in London.

The housing crisis in the capital means that if a woman escapes domestic violence with her children, then unless she is seriously rich, she is going to end up either sofa-surfing or in grotty bed-and-breakfast temporary accommodation. It’s no wonder so many women return to violent men, risking their own lives, when that is the alternative.

Similarly, sexual violence and rape in London is at an all-time high; the conviction rate at an all-time low. And yet at the same time, rape crisis services are being squeezed into nonexistence.

And then there is the issue of women being trafficked into London to be abused in the sex trade. There are barely any services available to these women if they do manage to escape, which means they face deportation. Surely we can do better than that? If Rory Stewart wants to make his mark, he could stand proud as the first ever Tory that took the pandemic of violence against women seriously.

Various Contributors bringing a range of different voices.


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