A Race to the BottomThe Weird World of the 2021 London Mayoral Election
Otto English provides the lowdown on all those hoping to lead the running of the capital… and only just emerges from the rabbit hole
Since the first contest back in 2000, the London Mayoral elections have attracted some of the more colourful personalities from the fringes of political life – and this year’s contest looks like a bumper offering.
The smorgasbord of talent runs from the incumbent Mayor, Labour’s Sadiq Khan – currently enjoying a whopping 26-point lead over his nearest rival – to former boxers, recidivist deposit losers, religious evangelists, vloggers, comedians, failed actors-turned-failed singers, conspiracy theorists, a man with a bucket on his head, and a drill MC from south London in a balaclava.
Running for Mayor isn’t cheap. Even before candidates can start campaigning, they are required to put down a £10,000 deposit and pay another £10,000 to get their manifesto in the booklet that is sent to every London home. To get the deposit back, they have to win 5% of the vote. But, of the 19 candidates running in this May’s election, four look likely to secure a 95% share in the first round – meaning that the other 16 candidates are quite likely in it simply to lose it.
As a Londoner, I wanted to know who these people are, what their motives might be, and what all this might say about the state of our capital in CoronaBrexit times.
In doing so, I fell down an absolute rabbit hole.
Conservative, Lib Dem, Green
Even his greatest admirers might struggle to list Sadiq Khan’s achievements in the role of London Mayor but, likewise, few detractors would be able to pinpoint precisely where he has put a foot wrong.
Khan has been an erudite advocate for the capital and, if the latest polls are to be believed, he is currently set to win on first preference votes on a 53% share – something that has never happened before.
His only serious challenger is the Conservative Party candidate Shaun Bailey, currently polling on a fairly dismal 28%.
A former youth worker whose My Generation charity became a ‘flagship’ for then Prime Minister David Cameron during those nebulous ‘Big Society’ years a decade ago, Bailey subsequently worked as a special advisor to Cameron before – by his account – being “frozen out” by the Prime Minister and his aides.
In 2016, he was elected as a member of the London Assembly. The following year, he stood for Lewisham West and Penge in the 2017 General Election but lost.
Bailey has been part bankrolled by Belize dwelling Lord Michael Ashcroft, who has poured £100,000 into his £255,000 war chest. It’s a good job Ashcroft has deep pockets because the campaign has been an absolute disaster.
Gaffe-prone Bailey has a history of blunders, including the time he confused the Hindu faith with the Hindi language and another, more recently, when he sent out a leaflet in which a “lad” called Beth sang his praises.
In December, Bailey was criticised for sending voters an official-looking letter marked “do not ignore” and adorned with a fake City Hall coat of arms, which suggested huge tax rises were imminent. The flyer directed recipients to a website that asked for personal details while making little obvious mention of who had sent it and why those details were needed.
Things went downhill from there. In March, Bailey was accused of seeking to politicise the disappearance of Sarah Everard during a then still ongoing investigation into her case and his apparent lack of awareness over that, coupled with a singular uninterest in his own campaign which has reportedly left Tory chiefs bewildered.
There are suggestions that his campaign funding has now been cut off.
Some distance behind and level pegging on 7% each come the Greens and Lib Dems.
Liberal Democrat candidate Luisa Porritt offers Londoners a fairly straightforward agenda, including a promise to tackle the housing crisis by turning empty offices into homes and a pay-as-you-go congestion charge, while the Green Party’s Sian Berry wants to drive down road deaths, improve youth services and deliver more affordable (and green) houses for London’s key workers.
The 16 Others
This leaves the other 16 candidates hoping to be the next Mayor of London chasing 5% of the vote. And for some there is method in the apparent madness.
In addition to the job of Mayor, there are 25 London Assembly seats up for grabs, appointed through an electoral system of proportional representation. Smaller parties need to show they mean business to win them and putting up a Mayoral candidate ticks that box.
The Women’s Equality Party and the Remain-inclined Renew Party undoubtedly have their eyes on those AM seats and are no doubt standing their candidates for improved optics.
Current Assembly Member David Kurten, formerly of UKIP, is doing the same. Kurten is now the leader of something called the Heritage Party, which – much like Ronseal fence paint – tells you all you need to know on the tin. His party believes in traditional family values and ‘free speech’ and, like many of the fringe right-wing groups, is knee-deep in Brexit and infused with an anti-lockdown vibe.
Kurten, a former chemistry teacher, caused some consternation among fellow London Assembly members last year when he tweeted that he would: “Not be taking an experimental COVID vaccine and I am not recommending it.”
It is likely that the contest will be curtains for his stint as an elected politician.
Brexit-inclined and right-wing candidates run thick on the ballot paper, but for those seeking something at the other end of the spectrum Valerie Brown is standing for Burning Pink – a radical ‘anti-political’ party committed to tackling the climate emergency and set up by individuals including Roger Hallam of Extinction Rebellion.
Independent candidate, Rosalind Redhead, is likewise standing on a manifesto for a climate and ecological emergency.
Then there’s Drillminister – an independent, drill artist from south London who explained his reasons for standing in a BBC interview with Victoria Derbyshire: “I’m not meant to be running for Mayor, I’m meant to be excluded from something like this because people from my background are not meant to have the confidence or the ability to drive themselves forward.”
Drillminister seeks to overturn the notion that politics is off-limits to people from his background and the idea “that a man in a suit with his face exposed is going to tell the truth”. It is a noble ambition and he’s an interesting and thought-provoking figure. And he’s not the only candidate wearing a mask.
Count Binface, formerly Lord Buckethead (it’s complicated), wears a helmet that looks, well, like a bin and has form – having stood against Theresa May in the 2017 General Election and Boris Johnson in 2019. The Count told me that he is the only “sensible option this time”, and if you look at the remaining list of others there is some justification in his comment.
Former boxer and perennial candidate Winston McKenzie has been to more parties than Paris Hilton. Now leader of Unity in Action, he has at some time or other being a member of the Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dem, Veritas and UKIP – which he represented as a candidate in Croydon North in the 2017 General Election.
Having favourably compared Nigel Farage to Jesus, he left UKIP in acrimonious circumstances to join the English Democrats that same year, before appearing on Big Brother in 2016 – where he caused outrage for his comments about LGBT adoption and the gay community.
UKIP itself – and yes, it is still going – has Peter Gammons as its candidate for London Mayor. These are desperate times for the party as it tries to cling by its fingertips to relevance under the leadership of Neil Hamilton. But ‘Gammons 4 London’ is an attention-grabbing slogan if nothing else.
Gammons defected from the Brexit Party in 2019 and, according to his website, he is one of the “most famous and in-demand inspirational and motivational speakers” in the world. The site adds that it is “historically documented that he has spoken to some of the largest events in history” including a rally in Manila that was attended by “four million people”.
Despite his immense global fame, nobody seems to have heard of him until he gave a speech at the UKIP conference in 2019. That was the one that was so poorly attended that even the then leader Dick Braine failed to turn up.
Gammons claims to have cured deaf and blind people around the world. In a bizarre interview with US televangelist Sid Roth in 2012, he suggested that his divine powers stemmed from a meeting with a messenger of God when he was 16. Apparently, the messenger of God pulled up in a taxi and told him to “take my healing powers to the world”, before explaining at some length that she’d been obliged to come in a taxi “because I don’t have a car”.
Gammons says he’s a former advisor to “Prime Ministers, Presidents and World Leaders” and has big plans for the “two million miles of unused tunnels” that (according to no less an authority than Peter Gammons himself) lie beneath the streets of London. Beneath the smiles, he believes “migrants are often given priority over the children of Londoners – that needs to stop” and opposes lockdowns etc.
Curiously, there’s no mention that I can find in his campaign material of his evangelical past or his literary efforts, which include a 1989 tome entitled All Preachers Great and Small.
Despite having God on his side, he will be lucky to pick up 2% of the vote.
Talking of divine prophets, Piers Corbyn, brother of the former Labour Party leader is also running. He is a “maverick weather forecaster”-turned conspiracy theorist who claimed last year that Bill Gates and George Soros were behind Coronavirus tweeting: “THE AIM IS A WORLD POPULATION CULL (‘people cause #CO2 problem’) by their mass vaccination plan containing poison.”
A few months later, he was suspended permanently from Twitter but he has been seen popping up at anti-lockdown events ever since.
In that, he shares common ground with politainment’s most famous by-product – Laurence Fox.
‘Lozza’ Fox – leader of (his own) Reclaim Party – needs no introduction here. The former resting television actor-turned resting pop star-turned aspiring politician perhaps thinks that he’s in with a chance. But it is likely that it will be more a case of ‘don’t call us’ from the London electorate.
In a grandiloquent video declaring his intention to run for Mayoral office, the Brexit-backing Fox promises Londoners that under his leadership they will be able to “work where you want to work and how you want to work and… I want to reclaim your freedom to move”. He also seeks to “reclaim your freedom to speak” and the right to “cherish your history rather than re-write it”.
Watching the film several times I was struck by how actorly it sounded – while not actually saying anything much at all. Word salad and a triumph of style over substance – which brings us to Brian Rose.
Over the past few months, Londoners have been introduced to Rose via some persistent YouTube advertising and carefully-placed billboards on the Westway and in Greenwich proclaiming that he is “Your Next Mayor of London”.
American-born Rose claims to have had a successful career on Wall Street and in the City of London and portrays himself as a no-nonsense businessman who, following a moment of clarity during a stay at Richard Branson’s private chalet in the Swiss Alps, gave up banking to dedicate his life to a website called London Real in 2011.
In 2014, he talked about the things that had inspired him saying: “I read American Psycho, I read the book Pimp by Iceberg Slim and I saw these books as training manuals.”
As London Real developed a dedicated core fan base and racked up impressive viewing figures, Rose branched out into developing a “business accelerator” programme with mixed results. In an article last May, Vice reported that “many past customers have been highly critical of the course content and format”.
As Coronavirus took hold, Rose – a free speech enthusiast – conducted a series of interviews with alien-bothering conspiracy theorist David Icke, during which Icke claimed that there was a link between 5G and the pandemic. Rose’s videos were later removed by YouTube and he launched a fundraiser to set up an independent “Digital Freedom Platform”. Vice suggests that these efforts raised him more than £1 million and led to accusations by some of his subscribers that he was trying to scam his followers.
Rose has clearly spent a lot of money on his campaign. Videos show an impressive battle-bus, flyers are popping through London letterboxes at a rate of knots and there are those enormous billboards. He has made much of the fact that various betting websites have ranked him second or third in the contest – suggesting, perhaps, that substantial bets have been placed on him winning.
Whether Rose rates his own chances is hard to fathom. He has certainly raised his profile in London and it seems likely that we will hear more from him.
Of the remaining candidates, one – Max Fosh, a comedian and YouTuber – is standing simply because he went to the same school as Laurence Fox and wants to win more votes. Then there’s the nominative determinist candidate Farah London, whose core eye-catching policy is to offer Londoners 100 days of free travel for her first 100 days of office.
Finally, there’s Nims Obunge, leader of the Freedom’s Ark Church, who wants to be the “people’s Mayor” and make London “the city of our dreams”.
A Depressing State of Affairs
So, what the hell does it all mean?
Over the past decade, there has been an explosion of small parties in the UK. There are currently 379 registered with elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission. Add in the many independents who believe themselves in with a chance and it seems that, in the near future, everyone will be a British politician for 15 minutes. The 2021 London Mayoral contest seems to reflect that landscape.
Undoubtedly, some of the candidates have good intentions. Others perhaps deserve to have their motives questioned. But, despite all the noise they are generating, they look likely to have bruised egos come 7 May.
Politics has always been a platform for self-absorbed egomaniacs to strut and fret upon the public stage and imagine themselves to be more relevant than they actually are. In these hyper-political times and with the added delusion of social media likes, more and more wannabes are being drawn like moths to the electoral flame.
And yet, having spent my week looking into this weird world, I’m left feeling less amused by it all and more than a little glum.
The most depressing takeaway is the dearth of obvious talent on offer. London Mayor is one of the biggest jobs in British politics and it seems even our ruling party can’t be bothered to put up a serious candidate for the gig.
I’m increasingly of the view that all the wrong people want to be politicians and all the right people want to do something, anything, else.
My trip down the rabbit hole has not dissuaded me of that opinion. In fact, things might be even worse than I thought.
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