‘Rising star’ can be an overused term in politics, but here’s Luisa Porritt’s CV over the past four years. In 2016 she joined the Liberal Democrats. In 2018 she was elected as a councillor. Last year she became an MEP and the party’s deputy leader in Brussels. Now she’s their candidate to be Mayor of London. It’s exhausting to write.
“I didn’t plan it,” she insists to me as we sit, socially distanced, outside a King’s Cross coffee shop, pre-second lockdown.
“And actually if I just wanted to get to elected office, frankly I would have joined another party because it’s not that easy as a Liberal Democrat.” Fair point.
Porritt had never been a member of a political party prior to Brexit. As a journalist working for financial publications she “felt it was really important to be independent and not nail my colours to any particular mast”. But that changed with the vote for Brexit.
“Brexit just left me feeling quite angry and empty,” says the 33-year-old.
“I was devastated on the day of the referendum result. I had lived, worked and studied in Paris during my 20s. I did my masters there which, I suppose, was a very formative time, looking back.
“I studied with people from all around the world, particularly a lot of fellow Europeans, and, you know, directly benefited from free movement. And so my first thought when that result came out, when Leave won, was that other young people aren’t going to get access to the same opportunities that I had. I just found that absolutely heartbreaking.” She joined the Liberal Democrats after hearing then leader Tim Farron call for a confirmatory referendum.
Rapidly selected as a candidate, then elected, onto Camden Council, she was then surprisingly elected as an MEP when the Lib Dems took a third seat in London – although, like everyone elected from the UK, she had barely got her feet under the table before being unceremoniously sent home.
The circumstances of her adoption as the party’s candidate for London mayor were “slightly accidental”, she says. The candidate who would have stood this year, Siobhan Benita, withdrew when the election was delayed for a year by the pandemic. Then Porritt’s only rival, Geeta Sidhu-Robb, was suspended from the party when footage emerged of her in 1997, as a Conservative, urging Muslim voters in Blackburn not to vote for Jack Straw because of his Jewish ancestry. Porritt had to face an election against ‘Reopen Nominations’, which is a very Lib Dem thing to do.
“Like a proper Lib Dem, I believe in democratic processes and I do think that, as a party, we want our candidates to have a proper mandate internally ‘cause that also helps members get behind them but fortunately I do have that,” she says.
We speak on the day the government forces Greater Manchester into the highest level of Covid restrictions. The region’s metro mayor, Andy Burnham, has emerged as a sizable national figure in recent weeks, only semi-ironically earning himself the sobriquet King of the North. Porritt contrasts this with London’s mayor, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, who has struggled to get attention through the pandemic.
“The mayor of London is one of the most powerful municipal offices in Western Europe, and certainly in this country,” she says.
“So there’s a lot more than can be done with that platform and that position.
“What I don’t see from Sadiq Khan at the moment is someone who’s standing up for London. So if I was in that role I would be a strong voice for Londoners and make sure that I negotiate firmly with the government.
“The TfL [Transport for London] bailout is a good example of that, not accepting any conditions that would be punitive for Londoners who’ve listened to the government’s advice and done the right thing by working from home where possible, but then not ripping away opportunities from young people who really need that free travel in order to get to school or to get around London.” (At the time we spoke, the government planned to end free travel for 11 to 17-year-olds as a condition of TfL’s £1.6bn lockdown bailout, but it has since been dropped.)
Her key policy is on housing, and specifically transforming the empty office space which takes up much of Central London – and which is likely to remain empty as working from home becomes semi-permanent – into “quality, affordable homes”.
“I want to create homes in the heart of the city, use those buildings and convert them into zero-carbon, affordable, quality housing, ‘cause we can fix the housing crisis at the same time,” she says.
“Lots of councils around London are finding it really hard to meet the building targets that are being asked of them.
“There’s an opportunity to make London more equal and diversify the capital a bit more. So that not all the jobs are concentrated in the centre either. With more people working from home, now instead of maybe getting a sandwich from Pret in Oxford Circus, people are going to their local cafes and getting coffees and sandwiches there, and so that’s already providing a much-needed stimulus for our local high streets all over London.”
So would she see, say, the City, with its unique political structure and tiny number (about 7,000) of residents, become a residential area? Or Canary Wharf, which, despite being partly residential, currently resembles one of those districts built for an Olympics with no plan for afterwards?
“I want everywhere to be a place to live but also a place to work, as far as possible,” says Porritt. “Yeah, I think there are opportunities with space in the City. Canary Wharf already is this kind of hybrid of apartments and offices.
“I think we need a special status for London, and particularly for the centre of London and places like the City and Canary Wharf where these opportunities may open up to make it attractive and easier for developers to create homes, to create incentives.
“But not in the way Conservatives are planning with their current set of planning reform proposals which would be a free-for-all for developers. I think it’s important that we set standards for quality as well. I want to make sure that these are spacious, affordable homes.”
Becoming mayor would also see Porritt in charge of the capital’s police. She has already picked up a few headlines with her promise to end suspicionless stop and search by officers. The Met commissioner, Cressida Dick, told the home affairs select committee earlier this year that officers had stopped and searched more than 20,000 young black men in London during the coronavirus lockdown – the equivalent of more than a quarter of all black 15-to-24-year-olds in the capital
“I feel that I can speak the language of police officers because my brother is a police officer, he’s a senior officer within the Metropolitan Police, so I understand their perspective as well and the challenges they’re facing and, operationally, what it is that they need to carry out their jobs,” she says.
“And I think it’s really important to distinguish that I’m not saying ‘scrap stop and search’ altogether. I would want to maintain those powers for the police to use intelligence-led stop and search, which they do have existing powers for under Section 1 [of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act], but get rid of suspicionless stop and search which, actually, tends to be very reactive.”
She would, she says, “reopen 33 community police stations across London, police stations which Sadiq Khan has signed off on closing”, although that figure would appear to be the number which have been sold off completely in the past decade. Whatever the figure, though, that would cost an awful lot of money. Where would it come from?
“Well, I said before that we need a mayor who’s going to stand up for London and, in doing that, it’s important to stand up to the government and say ‘London needs more investment from you guys as well’,” she says.
“Central government has been cutting its grant funding to local councils, which actually have to deliver a lot of these initiatives on the ground.”
On green issues, she says, she would plant more trees and scrap the Silvertown Tunnel project, a planned £1.2bn road tunnel under the Thames in East London connecting the Greenwich Peninsula and west Silvertown (Porritt doesn’t drive and travels everywhere by public transport).
Porritt’s challenge is a huge one. The latest survey by Redfield & Wilton Strategies suggests Khan enjoys a 20-point lead over his nearest challenger, the Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey, with the Lib Dems receiving 11% of first votes (it was taken before Porritt was confirmed as the candidate). They performed strongly in the capital in last year’s European election but in December’s general election they gained one seat (Richmond Park) and lost another (Carshalton and Wallington), leaving them with three.
And that was when Brexit was a live issue in overwhelmingly pro-EU London. With that no longer salient, I wonder, was she disappointed new leader Ed Davey has ruled out an immediate campaign to rejoin?
“I think that our position has been a bit misconstrued in recent weeks,” she says.
“We are still the most pro-European, internationalist party in the country. That’s never going to change. It is part of our DNA and, if I thought that had changed, there’s no way I’d be in the party. Because it’s the reason why I joined in the first place. That’s a core part of the identity and why I’m in the Lib Dems and not another party.
“But I think that it’s important to be practical and recognise that we do now have a Conservative government and we’re not going to be able to rejoin the EU tomorrow as much as many of us might like to. There isn’t a mechanism available to do it. So what we need to do is focus on trying to change the government to a more pro-European government, one that is internationalist and outward-looking, but also, in the meantime, we can be building that case.
“The country is divided over this issue, and unless we can change the minds of some of those people who believe we’re better off not being in the EU it’s just virtue-signalling to Remainers. And actually we need to convince Leavers that it’s the best path for our country and future as well.”
And with that she’s back on the Tube.
THE OTHER CANDIDATES FOR LONDON MAYOR
Sadiq Khan (Labour)
The incumbent. The first Muslim to lead a capital city in the Western world, he has failed to gain the attention of some of his counterparts in the north during the pandemic. His signature achievements include the Hopper fare (giving unlimited bus journeys within an hour), the Ultra Low Emission Zone and a Twitter spat with Donald Trump.
Shaun Bailey (Conservative)
A member of the London Assembly whose low profile has seen the Conservatives hold discreet conversations about replacing him with someone better known, with Sajid Javid mooted as a potential substitute. Seen as emulating Boris Johnson’s “doughnut strategy” – targeting Conservative voters in the outer boroughs – he has been outspoken on issues like law and order.
Siân Berry (Green)
The co-leader of the Greens is, like Porritt, a Camden councillor as well as a member of the Assembly. Seen as a good operator but an outside bet.
Former cabinet minister Rory Stewart’s run as an independent came to an end when the pandemic put paid to his quixotic quest to sleep in as many strangers’ homes as possible.