More than a thousand women and men attended Uk Feminista’s conference at Friends’ House in Central London yesterday. I was asked to chair a hustings style debate for the invited Mayoral Candidates. At a time when the government, and local authorities are being accused by organisations such as The Fawcett Society of making funding cuts that disproportionately harm women (pension changes, public sector job cuts, cuts in child care and social care services) it seemed an excellent time to have such a discussion.
London Assembly candidate Natalie Bennett came on behalf of the Greens’ Jenny Jones. Labour’s Ken Livingstone (and 2 term former Mayor) used the date to put out a press release announcing he planned to introduce a new equal pay commissioner to get London companies to close the pay gap. The Lib Dems’ Brian Paddick, a former Deputy Assistant Met Police Commissioner spoke with breathtaking honesty about his own experience of being subjected to domestic violence in the past. The current Mayor, Conservative Boris Johnson, had said he had a diary clash, but did not respond to a request to send a representative.
As a national conference, many of the questions reflected the topics that had been debated over the day, such as concerns over the sexist treatment of women in the news media and advertising, which are not issues that fit easily into the remit of the Mayor. Several questioners challenged the candidates over programmes to tackle gang activity, worried that sexual violence in gang culture wasn’t being addressed adequately. All the candidates promised to back secured funding for the capital’s Rape Crisis Centres.
Some of the strongest practical discussion came around personal safety. The candidates were strongly opposed to reports that Transport for London plans to cut staffing at some London Tube stations. Ken Livingstone claimed TfL has built up a massive cash surplus which meant the cuts were not justified.
Westminster Council’s plans to extend parking charges till Midnight and all day Sunday have, according to the Evening Standard, anyway, formed an unlikely alliance between Tom Conti, Mumsnet and Stringfellow’s lapdancers, all of whom claim the safety of night workers and the freedom of family visitors are being blocked.
The last questioner pointed out that nearly every cyclist killed on London’s streets this year has been a woman. Brian Paddick said he would commission research into why.
Much has been made of the fact that Boris Johnson didn’t show. Certainly you needed to be ready to be confronted by some very full on feminist ideas. But mostly, you needed a sense of humour, which he has. After the hustings, two UK Feminista campaigners came onstage wearing fake muff wigs, urging the Candidates to wear them too to join a forthcoming march. (Paddick asked if his could be ginger). A question about putting more focus on respect and consent into sex education saw Ken Livingstone end up talking quite amiably about the importance of nice sex; a subject one would have loved to see Johnson discuss.
It’s become clear that Johnson is a terrific public performer except in certain situations, which he will always avoid. (Like a feminist conference). While there was plenty of humour and banter at Fem11, Johnson would have been well out of his comfort zone. To be fair the strongly anti-Tory mood among most of the conference participants makes the decision to stay away perfectly logical, and yet it’s hard to think of anyone else in the Tory party, who has the ability to take on such a challenge.
LibDem Peer Floella Benjamin told me last year that she decided against entering the Mayoral race because standing between the egos of Johnson and Livingstone would be like standing between “two battling peacocks”. Paddick’s frankness about his experience of domestic violence may have been honest, but as he contests London for the second time, I wonder what effect it will have on how he is perceived, even subconsciously; both by political commentators and voters.
Johnson’s old fashioned charm-based style could be severely challenged by the kryptonite of a strong female opponent. Yes, the Greens’ Jenny Jones has definitely become a prominent voice, especially over policing, but one wonders what sort of race we’d be having if Oona King had won the Labour candidacy.