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Will this be London’s first female MAYOR?

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You might not have heard of Siobhan Benita, but that could soon change. On May 3, London will see its most hotly contested mayoral election yet, and Siobhan is taking on Boris and Ken. Michelle Davies finds out if she can do it >>

To say Siobhan Benita has an abundance of self-belief is an understatement. Frankly, she needs it. The 40-year-old mum-of-two has just quit a successful career as a senior civil servant to compete in a cut-throat election, which could cost her tens of thousands of pounds of her own money.

The election is not ordinary one – it’s for London’s next mayor. And with what looks like a two-horse race between incumbent Tory mayor Boris Johnson and his old Labour sparring partner Ken Livingstone, Siobhan faces a battle to convince voters to back her as the independent candidate.

“I’ve been asked a lot why I’m doing this. People have gone, ‘You’re considering do what?’” she admits. “But there’s a read dissatisfaction with party politics; the polls show people really don’t like either of the main parties at the moment, and Ken and Boris represent those parties. By having an independent mayor we can rise above party politics and get things done.”

Siobhan doesn’t match the stereotype of a politician. Ebullient and warm, she answers every question directly and, as far as I can tell, honestly. We’re in the front room of her south London home. Behind us is a hand-carved rocking horse her father made when her daughters, Grace, 12 and Emilie, 11, were small. It underpins how important family is to Siobhan, and why she’s standing under the slogan, ‘A mum for London’. “The reaction to that slogan has been interesting,” she says. “It really divides women. Some will never have children and get fed up if they think it’s all about childcare and buggies. To them, they have different challenges. [But] what I’m saying is I’m about people, not party politics.”

Her daughter and husband Vincent, 42, an IT worker with a City bank, are wholeheartedly supportive. “If they at any moment questioned it, I wouldn’t have done it,” she says. “My husband was fantastic. He was like, ‘It’s so clear you’re not fulfilling what you want to do where you currently are, so go for it.”

Vincent, to whom she’s been married 15 years, sensed Siobhan was no longer prepared to be invisible or impartial, as her job required. “As a good civil servant you must be prepared to hand over your advice and let ministers make the decision,” she explains. “That was becoming increasingly difficult for me to do.” In principle anyone can become mayor – anyone, that is, who can raise a deposit of $16,000 (which is forfeited if the candidate doesn’t get 5 per cent of first-choice votes), plus $ 16,000 to appear in the election booklet, as well as signatures of support from 330 London voters. The funding and leg work are far easier to achieve for candidates linked to a political party, so only a few independents have ever made it onto the baller paper. Siobhan is currently raising the funds – with the help of donors and supporters – to deliver to the Greater London Authority by the deadline of March 28.

So what compels a working mother to give up her job and run for mayor? Siobhan was increasingly frustrated with Ken and Boris’s tendencies towards “huge, macho promises” which, she says, they often can’t deliver on. “They’re in the party political trap of making ever more grand, overblown announcements,” she says. “I think the mayor should fight for London issues for Londoners. Over the years, I’ve found that I am good at finding solutions and getting things done by uniting people with opposing views. I feel like that’s a female trait 0 men like the fight; I like the solution.”

One morning last October, she realised she’d have to resign from her job that day in order to run. “The day I resigned, I felt liberated,” she says. “It had been hard for me not to say what I actually thought about the way things were run. I don’t want my daughter to grow up thinking women have less of a voice in shaping things.”

While Siobhan will campaign on the main issues affecting the capital – housing, public safety, transport – she’s also concentrating on the youth population, large numbers of which feel disenfranchised by soaring unemployment and the backlash from last summer’s riots. “I don’t like the way we focus on the negative – Broken Britain, lost generation. People will believe it and live down to it.”

Campaign trails are littered with bloodied noses and bruised egos from rivals taking personal potshots at each other. Is she ready for that? “I hope I’ve got a think enough skin. I won’t know how I'll deal with it until it happens,” she says. “Equally, it’s a double-edged sword. The minute Ken and Boris take interest in me to that extent, I know I’m doing well.”

Of course, it’s not just her rivals she must fear – certain quarters of the media are notoriously hard on politicians. “The worry when you do something like this is how it will affect your family,” she says. “I know at some point somebody will say something horrible about me and I worry about my daughters reading it and what they will think. That’s probably my only concern.”

Siobhan has already had a taste of unwelcome publicity, however. Last year, a national newspaper published a spurious article linking her to her then boss, Sir Gus O’Donnell, head of the civil service. Both denied any impropriety and issued a statement saying so. “You can either let something stupid like that stop you, or you can dismiss it in the way it deserves to be dismissed,” she says.

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Now she’s running for public office, she accepts what she says might be twisted. “If someone publishes something that’s not true, are you better off ignoring it or responding? I went to university and did most of the things people did at university but I never did drugs. Never. And I’m thinking, are people going to believe me?”

Aside from the implication of an affair, the most galling aspect of the article about her and Sir Gus was that it reduced her to one word: ‘glamorous’. Yet being judged on appearance alone is something all female politicians have to shoulder. “I did wonder at the beginning – am I not only going to be criticised and challenged for my policies, but am I also going to get, ‘What’s she wearing? God she looks terrible,’” says Siobhan. “It is something I think about. If I say I’m capable of doing this huge job, the least I can do is put on a decent dress in the morning.”

She’s also likely to be judged on how she juggles work with family life. “Somebody once said to me that you’ve got to decide at some point in your career what your priorities are. I agree with that to a certain extent,” she says. “I was very clear when my children were born they were my number-one priority. But does that mean I always have to be home at 5 o’clock? No, it doesn’t.”

If Siobhan wins on May 3, she’ll become Mayor of London in the year the capital hosts both the Olympic Games and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. But she’s ready for the challenge. “I know the scale of these events; I’ve been involved in the planning of others. This isn’t daunting for me – I’ve been there, behind the scenes, for years.”

Will voters be convinced, though? The fact that she’s worked in the backrooms of Whitehall and not at the coalface of politics means it’s harder to prove her credibility. In the official election period, between March 28 and May 3, candidates are allowed to spend up to $ 672,000 on campaigning. Before March 28, the sky’s the limit, and there’s no way she can compete with Ken and Boris’s budgets. Yet Siobhan’s adamant she can still beat them.

“I really wouldn’t do this if I didn’t think O had the chance,” she states, refusing to say what she’ll do if she loses. “I’m so focused on giving this my all. I’m in it to win.”

SIOBHAN’S MAYOR MASTER PLAN:

1.   Free travel… for some

Jobseekers travelling to interviews won’t pay to use public transport. Parents with babies and toddlers will ride buses for free.

2.   Outfoxing the foxes

Siobhan intends to commission a study into the issue of controlling urban foxes. From there she plans to seek a ‘sensible’ solution.

3.   Playing it safe

Siobhan is making public safety a key issue. She wants better street lighting and well-lit stations and bus stops.

4.   Working the land

Se plans to explore whether derelict sites can be used to build affordable housing.

5.   Banking on a freebie

One ambitious plan is to set up a monthly ‘Free London’ day, where residents can travel for free while restaurants, attractions and shops offer discounts. Her plan is to persuade the City banks to sponsor each day.

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