A ‘safer, fairer and greener’ London - Belsize’s Luisa in line for mayoral race

Luisa Porritt at Belsize Streatery. Picture: Polly Hancock

Luisa Porritt at Belsize Streatery. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Polly Hancock

If the Liberal Democrats had known the amount of attention the election to choose their mayoral hopeful would have got within its first 72 hours - you suspect party chiefs may have been delighted.

Luisa Porritt speaks to Harry Taylor talk at Belsize Streatery. Picture: Polly Hancock

Luisa Porritt speaks to Harry Taylor talk at Belsize Streatery. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Polly Hancock

Instead it was for the wrong reasons, as Geeta Sidhu Robb was thrown out of the contest after antisemitic comments she made during the 1997 general election campaign were uncovered.

It means her opponent, Belsize councillor and former MEP Luisa Porritt, is the only person left in the election, though party members will have the option of reopening nominations. The result is due to be announced on October 13.

Speaking to the Ham&High in the balmy warmth of Belsize Village’s streatery, Luisa is asked about the turmoil of the weekend’s events, which capped off the most chequered of starts to any candidacy election.

“I saw the footage and it was very distressing to see.

“I think for anybody, you don’t have to be Jewish to have found that hard to watch but I am pleased that the party has responded quickly and effectively.

“What I want is to represent all communities in London, and I will be a champion for all voices, all faiths and none and that’s the vision I’ll put forward over the next few weeks.”

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This is the third election that Cllr Porritt has stood for in as many years. You can occasionally get the feeling from her that she’s an accidental politician, as she airs surprise at entering yet another contest.

Yet she is one of the Liberal Democrats’ rising stars and quickly became deputy leader of the group in the European Parliament after her election last year. When Siobhan Benita resigned as a candidate in the summer, it wasn’t a surprise when the former MEP threw her hat in the ring.

The Lib Dem has spent most of her life in London. She was born at the Royal Free Hospital and grew up in Camden. While she will inherit part of the manifesto that Ms Benita was set to run on, she refers to her experiences in London that underpins her initial pitch to voters. She hits out at the “kleptocracy” behind empty homes in the capital and says Sadiq Khan hasn’t done enough to protect free travel for under-18s in the recent government bailout of Transport for London. There’s also perhaps a glimpse of a potential campaign slogan, returning to themes that London needs to be “safer, fairer, and greener”.

“That encapsulates the key challenge we’re facing,” the 33-year-old said. “Whether we’re tackling air pollution or making young people in London feel safe. It is utterly tragic, and I don’t want to keep opening a newspaper and hearing about another young person who has died unnecessarily. Sadiq Khan has a poor record on that.

“I deal with so many residents who are in overcrowded or temporary accommodation, and it breaks my heart that I have to constantly relate bad news. People will still be waiting for years to move or to get more secure accommodation. That’s not right but it’s something the mayor can affect.”

READ MORE: We need both a civic and an economic renewalREAD MORE: Opponent’s antisemitic comments leave Belsize councillor in line to be Lib Dem mayoral candidate

Her candidacy also comes at a time of a forced renewal for her party. After four years of the Lib Dems being defined by their opposition to Brexit, the party has been forced to move on. Cllr Porritt’s likely election comes weeks after that of Ed Davey as party leader. It’s an opportunity, she says, to shout louder about the party’s underlying values.

“We do need to work on how we communicate our messages so that they resonate with a broad range of people. I don’t think that we are short of policies, we never have been. We have plenty of solutions but it’s how we get our message across.

“[Air pollution] is a very urgent situation. I’m someone whose asthma has come back because of pollution, so what hope is there for the next generation growing up in London? It goes to the heart of liberalism and that’s why we opposed Brexit, that’s why we want to create a better future for the next generation.”

Aptly for a candidate who speaks highly of the city’s galleries and museums - the Tate Modern a particular favourite - the Liberal Democrats have risked becoming an exhibit itself. The general election saw them hold on to its three London seats but the party hasn’t received more than 5% of the vote for the mayoralty since 2008, finishing comfortably behind the Greens in the two elections since. Yet she is defiant about her chances.

“I’ve stood in two elections already and had results that defied the odds,” she said.

“People said I couldn’t win my council seat in 2018 as a newcomer. People said I wouldn’t get elected as an MEP as third on the list last year, and I did.

“We are ten months out from an election. The situation is very volatile because of the pandemic, and a lot could change. We have got an incumbent mayor who is well liked but actually doesn’t have a strong record of achievement to stand on. I think he needs to be held to account on that.

“We have a Conservative candidate who is distracted by members of his own party talking about replacing him and who is weak and ineffective, and doesn’t represent London as a hard Brexiteer. It is good to give Londoners a better choice.”