London’s Liberal Democrat mayoral candidate has pivoted from campaigning to launching a new initiative to help the over 70s during the COVID-19 crisis.
Siobhan Benita, along with her fellow candidates, was left with the question of what to do next after the Electoral Commission’s postponement of the mayoral election – announced 13 March – until May next year due to the crisis.
Ms Benita announced her new Calling with Kindness initiative this week, designed to utilise Lib Dem networks to make phone calls to those most at risk or likely to need support, and link them up with charities, councils or local groups offering help.
Ms Benita said: “Straight away it just felt like the obvious and the right thing to do.
“There were a couple of days when the postponement was announced when people were questioning should we be campaigning or should we not.
“I was quite clear that actually it’s not appropriate to do any campaigning now.
Ms Benita is hoping to launch the initiative later this week.
She said: “It’s a good way of refocusing our supporters and members and activists on something that’s the most useful thing over the coming period.”
She is all set up now working from her home in south west London alongside her husband – her two daughters are both staying at university with friends – and is in touch on a daily basis with her core team that were there for the campaign.
Ms Benita, who previously worked in the civil service for 15 years, also offered her help to Mayor of London Sadiq Khan in a letter sent just before the mayoral election postponement.
She is yet to receive a response, but said: “I’ve got access to this large group of people who are used to doing community work and are very civic minded.
“If there’s any way that I can link up to anything that City Hall might be thinking about doing and bring those kind of members with me, then I’m very happy to do that.”
She added: “Cross-party working at this time is so important. It’s absolutely not a time to be trying to score political points – this is so much bigger than that.”
The new initiative will focus on single households and the over 70s who might be the most vulnerable in terms of needing immediate supplies.
However, Ms Benita also wants to start a conversation about supporting young people who might be particularly vulnerable during this period.
Ms Benita said that she is in touch with people she worked with on the Youth Violence Commission, which was due to bring out is final report this week.
Ms Benita said: “There are two big areas that are coming out.
“One of those is older children – a lot of people have focused on how do you keep young children occupied and keep their education going, but there has not been as much focus on the older teenagers who might not want to be in the house if that house is not a safe place to be.
“Also, the levels of domestic violence that you might see in this period as well – I think there’s a huge concern around that.”
In terms of the current handling of the crisis, Ms Benita was critical of those who used their platforms early-on to sow doubt with regards government policy.
However, she said that criticism of the government’s current lack of clarity in communication is now warranted.
She said: “Some of the communications of who can go outside, how often you can go outside, what if you’re self-employed, all of those things I think haven’t been clear at all.
“This has to be an absolute priority for the Chancellor to come out with a package for the self-employed now.
“And we need to see more urgency on getting the protective equipment out to our frontline workers.”
Looking to the future, Ms Benita said: “London is resilient, and Londoners are brilliant.
“I think you’re going to see London really adapt to different ways of working and I think you’re already seeing that by how creative some people are being in terms of moving as much as possible online.
“I think you’re going to see actually that some of that might stick, which is not a bad thing.
“Hopefully if there are some positives that come out of this it will be things that have a benefit for people’s quality of life, but also for the environment – people working more at home, people not driving around unnecessarily.”
When asked how this crisis is altering the political landscape, Ms Benita said: “Party politics has become kind of meaningless in all of this.
“I think any government, whatever their politics, if you look around Europe, most governments are coming to the same kind of conclusions of how they actually help in terms of financial support for businesses and for individuals through this crisis.”
She added: “What it will change I think is we will have a different narrative around some of our amazing institutions, like the National Health Service, like the BBC.
“People are really seeing the importance of those in these times of need, so hopefully that will shift in terms of a Conservative government looking at them differently.
“It’s going to be very hard for a Conservative government in the future to talk down our public servants, when it’s our public servants at the moment who are keeping the country going, whether that’s civil servants, health workers, or people in registry offices.”
Ms Benita went on to express hope that previous narratives surrounding low-skilled workers might now change forever – and that questions around the sustainability of zero hours contracts will be asked.