By Matt.Ross

25 Jan 2012

After 15 years in the civil service – including a stint as the cabinet secretary’s communications chief – Siobhan Benita is making the leap into politics. Matt Ross meets the would-be London mayor as she kicks off her campaign.

British politics is dysfunctional, argues Siobhan Benita – and she wants to do something about it. “My observation over the years, from working in Whitehall, is that party politicians find it really difficult nowadays to say what they think. They have to craft a line, and worry about who they’re going to upset,” she complains. The political leaders are desperate to present their parties as united, while the media are hungry to run stories of ‘splits’ – so “even the best ministers, who come in with the best motivations, somehow get into this machine where they can’t say what they really think,” she says. “It stifles them, and prevents them from being able to do what they want to do.”

Of course, the occasional politician does manage to combine loyalty to their party with honesty to themselves. Benita, who joined the Fast Stream in 1996, soon found herself working for Tony Blair’s deputy prime minister John Prescott as he pushed for action on climate change at the Kyoto and Buenos Aires summits – and she came to admire the Labour bruiser’s commitment and his down-to-earth style. “He worked really hard behind the scenes, and I don’t think he got a lot of credit for what he did,” she says. “With him, what you saw was what you got, and I quite liked that. Maybe we don’t have too many of that kind of honest politicians any more.”

Prescott was exceptional, says Benita: these days, most politicians are so scared of their party whips, our opinionated and aggressive media and Britain’s highly-vocal interest groups that the interests of their electorates are too often forgotten. Indeed, this career civil servant is so frustrated with the state of British politics that she’s just resigned in order to throw her own hat into the ring: Siobhan Benita is standing for election as London mayor.

Healthy scepticism
She’s quitting after 15 years on Whitehall – most recently at the Department of Health, where Benita has been recruiting and supporting the non-executive directors (Neds) who now sit on the department’s board. “The government didn’t want many Neds from the public sector: they were quite explicit about wanting to bring in people from the private sector to get a more managerial take on running departments,” Benita explains, acknowledging that “there was quite a lot of nervousness at the beginning of this process, and I was probably one of the people who thought we needed more people with public sector experience.”

She thought this, in part, because she believed board members would need a good understanding of the complex workings of the NHS – and indeed, it took the new Neds “a little while to understand exactly what we’re trying to do [in NHS reform]: there aren’t that many people in the country who understand exactly what we’re trying to do in health!” The first few board meetings were, she says, rather “stately: everybody was feeling their way”. However, now the Neds are becoming familiar with the issues and their fellow board members, they’re starting to come into their own. And Benita is starting to revise her early scepticism: “Actually, having seen how they work, I think it could be quite a useful thing having these really intelligent, really constructive, really objective people around the table.”

So Benita has had a busy couple of years at the Department of Health – but she’s probably best known around Whitehall for her work at the Cabinet Office, where she went in 2006 to help new cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell improve the civil service’s corporate governance and communications. Keen to strengthen the civil service’s sense of common purpose, foster its collective identity and facilitate cross-departmental working, the pair developed ways to communicate across Whitehall – including launching Civil Service Live, in partnership with CSW publisher Dods.

Like Gus, Benita is passionate about improving the civil service’s diversity. “When I joined the civil service, I was one of only two Fast Streamers who didn’t come from Oxbridge, and it was the first time I’d been made to feel different and inferior,” she recalls. “Maybe that was [due to] my own insecurities, but I didn’t have the same references as everyone else. They’d ask me what college I went to; they spoke differently; I’d get submissions I didn’t understand because there was so much Latin in them.”

Meet the elite
The child of an Anglo-Indian mother and a Cornish father, educated in a Catholic state girls’ school in Wimbledon and at Warwick University, Benita had never before encountered Britain’s elite. “When I was growing up it had never occurred to me that there was a class issue: that there was a whole set of people out there who had completely different life experiences,” she recalls. Then, on Whitehall, “I realised that they were leading the civil service and making all the key decisions – and I didn’t like that.”

Following O’Donnell’s agenda, Benita worked to broaden civil service recruitment and improve diversity among senior ranks – something that she sees as essential in order to produce the best possible policies and public services. Much progress has been made in recent years, she says, but “I still think the pace of change is too slow. We do a push on it and then lose focus, and it’s one of those things that if you don’t stay relentlessly focused on it then it won’t happen on its own.”

Retaining that focus, Benita fears, will be challenging during 2012. “This year’s going to be so difficult, just in terms of getting the job done, so there’s a danger that a lot of the corporate issues, a lot of the agendas like diversity, will get overlooked,” she warns. And while she’s confident that the new head of the civil service, Sir Bob Kerslake, is behind the diversity agenda, she says it’s “disappointing” that, with O’Donnell’s job being split three ways, none of the cabinet secretary’s replacements are women.

“I’ve got nothing against the people who’ve been chosen – I think they’re fantastic and they’ll do a really good job – but it begs the question: what about all the great women out there who weren’t chosen?” she says. “There are moments when you can do something symbolic, and I think maybe we missed a trick.”

Job split: bad job?
Benita also has concerns about the job split itself. Hiving off the role of permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office is a sensible move, she says, but separating the jobs of head of the civil service (HCS) and cabinet secretary may weaken the corporate development, civil service reform and diversity agendas. “It’s the very fact that it was the cabinet secretary who was head of the civil service that gave the HCS role such weight,” she says. “When Gus went out and about talking supportively about the civil service and promoting diversity and innovation and all of those things, he was talking as the cabinet secretary and carried all of that weight with him – so people listened and knew the very top of the civil service supported all this.” The danger, she says, is that the message “becomes watered down because it’s not coming from the cabinet secretary”.

And what if the new cabinet secretary is loudly supportive of the HCS’s work? “Well, then it becomes a bit tricky, because if the cabinet secretary doesn’t say anything supportive then is he not supporting it, and is there a split? People will read things into it,” she replies. “There will always be difficult moments when the government wants to do something to the civil service with pensions, with wages. Are we going to have a silent cabinet secretary – because he can’t say anything – and an HCS who’s talking against the government? At those moments it’ll be quite difficult to see how this is done. And now, even more, civil servants will look to the HCS to be a voice for them, because they know he’s not bound by the cabinet secretary’s hat any more.”

“It’ll be very interesting to see how this plays out,” Benita concludes. She will, however, be watching developments from the outside. “I’ve known for quite a long time that I wanted, probably needed to leave the civil service, because I think I no longer have the impartiality that you need to be a good civil servant,” she says. “It’s time for me to go.”

Voting with her feet
For Benita, standing for mayor is, she says, partly an attempt to get back to the reason she joined the civil service in the first place: to help improve people’s lives. “Over the last few years I’ve felt that I’m too far removed from that original motivation to be comfortable any more,” she says. “I want to do something that’s much closer to helping people.”

The mayor’s job, Benita says, offers huge opportunities to help people; and her main aim is to reduce London’s vast inequalities in wealth, opportunities and life experiences. “Despite the best intentions of all parties, we still have a growing divide between the rich and the poor; we have unacceptable levels of deprivation and social inequality – and I don’t think that’s acceptable,” she says.

Ken Livingstone, she adds, looks like a vulnerable opponent: “There’s a sense that he’s done it twice; kind of had his day. In that whole area – the centre, centre-left vote – people are slightly worried and it’s definitely up for grabs.”

This, of course, gives us a sense of Benita’s political leanings. “I’m definitely on the left; definitely on the social side,” she acknowledges – but she’s keen to emphasise that she’ll be listening very carefully before she starts writing policies. Her freedom from party political constraints, she says, means that she’ll be able to “go out there with no hidden agenda, no line to toe, and spend the first few weeks of this year listening to what Londoners want.”

Those Londoners, she adds, will include “all those people who don’t normally get listened to: youth groups, disability groups, elderly people”, as well as the usual suspects such as business people and public sector workers. “A lot of politicians don’t genuinely listen to people any more,” she says – but she has until March to write her manifesto, and her first task will be to get out there and find out what people want to hear.

Competing with the big beasts
Benita’s second task, of course, will be to shake off the anonymity of the civil service and start building a public profile. “My biggest challenge over the next few weeks, without a shadow of a doubt, is for people to find out who I am – and to do that without any money,” she says. She’s built up a small team of volunteers, she explains, and will be making good use of social media and capitalising on the growing press interest in her campaign. Running a campaign is, of course, incredibly difficult without the resources and volunteers that political parties can mobilise, but Benita sees her freedom from party political control as one of her strongest assets; she’ll just have to take the negatives with the positives.

“The mayor is supposed to represent London, not a political party,” she argues. “I’m hoping that by standing I can show that there’s a new, fresh, modern, much more representative voice in the campaign.” But isn’t her stance against party politics weakened by the fact that both Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone are notorious wild cards, famous for embarrassing and defying their party leaders? “I think they’re clever at playing the maverick, but if they really are independent mavericks, then why stand for a party? Because they’re getting hundreds of thousands of pounds from those parties,” Benita replies. “Now, you can’t be funded to that degree by a party and not be beholden to it. You can see that they choose the issues very carefully on which they’ll go off the party line. On the really big ticket issues, they can’t and they won’t.” In December, Benita notes, the PM told Tory backbenchers that getting Boris re-elected is his “number one priority” for 2012, adding that success is “essential” to the party’s strategy.

As Benita inches her way into the glare of the spotlights, she’s bound to come under intense, uncomfortable, and often hostile scrutiny. When she announced her candidacy in an Evening Standard interview, for example, the paper revived the Telegraph’s insinuations that she’d had an affair with O’Donnell. Is Benita worried that the rumour might damage her campaign? “No, because I know there’s nothing behind it,” she responds. “The only thing that worries me is if my kids start getting teased about it.”

A women’s lot
It’s “annoying and disappointing” that women are so readily judged on such allegations, she says, clearly irritated; she doesn’t need to point out that both Boris and Ken have had complicated and unconventional love lives, without suffering mortal damage to their political careers.

“I’ve gone through a moment when I’ve thought: ‘Oh my god, if this takes off then people are going to question why I’m standing, then they’re going to question what I look like, then they’re going to question what I’m wearing’ – and there was a moment when I thought: ‘Actually, it’s just not worth it. I’m not going to do it’,” Benita says. “Then a bit of me kicked in and said: ‘That’s exactly why you don’t get women doing this’.”

So instead, Benita has resolved to steel herself against the cruelty dished out to all politicians, and the judgments made about female politicians in particular. “If people want to write rumours about me, there’s nothing I can do to stop it,” she comments. She does take the opportunity to squash the allegation that her husband is a banker – he works for a bank, she says, but in the IT department.

In general, though, she’s phlegmatic about the brickbats she’s already receiving: comments under the online version of the Standard article included one that questioned whether she’s British enough to stand for mayor. “I’m never going to please all of the people all of the time – and some people I wouldn’t want to please,” she comments.

Any realistic assessment of Benita’s skills and experience, she argues, would conclude that she’s a very strong candidate for the job of mayor. After all, the mayor has few direct powers, but a powerful ability to get key individuals talking about a common agenda and to catalyse joint action. “I’ve spent 15 years getting things done by bringing together a range of people; I know I’ve achieved things by getting the right people in the room,” she says. “If I can replicate that in the mayor’s job, I’ll get things done.”

John Prescott got things done, I remind her, but never got the credit for it. “That’s the risk you take doing something like this,” she replies. “It’s the risk you take when you shift from being a civil servant – one of the invisible, behind-the-scenes people – and put yourself out there to do something in the public eye.”

She’s got enormous respect for anyone who stands for election, she adds – “and I have even more respect for women who do it, because you have all that stuff going on around image. I’m sure I’ll be criticised for a whole host of things, just because I’m a woman. But I want to do it. I’ve not felt this excited about something for years.”

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