Doing politics off the beaten track
On the penultimate day before the London mayoral elections, the first afternoon sun in weeks was streaming through the windows onto children’s play equipment pushed up against the walls of a light, airy nursery space in central London.
Rows of plastic chairs transformed the space into an auditorium. Over by the door, adjustable play tables were raised as high as they would go to form a makeshift registration desk. The room was filling and the air had started to buzz.
And in this sunlit spot, away from the big conference rooms and corridors of Whitehall and City Hall – tucked right behind Channel 4 HQ, a stone’s throw from the gothic towers of parliament, in London’s political nerve centre – I listened to passionate, local mums and colleagues working with families on London’s squeezed economic frontline, confront a group of mayoral and assembly candidates. And I watched politics – real, nitty gritty, rooted politics – appear in front of me, right where it should be, in a rearranged nursery at the heart of the community, papier-mache mobiles swaying in the breeze from the open windows.
At the heart of it
Wanting to get to the nub of how the next mayor will actually support families – particularly the families of the 650, 000 children living in poverty in London, the Family Friendly London coalition (of which Save the Children is part, through our 4in10 project) had set this event up.
Brian Paddick, the Liberal Democrat mayoral candidate; Jenny Jones, Green Party mayoral candidate; and Todd Foreman, Labour Assembly candidate, kicked off with the usual healthy mix of policy responses, good-natured banter, and calls for votes.
As things drew on, the discussion began to draw away from party politics, and started revolving more round the grist of things.
The real issues
We heard from one mum who had to give up work as her wages froze at just over £5 an hour for 16 hours a week, while her childcare costs climbed to over £300 per week.
What, she asked, did the candidates propose to do to support the many parents like her, desperate to get back into work but unable to make it pay?
Another raised the issue of lack of housing and poor housing quality.
Someone else chipped in: her three-year-old son suffering chronic health problems due to the damp which permeates her flat so relentlessly that water spilt on the floor in cold weather cannot be dried off the carpet, and starts instead growing mould.
How to grapple with the huge housing issue in London?
Questions from two advice workers about the shrinking funds for advice provision, started up new threads of discussion about how crucial advice and support is for parents and families facing debt, financial difficulties and struggling to respond to the impact of benefit changes in London’s sky-high living costs.
By the end of the evening, we were suddenly in an open policy forum – the candidates eagerly discussing and debating the pros and cons on different policy approaches to fix some of these issues.
A brokerage scheme to match parents with childcare places… Introducing a kite mark for family friendly employers… Establishing a higher, London-specific housing benefit cap to reflect the real cost of living in London… and many more.
A real back and forth with the audience emerged, producing increasingly free-flowing discussion about what it’s really going to take to begin to tackle child poverty in London.
So much so, in fact, that even after the event came to a close, everyone – parents and their children, politicians, council officers, third sector workers – stuck around.
And as the light faded on a rare sunny spring afternoon in central London, the buzz of shared stories and shared solutions continued.