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19 April 2012

Londoners grill mayoral candidates at church hustings

Londoners grill mayoral candidates at church hustings

Parliamentary Officer, Danny Webster reflects on hustings hosted by the Evangelical Alliance and London Church Leaders.

The main candidates for Mayor of London were on their best behaviour during the church hustings, which was less than could be said for some members of the audience.

The current mayor, Boris Johnson, joined Ken Livingstone, Brian Paddick and Jenny Jones, for a debate organised by the Evangelical Alliance and the London Church Leaders at St James's Piccadilly. Topics ranged from economics to bus ads as the candidates did their best to impress the audience from churches across London.

Boris achieved the first palpable gasp of the night by suggesting he was able to serve both God and mammon. The first heckler of the evening was the Bishop of London, who from the pews jokingly sacked the chair, Rev George Pitcher, for asking if Ken would approve of a gay Bishop of London.

Overall the debate was high on generalities and low on specifics about what the candidates would do to improve London. Jenny Jones impressed the audience with her early answers on economic inequality, with Ken Livingstone giving her credit for being the force behind getting the London Living Wage introduced. Paul Reily from Housing Justice brought the first question from the floor and challenged the candidates over what they would do to improve the housing situation in London. Brian Paddick made much play of the greater role the mayor would have in the future, as the largest landowner in London, following new powers the office is due to receive.

The debate had not been going for long before one irate member of the audience stepped out of his row and harangued the chair for failing democracy by not giving all the candidates a place on the podium. The chair reminded his aggressor that a decision had been taken to select those candidates from the parties which performed best last time around; these parties also have seats on the Greater London Assembly. When the heckling continued he was asked to leave, mitigated with a touch of finesse as the steward reminded him he had dropped his pen.

The candidates braved dissent from many in the audience by supporting proposals for gay marriage. They also agreed on the Mayor's decision to ban the proposed adverts last week from Anglican Mainstream and Core Issues Trust. This position received a mixed reaction with some grumblings of disapproval but many in the hall and on twitter concurred that the adverts were best not shown.

Ken Livingstone attempted to explain his comments about Islam which have generated much controversy in reports, suggesting he wished to make London a beacon of Islam. His explanation, that he in fact wanted London to be a beacon of tolerance, was somewhat undone by quoting from the Qur’an. Cue further hecklers from the rear of the hall.

Boris Johnson was the first to reach for scripture to advance his cause by quoting from Psalm 14, “The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God'”. However, he followed this up with a shift to the comedic, suggesting he was more afraid of his wife than either God or man. Brian Paddick also sought to display his Christian credentials with a sincere, if somewhat practised, account of his path as a doubting Thomas, acknowledging God after reading through John's gospel.

A question from the audience on behalf of the High Streets First campaign quizzed the candidates on what they would do about the number of betting shops on many of London's high streets. The candidates were in agreement about the problem but rather short on detail in what they would do in response. Boris Johnson described gambling as a spiritual narcotic.

As the audience filtered out of the church into the damp spring evening, one person commented that with candidates whose policies are so similar, what really counts is character.

Other candidates standing for London Mayor include Lawrence Webb for UKIP, Siobhan Benita as an independent, and Carlos Cortiglia for the BNP. Voters across London will choose their next Mayor on 3 May. Contrary to the chair's parting instructions, voters actually get four votes: first and second choice for mayor, constituency assembly member and London wide assembly member.