It all started with a text message, as many things do these days. During the last London mayoral election in 2012, I had written an article for the Evening Standard bemoaning the dullness of the campaign being fought out by the reprise of the Ken and Boris show. Both had stood in the previous contest and were offering nothing new. Ken Livingstone banged on endlessly about low fares and little else, apart from an attack on rich Jews that proved to be a fatal own goal, while Boris Johnson focussed on Ken’s supposedly dodgy tax affairs, which were hardly in the Google or Amazon league.
I suggested neither offered any innovative ideas, let alone a compelling vision for London in the 21st century, the world’s most vibrant and successful city. The text message published in the Standard the next day was brief and to the point: ‘Why doesn’t Christian Wolmar stand for mayor? I’d vote for him’.
Well, along with my partner and myself, I realised this would give me three certain votes, provided we all lived until 2016, the date of the next election. At least that would avoid humiliation. I laughed off the idea but a seed had been planted. And then the idea began to take root.
I am by trade a journalist and author, but I have always been a political beast, a Labour man who left the party because of the Iraq war but rejoined at the horror of seeing Dave in Downing Street. Transport is my speciality and it happens to be the main focus of the mayor’s powers, though they also include important roles in policing, housing, economic development and planning.
I realised that possibly three votes might not be enough. I consulted wider, among friends and various political quasi-heavyweights, ranging from journalists and commentators to think tank gurus and MPs. Would I not, in my early sixties, with no experience of politics other than being agent for a council by-election where my candidate was trounced by the SDP, make a fool of myself? To my surprise everyone said ‘go for it’. Even the MPs said things like ‘I may not vote for you, but you will open up the campaign’. The only dissenters were my two ex-partners, who both said it’s pointless, as I hadn’t got a cat in hell’s chance. I needed no further encouragement.
So I threw my hat into the ring. An empty ring, that is. There is no other declared candidate since most of the other likely Labour prospects are MPs who have other fish to fry, notably keeping their seats in the 2015 general election. I was starting from scratch, however. I had no idea what a political campaign looked like, what it involved. I started by sending out emails to London Labour party officials offering to speak at their meetings. Amazingly, there is no centralised list and they were quite hard to locate, but eventually I started getting responses. Last summer, The Times published an oped by me setting out the germ of my manifesto and I started spending my evenings cycling around London to local Labour party meetings and other events to promote my cause. I set up a website and a Twitter account, and, crucially, asked for help
Amazingly, a great team has emerged to support me, consisting mainly of twenty and thirty somethings who like the idea of a different sort of political campaign – a genuinely grass-roots one. I have not solicited support in the upper echelons of the Labour Party or approached any of the apparatchiks. I chose my young campaign manager, Owen, five minutes after meeting him for a drink in a pub and it proved to be an inspired choice. He works tirelessly and works me tirelessly. Between us we have collected together the rest of the team, who now number about eight, and we meet monthly as a matter of course and more often as the occasion requires. Owen and Jonathan, our press officer, and I are starting to get used to meeting up on a weekday evening and travelling on London’s extended public transport network to a community hall or other in Ealing one week, Hounslow the next and Charlton the one after. And every week we pick up something new about how this whole thing works.
Thanks to their help, this has got serious. My initial ideas about improving London focussed inevitably on transport and crucially on reducing the influence of the motor car, creating better cycling facilities, pedestrianising Oxford Street and ripping up the hideous dual carriageway hewn out of Hyde Park in the car-mad Sixties. But now other ideas on the mayor’s key policy areas such as housing and policing are emerging. The momentum behind the campaign is growing, with lots of support from young people. This is beginning to take over my life, but it is proving to be the most exciting and rewarding thing I have ever done. Occasionally something amazing happens, like someone I don’t know coming up to me on a train, shaking my hand and saying: ‘Well done, I think what you’re doing is great’. Or Paddy Power putting me on at 40 – 1 straight away.
Those three people may yet turn into the three million or so needed to win the biggest democratic contest in Britain. But I never forget the old adage that all political careers end in failure. I just hope that on the way I will have achieved a bit more than I would have done just by writing another book on railway history.