‘I would reform stop and search as mayor’, says new Lib Dem challenger to Sadiq Khan
INTERVIEW: Belsize councillor Luisa Porritt has been confirmed as her party's mayoral candidate
16 October, 2020 — By Richard Osley
A NEW challenger to London Mayor Sadiq Khan says she will try and rebuild trust between young people and the police by ending “suspicionless stop and search”.
Luisa Porritt was confirmed as the Liberal Democrats’ mayoral candidate on Tuesday. It’s two-and-a-half years since she was first elected as a councillor in Belsize, a period in which she has been to Brussels and back as an MEP.
After a series of fatal stabbings, including attacks in Camden, Mr Khan has often been challenged on how he will end the violence.
Ms Porritt said she wanted to see more neighbourhood officers fixed to wards, but also a change of strategy.
“If police are embedded in local communities, there is more trust between them and those communities. As we’ve seen with everything that’s happened in the last few months of the Black Lives Matter movement that trust is at an all-time low and needs to be rectified,” she told the New Journal.
“You can still have intelligence-led stop and search, but what we’ve seen increasing under this mayor [Mr Khan] is the use of suspicionless stop and search and Section 60 orders.”
The orders allow police to search anybody within a set geographical area without giving a reason, usually over a 24 or 48 hour period.
Ms Porritt said: “In the first place, they’re not that helpful, because they’re broadly reactive. Then police officers are able to stop and search people without giving a reason, and that’s where the breakdown of trust comes from.
“So I would get rid of that if I was mayor or I would at least be having conversations with the commissioner and saying, actually, I think this is doing more harm than good.”
Luisa Porritt, three from right, was centre stage at the Lib Dem conference last year
Asked how “intelligence” would be defined in an intelligence-led stop, and if this could include a vague description of a young black man, she said: “If they have a description that fits, they have the right to stop that person, but then it’s really important to explain that well and that they do it in an empathetic way.”
She added: “It’s also really important that there is an understanding of unconscious bias and the reasons why some people from some communities might be more likely to be stopped than others.
“Unconscious bias training is effective. We’ve had it as councillors. I think you can never stop having that kind of training throughout your life because it’s something we all carry if we’re not from ethnic minorities ourselves.”
Asked if she agreed with the protesters who believe the Met police is institutionally racist, Ms Porritt said: “I can’t make that judgement myself. I think that it’s something that needs to be looked at. It’s 20 years since the MacPherson report.
“Parliament has been looking at it again. I think it’s right that the Met, as an institution, looks at what other work can be done.”
But she added: “This is not something specific to the police, it applies to all organisations. We can all improve, and that’s going to be partly how we address systemic racism. That is what it is: it permeates across all institutions, the whole of society and there’s work that every organisation can do to eradicate it.”
She said that the Liberal Democrats were themselves looking at this and that she was pleased that the slate of candidates for the London Assembly – an election to be held on the same day next May, if the Covid crisis allows – was “very diverse”.
Ending section 60 suspicionless stops is one of the stances which is likely to set her apart from Mr Khan and Shaun Bailey, the Conservative candidate at next year’s scheduled elections.
Luisa Porritt has taken over as the Lib Dem mayoral candidate Siobhan Benita, left, who stepped down from the campaign after it was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic
Sian Berry, also a Camden councillor is the Green candidate.
Ms Porritt is taking on the Lib Dem baton from Siobhan Benita, who pulled out after the election was postponed in May due to the Covid-19 outbreak.
A former journalist, she had joined the party in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum result. The party’s surging results in London at the European elections last year – on an unadulterated “Stop Brexit” ticket – saw her become an MEP, but the Lib Dems did not make new inroads in Camden at December’s general election with a similar message.
So, if she was mayor, would she be a high-profile endorser of a “rejoin” campaign?
Ms Porritt warned that the scrutiny of Brexit was not over yet, as “we’re staring down the barrel of a hard Brexit”.
But she said: “It’s a question of timing. London will always be a pro-European city and we’re always going to be internationalist and outward-looking. But there’s no mechanism to go back into the EU right now. I wish there was, but we are where we are. We had a general election, that settled the question for now but I think if there’s a point at which there’s an obvious change in the public mood, then it’s something we should revisit. But I don’t see it happening any time soon.”
“We’ve obviously got a new leader in place, as well as me being a new candidate for mayor. What Ed [party leader Sir Ed Davey] is doing a lot of at the moment is going around and listening because it’s not something that politicians do very often.”
She added: “One of the things that we have learned is that, obviously, the Brexit issue is very divisive for people. It applies a bit less in London because London will always be a remain city, but there were some people that would have voted Lib Dem in the past because of the other values that we stand for and the work that we’ve done in for local communities – but they felt like they couldn’t support us any more because of our stance on Brexit. So we need to win some of those people back as well.”
On the doorstep in Belsize Park at last year’s European elections with the party’s then leader Jo Swinson
Asked why the party had performed poorly at December’s general election, at which hopes of at least denting Labour MP Tulip Siddiq’s lead in Hampstead and Kilburn fell away on polling day, Ms Porritt said: “The thing that really harmed us and meant we got squeezed was actually that voters felt like they had this really imperfect choice between either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister.
“Unfortunately, it seems like a lot of people voted for Boris Johnson and the Conservatives, because they just wanted a stable government. They wanted to know what they were going to get at the end of it.
“And actually, Jeremy Corbyn was really unpopular. I campaigned all over London and I didn’t meet a single person on the doorstep who said they wanted him to be prime minister. The problem was, no one believed that we could win outright, either – so they couldn’t see what the shape of an alternative government to the Conservatives would look like.”
She added: “As is often the case with first past the post elections, people voted for their least worst, quite reluctantly. And that’s what tends to harm us and that’s why I’m glad the London elections are different. It’s under proportional representation, so people can vote for who they want to, who they think the best candidate and the party with the best platform is.”
Ms Porritt isn’t the first to suggest mayoral and London elections can be different under this voting system but every race for City Hall since the mayoralty began has so far been a showdown between high-profile Labour and Conservative candidates.
“It’s definitely a risk,” she said. “Because these two established parties have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and allowing people to believe that they have only got two options, but it’s just not the case and getting that across will be part of the challenge I think.”
Luisa Porritt wore a ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ t-shirt to the European parliament
Another challenge already emerging is where the candidates will place themselves in the debate over the re-ordering of London’s roads.
Camden and also Transport for London, which is answerable to the mayor, are moving quickly ahead with a series of traffic experiments aimed at making it easier for walking and cycling.
Many of the schemes around the city, including road closures and narrowing, have caused flashpoints, however. This includes Haverstock Hill in Ms Porritt’s own ward, where new cycle lanes are due to replace parking bays that businesses say they rely on to survive.
“The problem is that the government, in the first place, has issued guidance saying that this should be done with only statutory consultation – so it has actually created this condition where local authorities are restricted in their ability to consult,” she said.
“So even Lib Dem-run boroughs in south west London can’t do things in the way they normally do. Normally, they would consult before introducing any major schemes and changes because I do think it’s really important to bring local communities, and local businesses as well, along with you when you’re introducing these changes.”
Conservatives, locally, dispute this guidance means that further consultation is not permitted.
Lib Dems celebrating a council elections breakthrough as Luisa Porritt wins a seat from the Tories in Belsize
Ms Porritt added: “I think anyone sensible should support the aims of low traffic neighbourhoods. It’s about trying to improve our air quality, to make our neighbourhoods more cycling and walking friendly. In the long run, it would make our city a nicer place to live, but there are certain roads where it’s just not as practical and I think Haverstock Hill is quite a good example of that.”
“The businesses haven’t really been asked, which should have been part of the statutory consultation at least, and a lot of them are worried that their customers won’t be able to and park and therefore come to visit them.
“That’s going to hit their margins even more at a time when they’re already struggling because of this pandemic and the consequent recession. So it’s about the way that it’s done and I’ve definitely noticed a trend whereby Labour councils around London are opting for these longer trial periods. A lot of them whether it’s here in Camden, or over in Southwark for example, are opting for 18 months trials. That’s not really a trial. After 18 months, are you really got to change it?”
Ms Porritt said six month trials could be an alternative option for the experimental traffic orders (ETOs).
“The overall aim is good,” she said. “But it’s like someone’s just kind of grabbing a map and going ‘Okay, I’m going to do it here, here and here, because that will achieve the overall objective.’ Actually, if you don’t have buy-in from the local community and local businesses, it’s not going to be sustainable in the long run anyway.”