Meet Christian Wolmar, the outsider with a real chance of becoming London mayor

Could the relatively unknown cycling supporter pedal his way to victory?

The media may be largely preoccupied with the general election, but in the background, the race to City Hall is well underway.

It’s widely recognised that with Boris Johnson returning to the Commons, and no top Tories having declared an interest in the mayoralty, City Hall is Labour’s to lose in 2016.

But a quirk of the Labour contest means that just a few days after the general election is over, all the interested parties must have their applications in before hustings can begin in June.

By the end of July, the winning candidate for the party will be announced.

The timing is frustrating Christian Wolmar. “It’s a shame that the campaign is all mixed up with the general election campaign. It’d be better if it had all happened a year or two ago,” he tells me when we meet for coffee in a Blackfriars pub. “Within a week of the election we have to put our nominations in, and hopefully there’ll be enough interest in the campaign.”

Of Labour’s candidates, Wolmar, a non-politician, is the only real outsider.

He’s up against Tessa Jowell, Diane Abbott, David Lammy (who have all declared), and almost certainly Sadiq Khan (who is still officially on the fence). Wolmar is among the favourites to win.

Wolmar believes he has a good chance of success.

His optimism is backed by the polls. A Labour List poll released earlier this month saw Wolmar’s appeal within Labour rise from 7% to 19%. He is now in second place behind Tessa Jowell, who is currently enjoying support of 32%.

Wolmar’s policy angle is also very different from his competitors within the Labour party.

While Abbott, Khan, Lammy and Jowell are all quick to mention the issues in London around housing, inequality and crime, Wolmar points out that “70% of the mayor’s budget is transport”.

“Housing is a big issue and obviously, the mayor has a role to play in housing. But it’s in transport the mayor can make a really big difference,” he says.

It’s not surprising that Wolmar is focussing on transport. As a long-time transport journalist, railway historian and author, this is his area of expertise.

It was through his journalism that he decided to run for mayor.

“It began when I wrote a piece in the Evening Standard during the last election campaign,” he says. “I wrote that it was a really lacklustre campaign. Boris was going on about how he’d managed to get rid of bendy-buses, which I didn’t think was very exciting. And tax affairs became a big issue.

“So I thought: why don’t I try to inject some vision into it?”

Vision is one thing Wolmar has in spades.

One of his flagship policies is to pedestrianise Oxford Street – no small concept. And the move is all part of a bigger plan to encourage fewer cars into London.

On this he says: “I suppose the one thing would be transforming central London to make it a better place for people and shifting away from the notion that it’s a good idea for cars to drive into a city centre.

“Pedestrianising Oxford Street would be the centrepiece of that. It would create a fantastic new space in the middle of London that would both revive Oxford Street commercially, and showcase all the things I believe in and which cities need to be.”

Wolmar Oxford Street

Wolmar’s Oxford Street vision - traffic free and spacious

Pedal to the metal

The overarching theme in Wolmar’s vision is encouraging cycling in London. “My view on the new cycle superhighway is that it is utterly transformational,” he says, gesturing out of the window in the general direction of the Embankment.

“I think that a 21st-Century city is not about creating extra road space,” he says. “It’s a game you can never win. What we need to do is liberate the space.”  

Wolmar has lived and cycled in London his whole life, and is full of praise for the steps that have already seen cycling surge in London.

The improvement, he says, has helped generate a “critical mass of cyclists”.

“No longer do car drivers plough through you to get ahead. They actually respect cyclists much more. A lot of them themselves are cyclists. So it has become more pleasant and safer.

“But we’ve got to go a lot further. This is good for the city in every respect. It’s good for business, it’s good for individuals’ health, it’s good for the environment. It creates a better city, and it is beginning to be recognised that cycling is not just for cyclists. It will help the whole city develop in the right way.”

“Cycling isn’t entirely young people, either. I’m 65,” he says with a conspiratorial glance, “but it’s true that cyclists are healthier. I haven’t had a day ill in bed for 20 years.”

This is the core of Wolmar’s campaign, and it is winning him considerable support.

But lacking the big party machine that the other Labour candidates have, he has spent two years on what he describes as “a grassroots campaign”, visiting and speaking at as many of London’s 73 Labour parties as possible, cycling to all his engagements and covering thousands of miles in the process.

 

As the recent polls show, this hard work is paying off.

He’s also proud of his credentials as a non-politician. “Bill de Blasio won New York from a start of something like 4%, and was an outsider. There are lots of mayors around the world who are non-politicians – the mayor of Rome and the mayor of Seoul. There are lots of people who have come from a non-political background, and I think that captures the imagination.”

The business end of things

Christian Wolmar suit

Wolmar knows that the keys to City Hall will be won through building and maintaining London as a global business centre – again something his opponents in Labour haven’t made a huge noise about.

“We have to recognise that the City provides a lot of jobs,” he says. “It’s an essential component of London’s success, and we have to make sure that London is still very much open for business.

“So of course we support business. We need Crossrail 2, we need extensions to the London Underground, we need the bus service to continue to improve.

“You have to say, look, our vision of London is that if we make it a nicer place to live, which might mean discouraging people from using cars, it will be good for London as a world centre.

“People will want to live there, people will want to do business there, they’ll enjoy being there.

“Sometimes you have to be a bit more socialistic in order to support capitalism.”

Housing

Away from his cycling plans, Wolmar is competing directly against the other candidates and housing is one of the crunch points that could stymie his success.  

His solution would be to create “a housing development agency, under the aegis of the mayor”, that will utilise unused and publicly owned land and work with developers “to bring things together and get things moving.”

“At the moment it’s a bit disparate and nobody’s driving anything,” he adds.

However, he is keen to tighten up the current regulations on development.

“I don’t want to have a completely open London for property investors, who are coming from abroad and buying somewhere and using it as an investment. It’s not necessarily a good use of resources or helpful to the rest of London.

“We want to see more housing. We want to see construction, but if we make it easier for Londoners to buy these homes, and less easy for overseas investors, then I don’t think we’re doing any harm.”

In particular, he is concerned that high property prices will drive young people out of the capital.

“In 20 to 30 years’ time, London might just lose its edge because all those bright young people just won’t be able to live anywhere here.

“There’s a fundamental contradiction at the moment. Boris and TfL go on about how London’s going to grow and keep on growing to nine million by 2033 or whatever, or 10 million by 2050, and actually, if people can’t afford it, it won’t continue to grow. The bubble will burst.”

For Wolmar’s ambition the bubble is still growing, and he is energetic and excited about his campaign.

“I absolutely love it,” he says. “I didn’t expect that running a political campaign could be so much fun. I’ve managed to attract a team of people around me who are absolutely committed to what I’m doing and have worked very hard for me in a way that I just couldn’t have expected.

“So that’s been the most exciting thing, and it’s a fascinating thing to do. I expect and hope to win, and even if I don’t, then at least I will have succeeded in changing the terms of the debate a bit.”

With less than eight weeks to go until the selection process begins, Wolmar doesn’t have much time to convert his grassroots support into a nomination, but he is certainly on the warpath, and he means business.

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