Peter Whittle was a surprise choice to be UKIP’s London Mayoral candidate. He beat the more experienced deputy chair of UKIP Suzanne Evans to the nomination, despite only joining the party in 2013.
Evans called UKIP leader Niger Farage “very divisive” during a TV interview in June last year, and a party source has told Business Insider that Whittle was asked to run by a senior UKIP figure who was loyal to Farage and didn’t want Evans to win the nomination.
Business Insider met Whittle at the offices of the New Culture Forum, the cultural issues think tank which he directs, to find out why he wants to be mayor.
After accepting the offer of a cup of tea ( milk, no sugar), Business Insider started off by asking Whittle whether he thought he was a surprise candidate. He was adamant that most people don’t really care about the internal politics of his party. All added emphasis in this interview is ours.
Well I suppose I might have been a surprise in what you might call the Westminster bubble, who really do monitor these things day in day out. I think it’s much bigger than that, I don’t think the majority of people really are that concerned about that kind of thing. Having said that, I think it was one of the most rigorous contests I’ve ever been through.
Whittle is probably right. For many people he will be a surprise candidate not because he beat Evans, but because he confounds expectations of what a UKIP candidate should be. Lots of his policies are pretty mainstream, so mainstream in fact that following the first Mayoral hustings on January 27, politics.co.uk described him as “dangerously left-wing by Ukip standards.” Whittle is also gay.
There’s five main candidates who you are interviewing, I’m the only gay, openly gay, out of the lot. Supposedly we’re the homophobic party and all this rubbish.
Whittle is confident that he is the right man to win over support for UKIP in London, a city where the party have traditionally struggled. It only secured 1.96% of first preference votes in the 2012 Mayoral election.
There is this view that somehow UKIP is not London and London is not UKIP, really it is absolutely untrue. No, I think we are third in the polls … our vote is increasing all the time, and I stood at the general election in Eltham, south London, last year. I came third in that election out of nowhere.
Interestingly, Whittle believes that in the general election he mainly picked up votes from ex-Labour voters, not ex-Conservative ones — and he’s probably right. Labour totally underestimated the threat of UKIP in that election.
But all the people voting really did seem to be people who were once Labour voters, that’s anecdotal, but the people I met were basically ex-Labour voters as opposed to Tory. And, you know, there is a huge contingent of people in London who do understand our message and I think that it’s growing. All of our progress in London is upwards.
Whittle may be upbeat about his chances of becoming mayor, but the truth is, his real role is to drum up support for UKIP in the London Assembly (GLA) election that is confusingly held on the same day as the Mayoral elections. UKIP don’t currently have any seat in the GLA, but with Whittle at the top of their list this year, they really do have a chance.
Obviously Whittle would never admit that his role is to be a figurehead (and his press officer pulled a face when BI suggested that was the case). But he was happy to talk up UKIP’s chances in the GLA elections.
Well, I’m top of the GLA seats. But, the way things are going at the moment, we stand a very good chance of getting three members, that will be an enormous breakthrough for us in London, But the truth is, it’s not just about bringing our profile up in London, there are huge numbers of people in London who hear our message and agree with us, and the truth is, they haven’t been given the chance before, because of course in 2012 it was quite different. Now, the whole landscape has changed, they haven’t been given the chance really to make their voices heard. And this is something I hear back all the time.
And, as Whittle points out, British politics is a quite volatile at the moment. Bookmakers are offering odds of 100-1 on him becoming mayor, the same odds that they offered on Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader of Labour at the beginning of the leadership contest.
So I think that it’s establishing a voice in London, what I would also say to you, that if you’d said six months ago that Jeremy Corbyn would be leading the Labour Party, you’d have thought that I was crazy. So basically politics is a very, very volatile thing at the moment and so I’m going into this absolutely certain that we’re going to make a major impact in London and indeed be there for a reason, not just for party political reason.
All of the Mayoral candidates would put the cost of housing in London somewhere near the top of their priority list, but Whittle can claim that he is particularly in tune with the issues Londoners face. Despite being the director of a Westminster think tank, Whittle is a renter himself.
I rent, I could not probably afford actually to get a mortgage now, it’s not just because I’m an old guy.
The Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem, and Green candidates all claim that they are going to solve London’s housing crisis by building more homes. While Whittle also wants to see more house building, he believes that the candidates are picking their house building targets out of thin air and by only focusing on the supply side of things, they are missing the fact that London’s population is growing because of international migration.
The truth is really, that when you get two people like Sadiq Khan or Zac Goldsmith, and not just them, Boris [Johnson] before, they come up with big targets right, of what they’re going to do. You mentioned housing. We’re going to have 40,000 new homes, 60,000, 50,000 — take your pick. What they do, is they pick these figures out of thin air and they’re talking really about the supply side of things. They never talk about the demand side. So, I’ve had hustings, that I did at the general election with these people, and indeed discussions, where you have these sort of phantom discussions, where no one will also talk about the reasons as to why this is. Without question, London’s population has rocketed in an unprecedented way in the past 15-20 years. Of course, that is due, almost exclusively to international migration, and therefore that has a knock-on effect, a huge knock-on effect on housing … So I would say that figures like 40,000 new houses, or 50,000 new houses are largely meaningless, when you cannot basically plan for the number of people who are going to be coming.
UKIP have long campaigned for controls on immigration, but that is a national issue and not something the Mayor has any control of. Whittle admits this, but still says that the Mayor should lobby for “sensible migration” in order to deal with the housing crisis.
I would say therefore that as mayor, one of the most important things that you can do, is to lobby and to campaign, because the mayor doesn’t actually have any power in this area, so I would certainly make the point that we have to have sensible migration, and we have to hhave controlled migration. And that’s why UKIP has always believed in an Australian-style points system, but that is something that is crucial if you are going to deal with the housing situation.
As mentioned, it’s not just the supply side that Whittle wants to tackle, he also has a three-point plan to build more houses. Firstly, as the resident of a former brownfield site himself, Whittle wants to create a comprehensive registry of all London’s brownfield sites.
A third of all brownfield land is actually in London, but we don’t have a comprehensive register for it. There have been attempts I think, but it’s never been comprehensive brownfield land registry.
Secondly he wants to look at taxing buy-to-let landlords at a higher rate if they leave their property empty.
When it comes to the whole problem which exercises many people including me, which is the whole kind of phenomenon of buy-to-let, which of course squeezes the market even more, we’ve been discussing the idea of actually, at the very least when it comes to the rental value of these places if they are still empty, they should be taxed at a higher rate.
Finally, Whittle, who calls himself a “great believer in social housing”, wants to give people who have lived in London for at least five years priority when it comes to being offered social housing.
It seems to me completely logical and fair that it should be Londoners with a local connection, a local attachment, who should be given priority in social housing. And we see that as being measured as having lived in London for five years. We think that’s very reasonable, the time at the moment is only two years, that’s the government’s one.
The principle, you know, is that it adds stability to an area, it’s a way in which people who have a local connection, Londoners can actually continue to live in a place where they have maybe built a life. And I think that this is terribly important, and I think that this is one particular area where the mayor would work with local authorities, but I think that is certainly a priority.
Immigration and the EU
It’s true London has experienced an increase in immigration, but it’s also true that there has been an exodus out of London. Particularly among young people in the creative and tech industries.
“600,000 Londoners have left London over the past decade,” Whittle claimed. BI hadn’t heard that number before, but on closer inspection it appears to based on reports that 600,000 white people have left London. Regardless, Whittle is worried about the loss of Londoners who are forced out of the city by rising costs.
I don’t want Londoners to leave London. They don’t want to leave, but they just simply can’t afford to be here. The brain drain for the creative industry has been quite marked, an exodus of that type Londoner.
Not only is there a brain drain of creative talent in London, if you talk to any tech startup founder, they will tell you that they struggle to get visas for highly skilled non-EU workers. Whittle got quite angry about this “totally unequal playing field,” lambasting the government for advertising in the EU for technical expertise, when most creative and technical talent is outside the EU.
Many of the most highly skilled people that you might want in the tech industry, are from outside the EU. They’re from India, they’re from South America, wherever. And they have to jump through all sorts of hoops. We have a situation now, where if you are from any of the EU countries, you have an immediate right to come to Britain. Why, as is happening now, is the government advertising in EU countries for technical expertise. Why? Why are they doing that? It’s totally wrong. It just shows that it’s a totally unequal playing field … So they’re actually advertising for technical and creative expertise in the European Union, when in fact most of it comes from outside the EU
A supporter of the London living wage — “the more companies encouraged to pay the London living wage, absolutely the better” — Whittle has some pretty strong views on the lopsided distribution of wealth in London. And while he doesn’t exactly bash Johnson and Khan for their comments about billionaires and millionaires, he does question the attitude of London’s financial elite to giving back to the community.
Boris Johnson started by saying isn’t it wonderful that we’ve got 82 billionaires in London. He was making a joke and he said, in his typical kind of bumptious style, that we need to drive their cars and clean their flats. And I frankly don’t really care that there are 80 billionaires in London. Sadiq Khan also said that it’s very good that there are 400,000 millionaires … The problem with much of the huge wealth in London I think, is that it gives very little back. It’s very disembodied, you can see this for example in lateral areas, such as philanthropy. There’s not been a huge, a massive kind of growth in philanthropy. And yet we have so much more private wealth.
As well as wanting private individuals to pull their weight, Whittle is also suspicious of the government imposing headline-grabbing changes on London for the good of its citizens. For instance, he claims that UKIP are the only party to have vowed not to allow building on the green belt. He also says he would scrap vanity projects like the Garden Bridge.
I would say that we’re the only party who absolutely vowed never to build on the green belt and that stays absolutely. What I would do is scrap sort of vanity projects such as the Garden Bridge which I think is shaping up to be a perfect example of monetisation of public space, and they are chopping trees down there by the way on the South Bank. Garden Bridge is OK, it mostly is going to be funded by private money. But it’s also the public purse who pay for the maintenance of it in perpetuity.
He also is very suspicious of schemes proposed by Goldsmith and Khan to pedestrianise Oxford Street and Parliament Square, saying that the money would be better spent upgrading current green spaces throughout the city, instead of turning working parts of London into museums.
I think that with things like, the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street, I think you have got to be careful. I think you also mentioned Parliament Square, I think you have got to be careful, you can kill a place. We don’t want to basically make places embalmed. London isn’t a museum.
In the debate between Taxis and Uber, Whittle comes down quite firmly on the side of the black cabs. He believes the explosion in private hire vehicles are causing a huge increase in congestion and pollution.
I never used Uber but I can gauge the difference. But the fact is that the whole private hire industry, you can call it that, is sort of spiralling out of control, adding huge congestion on the city. 700 new licences are being giving each week … we can put in place, proper regulation for all this new private hiring coming on … of course they are putting more pollution and they are causing more congestion in London.
While Whittle wants to crack down on Uber, he’s a bit more nuanced on other issues. He’s open to the idea of an ultra-low emissions zone, but worries that some people will end up getting hugely penalised.
I mean there is a talk obviously, and an ultra-low emission zone coming by 2020, and of course there is this sort of thing, absolutely we want something like that. At the moment as I understand it is that heavy-goods vehicles and indeed for that matter, people who have got nice shiny company cars, will be OK because company pays or whatever but at the moment the ultra-low emission zone will mean people who have older cars will be hugely penalised, something about £25 or whatever. But in terms of the actual idea behind it, of course London has pollution problems, the air quality in London is one of the lowest. Nitrogen dioxide, this is the real problem.
The last time BI heard someone speaking so passionately about nitrogen dioxide emissions was at a hustings event for the Green Party’s mayoral candidates. “The numbers that we know who died because of this or are made ill are much higher anyway [than previously thought], so I think this is something hugely important,” Whittle says. It’s clear he’s trying to be pragmatic and not float unfeasible solutions.
He rules out cutting fares for public transport — “it just doesn’t happen” — but reveals that he is considering some sort of policy that would change the structure of Tube fares, lowering the cost for people who live further out and increasing it for people who live centrally.
We are looking at solutions for zones 4 to 6, people who have been driven further out, they actually pay a fortune to get in. This is where our concern really is.
When it comes to other large infrastructure projects Whittle is generally sceptical. He says he would campaign vigorously against the HS2 “vanity project” and opposes expansion at Heathrow, citing increased congestion, pollution, and increased security risk of having another 220,000 flights over London. He does however support increased capacity at Gatwick and regional airports.
When it comes to development projects in general, Whittle says that he wants to return democracy to local people and actually allow them to vote on what gets given the go-ahead.
When it comes to large buildings and large developments, local people should be allowed to take part in a referendum which will be binding, absolutely binding. And as the mayor it will be a wonderful thing to actually return democracy to that kind of level. Because this is one area everyone is affected by: big developments. Whether they work in them or live in a shadow of them.
With time running out, BI asked Whittle what his end of term report on Boris would be.
I think Boris has done very well for Boris. I said before, watching Boris changing positions on things is a bit like, you know, watching a weather vain … He has a awful lot of failures you know, we have got double the amount of rough-sleeping now in London and he said he it was unconscionable and he would completely make sure it was eradicated by the time he left. And I think that is just one area but I think that what has increase at pace under Boris is this sort of monetisation of London. A city like London is much more just about money. It worries me the way that money, the moneymakers or whatever and the edifices that have been put up are somehow considered to be much more important than the quality of life or the people.
And finally what is his impression of front-runners Goldsmith and Khan?
I get the impression with Zac’s campaign, that he’s slightly defensive. I’ve met Sadiq Khan a couple of times, done a hustings with him during the general election, he seemed a very nice man, that’s all I can say, I don’t know Zac at all.
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