As Londoners prepare to take to the polls to select Boris Johnson’s successor as London Mayor on May 5, we’re finding out what the five main candidates (Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem, Green & UKIP) will be doing for the capital’s LGBT community in the face of closing venues, rising HIV rates and increasing levels of recorded hate crime. We’ll be speaking to a different candidate each day this week: We’ve already caught up with the Green Party’s Sian Berry, UKIP’s Peter Whittle, and Liberal Democrat Caroline Pidgeon, and today it’s the turn of Conservative candidate and MP for Richmond, Zac Goldsmith…
Statistics published in September 2015 shows that homophobic hate crimes had rose by a third in the year oreviously. Why do you think we’re seeing this problem growing, and what would do as Mayor to solve it?
Well this is an irony, because London is so diverse and so dynamic and lively, and it’s a place where so many people want to come here and live and work and invest, and you’d expect London to be a shining example of tolerance. But we are actually one of the least tolerant parts of the UK, according to a survey that I saw just a few weeks ago. You can analyse it in any number of ways. I think it’s partly because of new waves of people coming to the UK with traditional views. I think because London is so diverse, within that diversity there are pockets of intolerance, but that just makes it a challenge that we have to focus on.
In terms of work that I could do, if elected Mayor? My job wouldn’t be to micromanage the police, but it would be my job to set the priorities, and I’ve included in my action plan for all of London that hate crime of all sorts would be a top priority. That’s because I don’t think it’s a major leap from oral or written violence to actual violence, whether we’re talking about Islamophobia, or anti-Semitism or homophobia, or hate crimes against disabled people, which is massively on the rise as well. So that has to be a massive priority, and I’ll make sure it is, if I’m elected.
You talk about those pockets of intolerance that exist in London. Where’s the line between allowing people their freedom of speech and religion and pointing out that some of their views are unacceptable?
Well I think you can say their views are not OK at every opportunity, but if you’re asking at what point should the authorities step in, as opposed to people expressing their views, then I think the line is when someone is agitating in any way at all, in such a way that would cross the line into someone else’s freedom; advocating violence, advocating homophobic, advocating anything that might lead others to adopt a hostile attitude. There is a line there, and it’s about incitement. You can’t police individual opinions, but you can express disagreement with them. I think the job of the Mayor is not just hard power, it’s also about using their influence to promote the kind of London that he or she wants, and the kind of London I want is one where people can be free to be themselves. It would be an exaggeration to say hate crime will be eliminated on my watch – I wish – but it will certainly be a prime focus were I to be elected.
Unfortunately, gay men in London are still disproportionately affected by HIV, with around one in eight gay men being HIV positive. Recently the NHS neglected to roll out PrEP across England, instead putting it in the hands of local authorities. Does that mean you can make PrEP available in London, and will you do that?
Absolutely. PrEP is a no-brainer. It is going to save lives, it’s going to save money, and it needs to be made available. I think that this is not something the Mayor can introduce, but I can and will, if elected, use all my influence to pressure the government to get its skates on, because it just an unarguable case. I don’t think it’s all about PrEP, incidentally. PrEP has become the flagship issue in this context, but there is also a need for a public health campaign – again, the Mayor doesn’t control the NHS, but the Mayor does have a big public health unit. There are worrying signs that a large number of people no longer know how HIV is even transferred, and therefore there is undoubtedly a need for a big public health campaign of some sort, and that’s something the Mayor can take responsibility for, and it’s something I included in my action plan.
You talk there about being able to put pressure on your colleagues in government, but how can you sell yourself as an attractive candidate, at a time when your party are implementing very unpopular decisions at Westminster?
Well obviously I am a Conservative, but I’m an independent-minded Conservative, I’ve always put my constituents first, ahead of party and career. There have been issues I have had to deal with as an MP, on account of which I have turned down promotion to go up the ladder of government on principle. I have done a good job as an MP over the past six years, and I’ve got about as good a reference as you can get from my constituents, who know me best, because they returned me at the last election with the most increased majority of any sitting MP in the country. That doesn’t happen by accident. It’s because I worked for them day in, day out, and I did what I said I was going to do. So to people who don’t normally vote Conservative, I would say look locally at my record, look at what I’ve done, and that’s what I want to do for London as a whole. London is a magnificent city but we’ve got big challenges: housing crisis, pollution, we need to massively ramp up development in our transport network, and we’ve got security issues at all levels, from scams to the threat of terror.
The rhetoric between yourself and Sadiq Khan has really been ramped up in recent weeks, and you’ve been calling him out for sharing platforms with extremists who have expressed homophobic beliefs. Do you regret the tone that the campaign has taken on, or do you stand by those critiques?
I think that if you stand to be the Mayor of the greatest city in the world, with a big security remit, you should not be surprised if people scrutinise your very extensive links to people who wish to do this city harm. It’s just absurd for anyone to pretend that those are not legitimate questions – some of which have been asked by me, and my campaign, some of which have been asked by newspapers and other Londoners. But the idea that those aren’t legitimate questions is just perverse. What I regret is not that those questions are being asked, but that Sadiq Khan and his supporters have attempted to close them down, by casually throwing accusations of Islamophobia, which I think is totally unacceptable.
A recurring issue in the London gay community this past year or so has been the closure of historic gay venues like The Black Cap, or Madame JoJo’s. Would you feel an obligation to protect cultural heritage sites like those, even as London pushes forward with modern development?
The last thing we want London to become is a giant, homogenous development. I think London is one of the most colourful, dynamic, exciting cities in the world, and we can’t take that for granted. When we start losing iconic venues, and not just gay venues, but others too, London loses something that is very special. It’s not in every circumstance that the Mayor can intervene, but the Mayor does have a big remit, and I will use the planning powers I have as Mayor to protect some clubs and studios that make London exciting and inclusive and energetic. We have a housing crisis, we need to make better use of some of our assets, we need to ramp up the number of homes being built to around 50,000 a year, and that’s doable, but we can’t do it at the expense of our green spaces, and those other spaces that give London a character that people love.
Do you have a favourite gay pub or venue that you’ve been to in London?
(Laughs) I don’t have a favourite, I’m afraid. I can’t answer that question. I’m not a frequenter! I would be bluffing were I to give you an answer.
Well maybe we’ll take you to one if you win.
I’d be very happy to take you up on that.
London’s Mayoral election takes place on May 5. For more information on Zac’s campaign, visit backzac2016.com.
Words: Ben Kelly