How will London’s mayoral candidates tackle violence against women?

Ahead of the London mayoral election on 6 May, Sadiq Khan, Mandu Reid, Shaun Bailey, Sian Berry and Luisa Porritt share their visions for eradicating gender-based violence in the capital.

Male violence against women is intrinsically linked to everything from healthcare to the economy to education, yet it’s rarely treated as a pressing political priority. But in the wake of the disappearance of Londoner Sarah Everard, and the subsequent charging of a serving Metropolitan Police officer with her kidnap and murder, each of the leading candidates in the upcoming London mayoral election has spoken about their commitment to tackling violence against women.

This can only be a good thing, because it’s clear that commitment is needed. The incumbent mayor, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, has invested a record £60.7 million in tackling violence against women in London since he was first elected in 2016 – but this money has not been transformative. Domestic abuse was rising in London long before Covid-19 lockdowns created a ‘shadow pandemic’ of abuse across the UK, while rape allegations in London went up by 15% between 2016 and 2020. Between May 2016 and February 2021, only 12% of the 56,933 sexual offences that took place in the capital were solved. 

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So how would the mayoral candidates address the problem? In a sign of evolving attitudes, the two male frontrunners in the race, who come from different ends of the political spectrum – Khan and Conservative Shaun Bailey – both told Stylist that men need to take responsibility for preventing violence against women.

Similarly, all five of the top candidates – Khan, Bailey, Lib Dem Luisa Porritt, the Green Party’s Sian Berry and Women’s Equality Party leader Mandu Reid – agree that big changes are needed in how the Metropolitan Police handles crimes such as sexual assault and domestic abuse.

But when it comes to exactly what change is needed, and how they would achieve it, the candidates diverge. Below, Stylist speaks to all five contenders to hear what policies they would introduce to tackle violence against women if elected mayor of London on 6 May. 

  • Sadiq Khan, Labour

    London mayoral election 2021: Sadiq Khan
    London mayoral election 2021: Labour candidate and incumbent mayor Sadiq Khan

    If re-elected, Khan has promised to introduce new measures to make women feel safer in London at night, such as improving lighting in public spaces. He also says he’ll continue to work with the Metropolitan Police to encourage more victims of domestic abuse and rape to come forward and boost conviction rates. 

    To do this, he’s pledged to invest more money in independent sexual violence advisers (ISVAs), who support survivors through the criminal justice system, and in police units targeting perpetrators of crimes such as domestic abuse and sexual assault.

    Khan recognises that many women decide not to report such crimes to police, but refrains from specifically criticising the Met. “It’s not an issue just for the Met, it’s [an issue] for the whole criminal justice system,” he tells Stylist. He points out that Claire Waxman, who he appointed as London’s first independent victims’ commissioner, has called for significant changes to how rape cases are handled – and adds that policing alone can’t stamp out abusive male behaviour.

    “Men simply must change,” he says. “We have to address the attitudes and behaviour of boys and men.”

    With that in mind, Khan has pledged to refresh London’s violence against women and girls (VAWG) strategy so it takes a “public health approach” – meaning it will look at the underlying factors that increase the likelihood men will abuse and harass women. He says he’ll keep investing in grassroots VAWG services, including those aimed at women and girls from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, and fund initiatives designed to reform the behaviour of domestic abusers.

    And while mayors don’t have the power to change the law, Khan supports the campaign to make public sexual harassment a criminal offence: “There’s a great quote from Martin Luther King,” he says. “‘Morality cannot be legislated but behaviour can be regulated.’” 

  • Mandu Reid, Women’s Equality (WE) Party

    Women's Equality Party leader Mandu Reid
    London mayoral election 2021: Women’s Equality Party leader Mandu Reid

    The WE candidate for the London mayoralty wants to create a new police squad to tackle sexual violence in the capital; provide sustainable funding for specialist VAWG services; and develop a city-wide strategy to end street harassment and abuse on public transport.

    Most strikingly, Reid has pledged to make London a ‘sanctuary city’ for migrant women and their children fleeing abuse. The government just voted against an amendment to the domestic abuse bill that would have meant migrant women could access safe accommodation and essential services without fear of deportation. Reid wants London to defy the government and refuse to report abuse survivors with insecure immigration status to the Home Office, inspired by US cities such as Chicago and San Francisco that have pushed back against federal immigration laws.

    “You can’t have a situation where some women are entitled to support, while others, just because of the stamps in their passports, are not,” Reid tells Stylist. “It’s a human rights issue.”

    Reid says she would also make training on gender-based violence mandatory for all frontline Met officers, and implement a “rapid review of institutional sexism and misogyny in the police” within six months of becoming mayor.

    “There is plenty of evidence that the Metropolitan Police has an issue when it comes to institutional sexism and misogyny,” Reid says, pointing to the fact that there were 594 sex abuse complaints against Met employees between 2012 and 2018 (of which just a fifth were upheld). “In my view, 4.5 million women and girls in London do not have a public service we can rely on if [the Met] can’t reflect on its own issues.”

  • Shaun Bailey, Conservatives

    London mayoral elections 2021: Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey
    London mayoral elections 2021: Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey

    The Conservative candidate’s ‘plan to protect women and girls’ has a strong emphasis on policing. He says he’ll provide London with 1,000 extra officers focused on “protecting women”, divided between the British Transport Police and safeguarding units working on crimes such as domestic abuse.

    Bailey has promised to introduce 24/7 police patrols in “harassment hotspots” such as parks, and install CCTV on all Underground lines and bus stations across London. He also says he’ll deploy 4,000 youth workers across London who are trained to educate young people about “decent, strong relationships”.

    Bailey argues that bolstering police numbers is a preventative measure when it comes to VAWG. “It sends a message that we’re serious,” he tells Stylist. “I want to make sure [perpetrators of VAWG] are aware that we are looking for you and you will get caught.”

    However, he also acknowledges that the Met has work to do to increase women’s trust. He says he would introduce new, ongoing training within the force specifically addressing how officers relate to women.

    “With a big organisation like the police, if you foist things on them, they fight them,” he says. “I want them to understand how much better it would be for them and everybody else [if officers had additional training on VAWG].”

    Providing police with more resources and training, Bailey says, would help them bring more perpetrators to court. He believes this would make women more likely to report crimes such as harassment, assault and domestic abuse: “Women [would] report things if they thought it would be actioned.”

  • Luisa Porritt, Liberal Democrats

    London mayoral elections 2021: Lib Dem candidate Luisa Porritt
    London mayoral elections 2021: Lib Dem candidate Luisa Porritt

    If she becomes London’s first Lib Dem mayor, Porritt says she would appoint a Women’s Board, made up of survivors and key organisations, to help her develop new VAWG policies and hold her accountable.

    “A lot of the debate following what happened to Sarah Everard has been dominated by male politicians,” she tells Stylist. “We need to amplify women’s voices and include them in the process.”

    Porritt says she would ask Transport for London (TfL) to introduce free travel for women fleeing domestic abuse on trains and buses in the capital, and call for better training and more accountability for how Metropolitan Police officers handle reports made by women.

    “We know one reason why women don’t come forward is they’re worried they’re not going to be believed,” she says. “So we’re not getting a clear picture of what’s going on and we’re crucially not getting justice for those victims.”

    Porrit, who called for the resignation of Police Commissioner Cressida Dick after heavy-handed tactics were used by Met Police officers at a vigil for Sarah Everard, points to the fact that police numbers have dropped significantly since the Conservatives came to power in 2010. “The government is trying to compensate for those cuts now by recruiting more officers, but the officers themselves are being done a disservice because they’re not getting the level of training a new police recruit would have got 10 years ago.”

    Without that training, Porritt believes “it can be easy” for officers to not be sufficiently sensitive to intersecting issues such as gender, race and sexuality. “We know that the Met themselves sadly aren’t representative enough of our society.”

  • Sian Berry, Green Party

    London mayoral elections: Green Party candidate Sian Berry
    London mayoral elections 2021: Green Party candidate Sian Berry

    Like Khan, Berry believes in taking a public health approach to eliminating violent crime in London, including VAWG. She is much more interested in preventive action – funding services that work to stop domestic abuse and sexual violence happening in the first place – than policing.

    “It’s far better to prevent than it is to enforce,” she tells Stylist. “Too many things that make communities strong – a community centre just down the road, youth services, housing services – have been whittled away by austerity. That means you’re going to have a more fragile society where problems don’t get solved at the start; they’re allowed to turn into horrible situations.”

    Berry says she would fully fund the initiatives of the London VAWG Consortium, a coalition of organisations working to eradicate gender-based violence across London, and invest heavily in specialist VAWG services. “Sparse, one-size-fits-all services often don’t provide a good service to people from specific cultural, ethnic or sexuality groups who need specific help,” she says.

    She has also promised to divert more resources into the victims’ commissioner office and the violence reduction unit at City Hall, and introduce more independent domestic violence advocates (IDVAs) to work with survivors across London.

    “You can find money for this,” she says. “We’ve been allowed to put up the council tax for policing. If you can use some of the money that would go on stopping and searching people and push that into real preventative work, that’s what we should be doing.”

    The London mayoral election will take place on 6 May, 2021

Images: Getty Images; Siorna Ashby