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Monday, 4 July 2011

Choosing between Brian, Mike and Lembit

As I understand it, we have to wait until 12 July before we know who has been shortlisted for selection as the Liberal Democrat candidate for Mayor of London, with the candidate then to be chosen in a one-person-one-vote postal ballot of all London Lib Dem party members (we don't have an eccentric 'electoral college' involving trade unions and Parliamentary blocs; we have one-member-one-vote). There are at least three contenders for a place on the short list: Lembit Opik, Brian Paddick and Mike Tuffrey. Reader(s) of this blog will know that I sometimes attempt humour, so I'd been planning to bring the house down with a post about why I am supporting "Mike Paddick" to be our candidate for London Mayor, the idea (such as it was) being that either Brian or Mike would each make a good candidate and so equally deserve support. I have now changed my mind, and here's why.

I have met Lembit Opik in passing, but cannot claim to know him. I've seen him perform excellently, and seriously, at party conference fringe meetings organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust, in whose work he takes a particular interest as the son of parents who came to this country from Estonia. I remember watching one episode of Question Time on which Lembit debated particularly effectively with a questioner who had illiberal views on asylum seekers. He can be a serious, credible politician and he has a high public profile. If, however, you can now see a dust cloud on the horizon, it is because a 'but' is cantering into town. That 'but' is: Lembit Opik is a politician who tries hard to be funny on the public stage. In my experience of my party, Charles Kennedy, David Penhaligon and Sir Clement Freud have been particularly successful at being very funny, while also getting serious points across.

I am now going to say something that will earn me the undying hostility of the Lembit camp: it is that he isn't funny. If you are going to be a politician whose stock in trade is humour, then you have to actually be funny, or the results are dire. Boris Johnson, it must be said, is funny. He has, over many years as a journalist and politician, created a character (Boris is actually his middle name; those who know him (of whom I cannot claim to be one) reportedly call him Al) that has struck a chord in the public mind: "Boris", the dishevelled, amusing, outrageous intellectual, who calls a spade a spade and has no shame. It has worked very well for him, and a big reason for that is that Mr Johnson can actually be very funny. Lembit, I'm sorry, but when it comes to comedy, you ain't no Boris Johnson, and you ain't no Charles Kennedy neither.

Of course, it arguably shouldn't matter if a politician is funny or not, but if the person concerned has chosen to prioritise being funny, which Lembit surely has, then he'd better actually be good at it. I appreciate that I am now positively inviting people to tell me that I'm not funny either and that is absolutely fair enough. So, although Lembit Opik has undoubted strengths and will have my full support if he becomes our candidate, he will not get my vote in the selection ballot.

Next into the ring (like any Liberal Democrat has ever been in a boxing ring) was Mike Tuffrey. I know Mike quite well and think that he is well-qualified to be London Mayor - and, let's remember, we are actually selecting a candidate who is ultimately intended to hold that office. Mike is a long-standing London Assembly Member, with a deep knowledge of the issues that the London Mayor is responsible for handling. A few weeks ago, I heard him speak to a business audience at a London Chamber of Commerce event at which he proved fluent in the language of London's major business/infrastructure issues. Such fluency is a great strength in a candidate for London Mayor. Boris Johnson has needed senior advisers to be "Boris's brain" on many key London issues; Mike could be his own brain, which is an enormous advantage. If he is selected as our candidate, I shall be pleased to support him in the mayoral race.

Why, then, does Mike not automatically get my first preference vote in the selection ballot? One reason is that I read this piece here, and - look, I know that Mike must appeal to party members, rather than the wider public, if he wants to win this internal selection ballot, but I can't stand what I call the Lib Dem house style, which can be so dreary sometimes. The in-joke about 'focus' (Lib Dems call their leaflets Focus), this photo of activists waving placards...It's resonant of the approach that got the Liberal Democrats where we are today in London politics ('where we are today' being only three London Assembly Members out of twenty-five, even with a PR list electoral system). It is stale and it reminds me of Albert Einstein's apparent definition of insanity: "Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." As for his launch video, with its awful tinkling corporate music - what can I say? Not a lot, because I'm afraid that I couldn't bring myself to watch most of it, having watched the start and then fast-forwarded to some of the later bits, before waking up with a start and wondering where I was for a few seconds.

Which brings me to Brian Paddick. I first got to know Brian during his race to be selected as our London mayoral candidate for 2008. That race coincided with the selection of our London list of candidates for the 2009 European elections, in which I was the runner up to those who made it on to the list (OK, that means that I came ninth and was not selected). This involved my prancing around Lib Dem events across London to meet and greet party members; those seeking the mayoral nomination were at all the same events. So I often heard Brian speak, alongside the other two candidates, my friend Fiyaz Mughal (who will hopefully seek selection again one day), and Chamali Fernando, the memory of whose stump speech still causes me to simultaneously laugh, cry and run screaming for the hills. "The barrister from Finchley - young, unspun and whatever the third thing was." Oh dear. Still, she's gone now.

My own European selection race was rather like that bit in The West Wing where Matt Santos helps that New Hampshire elector throw his trash away at the dump; unlike Santos' campaign, mine didn't progress any further than that, and I am not now the President of the United States in a fictional television programme. I enjoyed it, not least for the chance to peek nosily into the mayoral selection, which Brian won overwhelmingly. I took a particular interest in this because I had chaired London Region Liberal Democrats' Fundraising Working Group for the 2004 elections, when Simon Hughes had been our mayoral candidate, so I know a bit about Lib Dem London mayoral election campaigns (having also, for that matter, spent a year as the Political Assistant to a Lib Dem Executive Mayor, albeit not in London). 

Brian turned out to be a good candidate for Mayor, in the difficult circumstances of what became a two-horse race between "Boris and Ken". He said much that was sensible and didn't really put a foot wrong. From a Lib Dem perspective, the 2008 London mayoral election was one of those events that came and went without much ado, with all due thanks to the candidate for having been a credible standard-bearer. Since 2008, I have remained on nodding terms with Brian and am always pleased to see him; he came to a great 2010 General Election campaign event for myself and Ed Fordham (then our candidate for Hampstead & Kilburn) during that glorious few days when my party was actually ahead in the national opinion polls (which was unprecedented for the Lib Dems in a three-week General Election campaign).

I had assumed that Brian was unlikely to seek selection for 2012 and had thought that I might therefore support Mike Tuffrey as a credible, dependable contender to be our mayoral candidate. When Brian announced that he was standing, I was pleased to have another good candidate in the race, while remaining faintly agnostic as to which of them should do it. But then I read this piece by Brian explaining why he is seeking selection, and it has convinced me, as things stand, to pick him as the best choice to be our candidate for London Mayor. Brian's pitch is not just the same-old Lib Dem same-old and includes a really strong acknowledgement of what went well (and what went less well) on his campaign last time; it is surprisingly honest without being awkward, and very much reads as if Brian wrote it himself rather than having it written for him by an aide. He acknowledges the need for a London mayoral campaign to be fought not as a local election, but as a regional election, with a high regional and national media profile. 

If I am presented with a choice of these three candidates in a mayoral selection ballot, then - for all the undoubted strengths of Lembit Opik and Mike Tuffrey - I currently intend to give my first preference vote to Brian Paddick.

UPDATE on Wednesday 6 July 2011: Dave Hill's Guardian blog reports that there is apparently a fourth name on the short list: Brian Haley. I first got to know Brian professionally when I 'owned' a utility company's relationship with Haringey Council, where he was the (Labour) Cabinet Member for Environment and Conservation. I was really pleased when he later joined the Liberal Democrats and, if he has indeed been short-listed, then that would be good news, as he is another credible contender to be our mayoral candidate.

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