Looking in as an outsider, but one with some strong London connections, I have often been frustrated by the performance of the Liberal Democrats in London. While there are areas of considerable strength, there are other areas that appear to be Lib Dem deserts, and it seems to me that we have failed to project a high profile and consistent London-wide presence. I’m not close enough to the action to provide a proper analysis of why this should be the case but I do believe that the nature of the capital should enable us to punch above our weight. Instead we seem to punch significantly below.
However, there do seem to be some positive signs that this may be changing. Not least we seem to be getting a lot of things right in this years elections for the Mayor and Assembly. In Brian Paddick we clearly have the best candidate for Mayor. He is credible, personable, fresh and has an inspiring personal story to tell. He is a good thing for London and a good thing for the Liberal Democrats. The question is, can he win?
I think we need to be realistic about how difficult it is for us to break into the “Ken and Boris show”. While we have some strong messages to get across about our candidate (“he’s a former senior policeman you know”) we also have a crucial message to get across about the nature of the election system and our ability to win. Do we have enough time and enough airplay to do this? While we have a mountain to climb, I do genuinely believe that it is a possibility. All the evidence suggests that if Paddick can do enough to get a second place in the first round then, when the second votes are transferred, he will win.
What circumstances could give him a chance at that second place? Shortly after the Tories chose Boris Johnson as their candidate I was speculating that it could happen if Boris was to implode. Well Boris hasn’t imploded. In fact he has been running exactly the campaign he needs to. While this could all change in the next few weeks the signs are that Boris’ position is strengthening.
While frightening as the prospect of a Boris mayoralty is, his lead opens up the possibility of a different scenario that could give Paddick a second place. If as the campaign develops Boris’ position continues to strengthen and Ken Livingstone’s weakens then people’s expectations of what this campaign is about will have been turned on its head. What happens if it becomes clear that Ken can’t win? Who then becomes the stop Boris candidate? The answer is obvious.
OK, I admit I could be getting a little carried away here. But is it totally outside the realm of possibilities that it could be Ken that implodes? I’m not the only one thinking along these lines.
It is worth pausing for a moment to consider how Ken Livingstone has got himself into this situation. Even Ken’s fiercest critics are prepared to accept that he has achieved some significant things as Mayor. In my view whoever became the first elected Mayor of London would have had a successful first term. The restoration of some form of London wide government would in itself have produced successes. That being said Ken has made a difference, not least with the congestion charge.
Yet, in many ways Ken has squandered his opportunities. Having been first elected as an “independent” mayor he had a golden opportunity to develop a new kind of political environment for London. He could have reached out across the political divides and established a consensus amongst progressive opinion in the capital and a truly independent power base. Ken’s tragedy was that he was incapable of transcending his instincts towards tribal Labour. Livingstone has a curious mixture of the best characteristics of a charismatic and engaging modern leader and the worst characteristics of an old-fashioned hard left machine politician.
It is Ken’s bad side that has increasingly become dominant as he has wasted time picking unnecessary fights and developing his own “foreign policy”. A third term for Ken should have been a given. Yet, through a combination of shackling himself to an unpopular Labour government, a reluctance to develop a wider range of allies and thus a reliance on a small inner circle, a hostile media, and an aggressive and grumpy arrogance he appears to have thrown it away. The question is, just how bad could it get for Ken?
Away from the contest for Mayor, it should not be forgotten that there are some interesting contests in the election for places on the Assembly. Possibly of more long term significance for the Party are the opportunities we have in this election for some of our excellent candidates to win some of the Assembly constituency seats.
The London elections are already confounding the expectations of many. There could yet be more twists before polling day. I am trying to identify some time to go down and help in London and would encourage others to do the same.
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.