Much later than many hoped, London’s Liberal Democrats have finally turned their minds to the task of picking a candidate to take on Ken, Boris and Jenny in next year’s Mayoral contest.
Last night saw the first hustings between the shortlisted candidates – Brian Haley, Lembit Opik, Brian Paddick and Mike Tuffrey – and organisers Merton Liberal Democrats kindly invited me along to watch the proceedings.
It rapidly became clear both from talking to some of those present and watching the contenders in action that the the real choice facing Lib Dem members is between two very different kinds of experience.
Earlier in the week a ‘senior London Liberal Democrat’ with an obvious preference for one of the above suggested that Opik was “out of the game”.
Banking their opinion but cautious of the obvious bias I looked forward to seeing how he performed on the night.
Even though I’ve expressed my own doubts about him, I confess to being disappointed at how unsure and unconfident Lembit came across in the room.
Given the weight he places on his Parliamentary experience I was expecting much more of a barnstorming performance.
His policy slate doesn’t really seem to have moved beyond the talk of Liberalism and a 24/7 tube which have dominated his website for months though, like the other candidates, he did say housing is an important issue.
Too many of his answers seemed to include some form of self-referential anecdote which hardly dispelled the suspicion that his candidature is a very self-indulgent ego-boost.
Did he have me in mind when he said those who suggest his TV work means he’s not a serious political force were wrong?
Critics, he seemed to say, are guilty of not understanding how to engage with ordinary voters who don’t care about the minutiae of policy.
There may be something it that but I suspect even voters who don’t want to know every last detail of a policy expect their politicians to have a firm understanding of what is and isn’t possible.
My sense is that Lembit still isn’t there yet and that my Lib Dem insider was spot on.
More impressive than Montgomeryshire’s former MP was ex-Haringey councillor and Labour defector Brian Haley.
Haley also has an infeasible transport plan – he wants to revive London’s canals, shades of Boris’s promises to restore London’s lost rivers – but unlike Lembit he seemed confident and assured in his answers.
His anti-Labour rhetoric might go down well in the selection process but if the party is to have any chance of their candidate coming in the top two (as they to hope to) it’s likely to prove unhelpful in winning over Labour-leading voters.
So on to the pair I reckon are the front-runners.
When I met Brian Paddick during the 2008 contest he struck me as a very aloof, cold and unfriendly man – when I introduced myself at one hustings he turned his back on me without answering.
His decision to run again has been a source of genuine puzzlement to me, he scored the lowest share of the vote of any Lib Dem Mayoral hopeful and his campaign saw the loss of two Assembly Members.
The Brian Paddick of 2011 is a very different, more relaxed, friendlier and far more comfortable looking man.
When we spoke before he readily acknowledged that he’d found the 2008 campaign tough and that he was ill-prepared for the differences between policing and politicking.
During questions from the audience he went further and admitted that he’d been scared of Ken & Boris during their first encounter, a fear he says that’s well in the past.
His pitch is ‘I know what I got wrong last time, if you let me I can do it right this time’.
It could be a compelling offer to many and has the novelty of never having been tried – no Liberal Democrat Mayoral candidate has ever stood a second time (Susan Kramer wanted to but was beaten to the 2004 nomination by Bermondsey MP Simon Hughes),
What undermines it is the hurt many Lib Dems still feel about the loss of those two Assembly seats.
During the Q&A Mike Tuffrey referred to how uncomfortable the loss was. His comment elicited a grimace from Paddick and nodding heads from some of the audience. It’s clearly an achilles heel for Paddick and surely no accident that Tuffrey mentioned it.
Time and again Tuffrey referred to his unique status as someone who has been taking the fight to Ken and Boris at City Hall over the past decade. From their body language that message seemed to find favour with many in the room.
While some of his rivals seemed to want to use the nomination as a platform to slam the Westminster coalition, Tuffrey was more nuanced.
As candidate he’d have no problem defending those things the coalition had got right, he’d do what every Mayor should do and speak up for London’s interests without party favour and he’d counter accusations that the Lib Dems had sold out the Tories by taking the fight to the incumbent Conservative Mayor.
In the social discussions before and after the hustings a number of attendees lamented the delays in getting the selection process underway and a couple told me Tuffrey’s experience at City Hall would allow them to “make up for lost time”.
I sense it won’t be long before the Tuffrey campaign add that to their list of reasons to ‘Vote Mike’