The boys are back and blissfully ignoring the announcement of the EU referendum (23rd June, stick it in your diary) and instead choosing to dive into the rest of the political and social wasteland that will be ignored by mainstream media for the next four months.
The pasting of Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats back in the May general election, reducing the party from 56 seats to eight in the Commons, was both widely predicted and widely underestimated.
Since the vote many put down the destruction of the party to contamination from their Conservative coalition partners, with the party themselves complaining that they were often blamed for the bad decisions in government and snubbed for the good ones.
One of the first warning signs of the Liberal Democrats smashing at the general election came when the party’s Brian Paddick, a former policeman, was beaten to third place in the 2012 London mayoral election by the Greens’ Jenny Jones.
Paddick’s support had more than halved since the previous mayoral contest in 2008, both as an absolute figure and as a percentage of London’s vote – a result largely attributed to the damage that coalition life had done to the image of the Lib Dems.
It’s a record that Paddick’s successor Caroline Pidgeon will no doubt wish to overcome at the London mayoral election next year.
A former staffer of Brent Council and later a healthcare comms officer, since that contest in 2008 she has sat on the London Assembly, a body that scrutinises the mayor.
Now she is making a tilt at the main title, having been selected through a party poll without any rival after Duwayne Brooks withdrew due to a clashing work commitment (though she noted that the original field contained six candidates, and voters were given an option to restart the primary).
Regardless, most voters will be uninterested in the internal affairs of the Lib Dems, especially given the problems that Londoners are facing.
Speaking to the Right Dishonourable, Pidgeon cited housing as the main issue of this current campaign, saying that the capital faces “a huge crisis” across all different types of homes.
The Tories’ Zac Goldsmith and Labour’s Sadiq Khan, the only two mayoral candidates with a realistic chance of winning the contest, have also picked out housing as a key concern.
The boom in London’s property prices has made the capital’s housing stock a lucrative asset class for the world’s millionaires, but Pidgeon sees the issue in more ordinary terms.
“You need to be settled if your child is at school, and [housing cost] puts huge pressure on Londoners,” she said. Her main strategy to fix this involves a return to council housing, empowering the Greater London Authority – the capital’s government – to invest in housebuilding projects.
Asked about the private sector’s role in this, Pidgeon said: “With developers it’s in their interest only to build so many homes a year because it keeps the prices higher in the market.” Later she added: “None of them are making loses – they’re making massive, massive profits.”
Some people have suggested that it is time to build further into the greenbelt that has long limited London’s extensive urban sprawl. But Pidgeon is opposed.
“I don’t want to build on the greenbelt,” she said. “There’s smarter ways you can develop the housing, and part of it is is being tough with developers.”
Transport is the other big issue in Londoners’ minds, most of them having to squeeze themselves in and out of cramped train carriages and buses on a daily basis.
To begin Pidgeon wants to push through existing plans to put more trains onto the Tube, as well as secure funding for Crossrail 2, a new line that will run from Wimbledon to Tottenham.
Another idea she has is to roll out an early-bird fares scheme to incentivise people to travel early. Londoners have already started varying their working patterns in a bid to avoid the rush, according to data from Transport for London (TfL), but Pidgeon hopes her scheme would accelerate this process.
On the touchy subject of nationalising the railways, a debate recently re-opened by Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, Pidgeon is not convinced a return to full public ownership would be best.
Instead she champions the “concession model” currently used by London Overground, in which private firms have a more limited role than the franchise system used in most of Britain.
“I’m not one of these people that thinks everything the public sector does is marvellous or everything the private sector does is best,” she said.
Another big question facing London is the role that the taxi-hailing app Uber will have against the historic black cabs.
Black cab drivers have blocked major roads recently and even disrupted City Hall meetings to protest against the insurgents, whose drivers are less regulated and undercut the pricey incumbents.
Pidgeon argued that TfL has underinvested in the taxi network. She also said that “private hire companies have been pushing the boundaries” of the law, noting reports of uninsured cars and unlicensed drivers, and as such she would like to see private hire regulation brought up rather than black cab regulation reduced.
“The black taxi is iconic in terms of London,” she said. “It’s hugely important to tourists who come to London and it’s important both parts of the market are kept and supported.”
In reality the best that Pidgeon is likely to expect from this campaign is third place.
One of her rivals, the Greens’ Sian Berry, already told the Right Dishonourable that a Labour mayor would be easier for Green assembly members to influence than a Conservative one.
But on this question of who she would prefer to win Pidgeon equivocates, noting that she is not responsible for the campaigns of her rivals.
As noted above, whether Pidgeon can even come third place will depend on whether she can mitigate the taint of the Lib Dem’s work with the Tories.
Like many of her fellow party members she maintains there was “no choice for our party to go into coalition in the national interest”, adding that they have paid “a heavy price” for doing so.
Unfortunately a summer poll by Survation put the Lib Dems behind not just the Greens but Ukip, a party whose nativist views do not obviously align with the cosmopolitan image of London. What would Pidgeon say to those in the capital hostile to migration?
“We wouldn’t have many public services functioning if we didn’t have migration into our city,” she said, but added that in response to population growth the city needed to build more houses and invest further in public services.
She and the rest of London will find out whether this and the rest of her pitch is convincing to voters in May of next year.
The Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron revealed he has been in conversation with a number of Labour luminaries following the elevation of hard left MP Jeremy Corbyn to the head of the party.
Over last weekend Farron had apparently fielded calls from a number of leading Labourites, perhaps including frontbench MPs, in discussions that made him feel like an “agony aunt”.
Speaking to the Evening Standard, he said:
“I’ve had various unsolicited texts, some of them over the weekend, where I felt like I was being an agony aunt rather than anything else. People who have been members of the [Labour] party for as long as I’ve been a member of mine who feel that they don’t recognise their party anyone and feel deeply distressed.”
“The bottom line is…people in the Labour Party need to understand they can have conversations with me, which may or may not be conclusive, which will remain totally between me and them.”
The Lib Dem leader, who was elected in July in a closely fought contest with Norman Lamb, also said that he saw an opportunity to move into the centre now that Labour has steered to the left under Corbyn.
This is despite the party’s destructive general election that left the party with a mere eight MPs, with many progressives dismayed abandoning the party over its support for university tuition fees, and some even branding the Liberals “Yellow Tories”.
Although Farron’s comments hint at potential defections, in another interview this week he was reluctant to discuss defections or a potential Labour split reminiscent of that which created the Social Democratic Party, which saw four leading figures from Labour peel off into a more centrist unit.
Farron told BuzzFeed that it was “far too soon” to discuss such a split, adding on the subject of potential defections: “That’s not something I’m wanting to talk about particularly, that’s an internal matter for them.”
Image Credit – Tim Farron, October 2014 by the Liberal Democrats
Every politician should have a concerned face, and whatever one thinks of Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron he certainly knows how to look suitably aggrieved.
Of course with such powers of facial expression one must use them wisely, lest some uncharitable soul leak unused pictures to the press of you holding dairy items for no explicable reason.
— Marie Le Conte (@youngvulgarian) September 10, 2015
Thankfully the Farron was on hand shortly afterwards to explain a scandal literally nobody is calling Milkgate.
Still, the ability to look suitably aggrieved on cue could prove useful should the Libs’ poll ratings fail to improve over the next few years.
Image Credit – Tim Farron holding milk via Marie Le Conte