IT’S hard to see why a guy like Maajid Nawaz, a busy man who you may have seen on Newsnight or Question Time, would put himself forward for the Liberal Democrat parliamentary mission in Hampstead and Kilburn if he did not think it could end in success. That obvious self-belief – you need it to pace around the debating hall at Oxford Union in a bow tie – twinned with an easy charisma is exactly what the party needs after falling agonisingly short here in 2010, and then immediately staking a newly-amassed left-leaning support on the gamble of dealing with the Conservatives nationally.
There is a sense that the troops needed a bit of energising, a bit of convincing that the scores haven’t been reset, that the seat remains a three way marginal and that they will not automatically slip back to past driftwood positions. Since 2010 there have been highs of seeing Lib Dem colleagues in the cabinet, but also deflating moments with venomous accusations of betrayal.
There is an idea in some quarters of the constituency that partnering the coalition government with the Tories rather than Labour will mean everybody in a leftish terrain like Hampstead and Kilburn who voted for the Lib Dems last time, will simply switch to Labour in 2015 – thousands of them, as if on a unstoppable treadmill. A flavour of this theory may pierce reality and encourages the Labour minds who still think the punishment for the Lib Dems will more quickly be seen in damaging results at next May’s council elections.
If the trap door is ajar for the Lib Dems, the first attempt at a parliamentary selection may have been the last thing activists needed to see: a low key affair won by Emily Frith, who then effectively decided she had a more attractive offer with a politically-restricted new job. This sent out a signal that deep down the Lib Dems didn’t think victory was likely and the candidate would be slogging away for two years with not much end product at the expense of other career opportunities. Under those conditions, there is a risk that members might be pulled in the direction of Lynne Featherstone’s defence in Hornsey and Wood Green, where Labour’s Catherine West will knock loudly on the door, come the 2015 election run-in.
But Nawaz’s appointment to the role last night sends out the opposite signal, a message to the team that its leadership believes the Lib Dems can rally and go again with a candidate brimming with that much-needed self-belief. Close your eyes and imagine the three candidates on the Hampstead and Kilburn slate answering questions under the glare of the Question Time cameras. How do you think Labour’s Tulip Siddiq would fare? What about the Conservatives’ choice Simon Marcus? That test may one day be set for them, but Nawaz has already passed, invited onto the panel as the founder of the Quilliam Foundation. He used it to tell Ian Paisley Jnr that he was a bigot for his stance over equal marriages.
Somehow the Lib Dems appear to have botched their candidate selection process by needing two tries at it, but come up with the best bet open to them in strained times. Leader Keith Moffitt has said as much in declaring the final shortlist stronger on the second try than the first.
The worry for doubters is obvious. Nawaz’s back story, his public rejection of the radical Islamism he once helped lead, dominates all of those media appearances that make him a high profile choice. There will be some members who voted for somebody else to be the candidate last night that will worry that the campaign will become a single-issue vehicle. It’s true that hustings in Hampstead and Kilburn attract more questions on foreign policy and wider social affairs than most constituencies – candidates must know how to resolve Darfur once and for all – but a lot of voters still see their cross in a box as a way of having their say on issues in the streets around them.
They want to know about school places, parking and why their high streets have nothing but charity shops, bookmakers and places to eat and drink. That’s when local candidates who have seen the inside of the Town Hall can excel.
Yet for all that, the Lib Dems had a tempting offer from Nawaz they surely felt they couldn’t refuse when it came to the selection, a candidate of the like they’ve never had before who guaranteed publicity; a man who seemed at ease being barked at by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight and who had spoken in front of the US senate. We’ll see how this transfers to doorstep campaigning, but many party members surely felt they might have missed a trick by choosing somebody else, a point underlined by how his selection has already been noticed by the national press.