London mayoralty: Paddick aims to reverse Lib Dems 'whipping boy' status

Love for unpopular party motivates former Met police officer to stand for London mayoral elections a second time

It takes a certain kind of bravery to stand as a Liberal Democrat candidate these days. Throw in an election to an office whose holder enjoys the largest personal mandate in Europe – bar the French president – and foolhardiness is probably required.

Brian Paddick, the former senior Metropolitan police officer who is standing as the Lib Dem candidate in the London mayoral contest in May, has little difficulty in showing he is no fool. The battle-scarred veteran from the last mayoral contest in 2008 is candid that he has made a clear calculation: "It's quite obvious where I'm positioning myself and it's to the left of the coalition," he says in an interview with the Guardian.

"What we are saying to Londoners is this has got nothing to do with national politics. We are putting forward an innovative, radical Liberal Democrat agenda for Londoners and that's what we want them to vote on."

Paddick praises Nick Clegg and says the Lib Dems had no choice but to form a coalition after voting in the 2010 general election resulted in a hung parliament. But this has made life grim for Lib Dems. And this explains why he agreed, after some hesitation, to stand as London mayor again after coming a poor third in 2008.

"I thought the Liberal Democrats were getting an unfair press," he says. "They were the whipping boys for the coalition. Anything positive that was happening was what the Tories were doing, and anything that was negative and unpopular, the Liberal Democrats were being unfairly blamed for it.

"Despite its imperfections, and despite people's unhappiness with the coalition, it was still the party that I thought was the best of the three, a party that I loved and I didn't like my loved one being beaten up in the way that it was being."

Paddick hopes to show that, in addition to being no political novice, he has the required bravery to stand as a Lib Dem and to challenge the only two politicians in the country known by their first names. Boris (Johnson) and Ken (Livingstone) will be slugging it out for first place.

Over the coming weeks Paddick will be taking on his former employers in the Met over rape and their failure to prevent last summer's riots. On Friday he launched a campaign to put pressure on the Met to improve their handling of rape investigations, with a poster featuring a traumatised woman next to the words: "Rape. If you report it, the police must listen."

The 53-year-old, who retired as a deputy assistant commissioner in 2007 after 30 years' police service, is scathing about how his former employers handled the summer riots. "We had riots in August, which, if the police do not transform themselves, we will have again."

Paddick was on duty as a 22-year-old officer during the Brixton riots in 1981, and believes the police are partly to blame for last August's riots. Poor relations between the Met and members of the black community were a factor, he says, citing statistics that show how black people are much more likely to be stopped and searched. "The police are definitely partly to blame for the riots," he says.

The Lib Dems, whose deputy leader and former London mayoral candidate, Simon Hughes, is chairing the London campaign, believe their candidate has come a long way since 2008, when he garnered the lowest share of first-preference votes since the first mayoral contest in 2000. Paddick admits he was "petrified" when he stood for the mayoralty just a year after retiring from the police.

"That was an extremely steep learning curve. So I was politically – or party politically or politically with a big P – naive. I didn't really know what I was doing, the party had very limited resources that they were prepared to put into the mayoral campaign, so we were trying to do it on a shoestring.

"I was unrealistic. I had gone from being in charge of 20,000 people who were under orders to do what I told them to do, to working with people who were volunteers. It was a complete culture shift for me. I probably was handling people more as though I was still in the police rather than being a Liberal Democrat politician, which didn't go down too well. I made lots of mistakes and learnt a lot."

The intervening four years have taught him much about politics and the need to be distinctive. In his case this means differentiating himself from the national Lib Dems. Paddick and the candidates for the London assembly elections are presenting themselves as "London Liberal Democrats".

"The difficulty is people get confused between what the Liberal Democrats stand for and what the coalition stands for," he says. "We want to make the point that, yes, the Liberal Democrats are part of a national coalition but the Liberal Democrat party is a separate independent, proud, progressive party that is not part of the coalition.

"So using London Liberal Democrats is about telling Londoners that they can vote Liberal Democrat, that there is no coalition and it is Liberal Democrat policies that will be implemented if they have a Liberal Democrat mayor."

The most recent polling makes grim reading for Paddick. It puts Johnson and Livingstone neck and neck, with Paddick trailing behind on just 6% – even worse than the party's national polling in London – prompting speculation that he could even finish fourth.

Paddick and the Lib Dems know that only Livingstone can beat Johnson. But they hope that a strong Paddick showing could help the Lib Dem assembly candidates, whose success would resonate way beyond the party.

If the Lib Dems increased their number of assembly seats from three to four they would deprive the British National party of a seat and install Shas Sheehan, a Muslim woman. "We want to have as many London assembly members as we possibly can," Paddick says. "So No 4 on the list is a Muslim Asian woman. If more people vote Liberal Democrat we could have a Muslim Asian woman on the London assembly instead of what we got last time, which was somebody from the BNP."


Nicholas Watt and Hélène Mulholland

The GuardianTramp

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