Saturday, 2 July 2011

Citizen Lem

Love him or hate him, former Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Öpik has a tremendous ability to get himself into the limelight. It may be through dating one of the Cheeky Girls, appearing on I’m A Celebrity or being on Sport Relief Does The Apprentice, but he does manage to get himself talked about, which relatively few politicians manage these days.

I recently watched Citizen Lem , his Mayor of London campaign video, a parody of 70s sitcom Citizen Smith in which Robert Lindsay plays a young Communist ‘urban guerrilla’ from Tooting, a petty criminal and unemployed dreamer. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry watching it. I couldn’t believe how bad it was. Is this man seriously putting his name forward for Mayor of London?

I almost want to like him. He’s on the left of his party, unafraid to criticise the coalition and has been good value on Have I Got News For You (he’s tried his hand at stand-up since). I just can’t take him seriously.

Now I’m no conspiracy theorist, but that he maintains a close friendship with George Galloway, famous for his cat impression on Celebrity Big Brother suggests to me that they’ve made the same kind of gamble/calculation that if you can be in the public eye enough, you’ve got a decent chance of being elected. It makes sense. Alas, as many people in this country frequently vote for The X Factor as in elections. The electorate fell for the lies of the ‘No to AV’ campaign and/or didn’t think it could count up to three, and Boris Johnson probably wouldn't have won the 2008 mayoral election if it wasn't for his profile-raising appearances on Have I Got News For You.

What Öpik, Johnson and Galloway all have in common is their rebelliousness and willingness to challenge their party leaders. Galloway was expelled from Labour, while Johnson – more popular with the public (and seen by many as a future Tory leader) than within his party – loves to pick a fight with David Cameron, or at least be seen to. Hélène Mulholland in The Guardian recently wrote about Johnson’s strategy for next year’s mayoral elections of being seen as standing up for Londoners and disagreeing publicly with former Bullingdon Club pal Cameron. Öpik is even less popular within his own party, having gained a reputation for supporting failed campaigns, having supported Don Foster for leader in 1999 and Mark Oaten in 2006, causing some to speak of the ‘curse of Lembit’. Seeking the Lib Dem mayoral nomination, he is still yet to receive any support from Lib Dem colleagues, who are rumoured to be desperately searching for someone to rival him.

While Johnson was triumphant in his quest to become Mayor of London in 2008, Öpik and Galloway’s similar strategies have been less successful. Both lost their seats in 2010, and Galloway failed again this May in his attempt to win a seat in the Scottish Parliament.

Galloway’s current party Respect have never had anyone but the Scot elected, and unless there’s another Iraq War-type scenario which he can exploit to his advantage, it looks unlikely that they’ll again return an MP under first past the post. With the Lib Dems still pantomime villains for their role in the coalition and infamous U-turn on tuition fees, it is extremely unlikely that Öpik, however many popular shows he appears in and however many entertaining videos he makes, will come anywhere near winning next year’s mayoral election. As his party is likely to be battling to hold onto the few seats it holds in Westminster at the next general election, there’s also a good chance he may not even return to the House of Commons.

The success of both in the past, however (Galloway pulled off an improbable victory in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005, unseating Labour MP Oona King, while Öpik spent seven years as leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats), indicate that fame and celebrity can be a great help for a politician. They can also, however, be a real hindrance if you turn into a source of ridicule, as both have recently become.

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