Chris Nicholson doesn’t live up to expectations. Or mine at least. The day before we meet, The Independent published accusations from Keith Hill that Nicholson, who is a partner at KPMG, had ‘bought his seat’. I had also heard a fantastic story put about by Labour about him mistakenly buying his house in Wandsworth instead of Streatham. Turns out it wasn’t so much a fantastic story as a fantasy. Instead of the business-like and rather clueless fat-cat I had expected, I got a softly spoken and articulate candidate sitting in a shabby suit and a messy campaign office. Serves me right.
Chris Nicholson is leading the Liberal Democrat bid to steal the Streatham seat from Labour. This a Lib-Lab race. In the 2005 election, the Liberal Democrats managed to almost halve the Labour lead from 14,270 to just 7,466 votes. Nicholson thinks it will come down to a thousand votes either way this time around. “We need less of a swing to take the seat than we got last time and we’ve been working very hard! It is eminently achievable.”
It is certainly true that Nicholson has been working hard. He may not be a lifelong resident like Chuka Umunna, but he speaks with clarity on local issues. “I grew up in Moss Side, Manchester, which was a similar sort of area to this. In that sense, this area feels like coming home.” He also feels that his life experience has enriched the way he approaches politics in the area. He was Head of Public Policy at KPMG and, long before that in the 1980s, Liberal Democrat council leader in Kingston. “People are cynical of the concept of a career politician. My experience outside of politics and of bringing up a family is something that we’re finding people respond to.”
Nicholson’s biggest bug bear is the way that Lambeth Labour have dealt with housing, especially the transfer of power to the outside organisation Lambeth Living. “The vote on Lambeth Living was something like 42% in favour and 41% against, yet that was taken as being a mandate for change. The new body didn’t have democratic accountability. Senior management had also taken their eye off the ball while trying to get tenants to vote in favour, so there were more empty properties. Rental income dropped and that meant that rents went up and there has been less money for repairs.” Nicholson is especially critical of the fact that Keith Hill MP is now chair of Lambeth Living, despite promises that it would be chaired by a tenant or leaseholder.
So what would the Lib Dems do differently? Nicholson cops out of a straight answer at first. “I know it’s easy to say we wouldn’t have got in that position to start with, but we genuinly wouldn’t have done.” That is easy to say. He goes on, however, to point to the success of resident management groups in Blenheim Gardens Estate and Roupell Park. Later, he emphasises that “as a Non-Conformist, I very much believe in bottom-up politics”. In his view, the Labour Party is inherently “very top-down, centralising and fairly authoritarian.” He applies the criticism to point out, correctly I believe, potential weaknesses in the John Lewis Council. “In principle, it’s very good. However, the principle and the practice, particularly in Lambeth, would be rather different. There’s a real problem that democractic accountability is just not seen as important.”
Of course, the Lib Dems when they led Lambeth council didn’t exactly have a good reputation either. They have been accused by many of being inexperienced and difficult to work with. As a parliamentary candidate in 2010, Nicholson can’t be held fully accountable for the Lib Dems’ actions as council leaders in 2006, when council tax rose by 40%, but he defends his colleagues. “There were clearly some things which didn’t go well. What we succeeded in doing was getting three departments out of special measures, getting Lambeth up to being a two star authority.”
For now, however, it is more constructive to focus on the future – if still with half an eye in the back of our heads to remind us of the past. The Lib Dems have launched their ‘four steps to fairness’. They would raise the personal tax allowance to £10,000 “removing four million people out of tax”; put more money into early years education and scrap tuition fees; support green jobs; and create a fairer voting system with an elected House of Lords. All of this needs money, of which there will be little after the election. Nicholson’s approach to public spending cuts is half-good, half-unrealistic. When it comes to Streatham, he claims that no cuts should be made. We’d be fools to believe they won’t be. But Nicholson prefers to focus on cuts to national schemes – ID cards, the Trident Nuclear Missiles system, Eurofighters, and Child Trust Funds.
If we strip away their party affiliations, it is difficult to find much of a difference between Chuka and Chris. Nationally, they are both for scrapping Trident, stopping tuition fees, and focusing on early years education. Locally, both promise a regeneration of Streatham High Rd, improved public transport links in Streatham and better leisure centres (arf arf). “Chuka expresses a lot of views which are Liberal Democrat views, but I am in a party which supports those views and he is in a party which doesn’t. He also says that he would vote for party policy and what was in the manifesto. To me, that must mean that he’s going to vote for some of those things which he disagrees with.” It is true that Chuka and the Compass group are not a majority voice in their party, although Umunna was adament when I interviewed him about his belief that MPs should not always toe the party line. It is also true that the Lib Dems are much freer to talk about what they truly believe in as long as they remain the third party in Britain.
Perhaps it is because the election is so close between Umunna and Nicholson that the rumour mill has been racked up a notch. The house-buying story was published by the website Lambeth Liberal Democrat Watch – which I will not link to here – in 2008, but it is still in circulation now. It is, says Nicholson, a “complete fabrication”. “It was my partner’s house, which she’d bought years before, and I lived there for some time before we bought a house together in the constiuency. Of course I knew it was in Wandsworth and not Streatham, but it was where Trisha lived!”
The funding question is rather more complicated. Last week, Keith Hill stood up in parliament and accused Nicholson of buying his seat, because he has donated almost £300,000 to the party in the last three years, much of which has gone directly to his own campaign in Streatham. The figures are all correct – they have been declared in line with the law and are published on the Electoral Commission website. That does not, however, necessarily mean that he has ‘bought his seat’. Nicholson denies that vehemently. “It is outrageous that Hill sheltered behind parliamentary privilege to make those accusations. I’m sure that was done quite deliberately, because there were things in what he said which are completely untrue. The figures about my donations are correct, but he then also quoted what had been spent by our Streatham local party, implying that it was all on electioneering and comparing it with his communications allowance. In fact, a lot of the money spent by the Streatham party goes on premises and staff. If you compare how much the Streatham local party spent compared to how much Keith Hill spent, using public and union funds, we spent less. On top of that, the Council produces Lambeth Life every fortnight at huge cost. Chuka has until recently had office accomodation provided by the union UCATT. In fact, we are outspent by some margin by the Labor party.”
It is undoubtedly hard to square the huge amounts of money Nicholson has donated with his views on “bottom-up politics” and desire to reform the political system. Yet he readily gives his support for capping funding. “I would be the first to vote for changes in party funding rules. But we need to have a level playing field and the fact is that at the moment we don’t.” There is a strong, and I don’t think naive, case for arguing that Nicholson, as a rich man and in the knowledge that his party has much less money than its two competitors, has donated to a cause he believes in deeply. It seems immensely hypocritical of Keith Hill, whose party received £4,962,886 in donations last quarter compared to the Lib Dem £1,055, 717. It is also another example of the unpleasant negative campaigning we have seen of late from Lambeth Labour, a tactic the Liberal Democrats do not seem to have engaged in to the same level.
In the media-obsessed world in which we live, it is hard to avoid the fact that Nicholson doesn’t have the cache or youth of Chuka Umunna. It might too have made the election excitingly scandalous if Nicholson really had been a fat cat parachuted into the constituency, but superficialities aside, we are lucky in this consituency to have two such strong candidates and the neck-and-neck race that will result from that is going to be just as intriguing.