Maajid Nawaz with Liberal Democrat campaigners in Belsize

Maajid Nawaz with Liberal Democrat campaigners in Belsize

The idea that there’s such a thing as a ‘typical’ candidate for Parliament is questionable; even so, Maajid Nawaz’s story sets him outside the ordinary range. If he won the seat in May — though existing polls are strongly against him — he tells me he’d be the first political prisoner from the Bush-era War on Terror to sit in a democratic national assembly.

Aged 16, Nawaz joined the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir — which, paradoxically in the eyes of Western liberals, translates as “The Party of Liberation”. In the years that followed, his involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir deepened. It culminated in 2002, when he was arrested in Egypt for belonging to a banned radical group and imprisoned for four years.

Nawaz renounced his former views while in prison. This change of heart set him on a path which would see him found an anti-extremism think-tank, Quilliam, and eventually stand for Parliament as a Liberal Democrat PPC.

Now, his profile is dominated by his role in anti-extremism, both as an individual advocate and in his capacity at Quilliam. This is, perhaps, a blessing and a curse for a parliamentary candidate.

On the one hand, Nawaz brings his own public image to the table: helpful, in the absence of a record in local or national government. He already has cross-party connections from his work Quilliam, having personally briefed Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron on extremism and social cohesion.

Nawaz speaking about his memoir entitled Radical at Google's London offices

Nawaz speaking about his memoir entitled Radical at Google’s London offices

A strong personal brand is also helpful in the context of a national swing against the Liberal Democrats, who have a damaged brand and an unpopular leader. The party’s candidates will have to draw increasingly on local ties and personal appeal in the run up to May: the Economist noted recently that support for Liberal Democrat MPs increases by 8% among constituents when they’re named, rather than merely mentioned by party.

You might expect this advantage to be magnified for Nawaz. Not many PPCs have over 45,000 followers on Twitter (though his separate account for his Lib Dem candidacy has around 2000), and Nawaz tells me he’s often recognised by his prospective constituents.

But prominence works two ways: Nawaz’s public profile is marked by controversy, too.

A January 2014 petition to have him deselected as a Lib Dem candidate after he tweeted a cartoon of Jesus and Mohammed with the comment “This Jesus & Mo cartoon is not offensive & I’m sure God is greater than to feel threatened by it” attracted over 20,000 signatures.

Nawaz, though, explains that the petition wasn’t representative of his constituents’ views — or even those of the rest of the country. In fact, he says that no one has ever raised it with him directly on the doorstep.

“It’s interesting that the petition can take signatures from all over the world. I know that they sent emails through Islamist networks all over the world, which is why it so quickly got over 20,000 — which is hardly a significant number as a proportion of the world’s Muslims.”

“I think in the constituency, the response was more: “don’t tell us who our parliamentary candidate can be”. It made everyone feel like no, this is ridiculous. In that sense it was actually a good thing. I really felt, in the local Lib Dem party, a sense of solidarity.”

Nawaz campaigning with local Liberal Democrat supporters

For Nawaz, the question of the Lib Dems’ current unpopularity has little effect on his underlying reasons for both joining the party and for standing as one of its candidates at the general election.

“They’re the only party that have been consistent, right throughout the war on terror decade and the war in Iraq, on human rights. They never bowed to the pressure to endorse the invasion, nor the pressure to endorse Guantanamo, rendition, detention without charge, and all the human rights abuses through that decade”

“On top of that, it also happens to be a staunchly secular party. It has a strong strand within it on free speech and secular issues, including MPs such as Julian Huppert and Ed Davey.”

“So there is a link between the party’s record and values and the public work I do on promoting human rights, promoting liberalism, promoting free speech, and promoting separation of church and state in the mosque and state context.”

The connections between the themes of Nawaz’s public profile and his candidacy are clearly something Nawaz is keen to capitalise on: he tells me that he has been developing ‘transition themes’, connecting his work on free speech, counter-extremism and social cohesion with his campaign in Hampstead and Kilburn.

“Whenever we’re tweeting from the Lib Dem side now, we’re tagging it #StandUpForLiberty. That hashtag represents what my work through Quilliam is about, too.”

Engaging young voters forms an important part of Nawaz’s campaign. The message that young people should be more involved in the democratic process is rooted in Nawaz’s cohesion agenda — and it might, if successful, reap dividends in the elusive form of young votes, if not necessarily older ones.

Proportions of British adults for and against reducing the voting age to 16, by political party preference. Source: YouGove 2013

Proportions of British adults for and against reducing the voting age to 16, by political party preference. Source: YouGov 2013

“The sorts of vulnerabilities and the sorts of disenfranchisement and disconnect from society that leads young people into extremist groups, the antidote for that is more democratic participation. So on the campaign we’ve been talking about youth engagement.”

What this translates into is several campaign messages designed to appeal to young voters: supporting the lowering of the minimum voting age to 16, bringing in an online voting system, and moving elections outside exam season.

Constitutional reform is another ‘transition theme’: another classic Lib Dem issue, and another issue that can be packaged in terms of values that relate closely to Nawaz’s existing profile.

“If people feel disenfranchised, they seek alternate remedies — which can lead towards extremes. People feel alienated by the House of Lords because they have no say in it.. Many of its members have become wealthy, donated a lot of money to political parties, and been rewarded with peerages. In this day and age, the fact that we don’t have an elected second chamber is just a travesty”.

As Nawaz admits, not all issues — particularly the more specialised problems which crop up in local contests — can be subsumed under the over-arching themes of his campaign. Housing, though, still gets the #StandUpForLiberty treatment.

“You’re not really liberated if you’re constantly trying to make ends meet month on month, just because the rent’s so high or the mortgage is so high. Much of the time it’s young people who can’t afford housing: it’s a big issue here.”

Nawaz speaking on BBC News on Mohammed Enwazi's radicalisation

The concept of a transition theme makes sense in the context of a candidate who is already established in a particular issue niche, but seeks to broaden their appeal for an election. But is Nawaz’s starting point of anti-extremism something his constituents ask him about directly?

“I do get a lot of questions on the economy, a lot of questions on national housing policy, on foreign policy– but people often want to talk about extremism, too. Obviously, the headlines capture people’s attention, particularly at the moment with the London schoolgirls that went over to join ISIS.”

Since speaking with Nawaz at the end of February, extremism has continued to dominate the national headlines: Mohammed Emwazi’s radicalisation has been the subject of protracted analysis, with ensuing debate over the role of the security services and the responsibility borne by ‘apologists’ for extremism.

There’s arguably increasing space for a parliamentary campaign built on anti-extremism. But Hampstead and Kilburn was, in 2010, the tightest marginal in England, with just 42 votes between winning Labour and the Conservatives, and the Lib Dems trailing Labour by only 841. Can a campaign win on the anti-extremism basis in this constituency?

H&K Labour candidate Tulip Siddiq revealed to us that she makes the tactical voting argument against would be Lib Dem voters, casting the battle as between only Labour and Conservative. Her top campaign messages are around the NHS, education and housing, and she leads the local polls by a reasonable margin (though the last Ashcroft poll in H&K was taken in August last year).

Lord Ashcroft's polls in H&K, with 2010 election result

Lord Ashcroft’s polls in H&K, with 2010 election result. Reproduced from Ashcroft’s website.

In an election whose national outcome is as uncertain as this, it’s an uphill fight for Nawaz against those who value a left of centre government over personal inclinations towards the Lib Dems — and those with Lib Dem inclinations in 2015 are evidently fewer than in 2010.

But Nawaz doesn’t see a jump from Lib Dem to Labour as a smooth transition from slightly less to slightly more state involvement in the economy. In the wake of the coalition, Liberal Democrats are rarely examined in terms of offering a unique set of values or an alternative worldview than Conservative or Labour. But for Nawaz, the Liberals still have a unique position on the political spectrum.

“I don’t believe– this is one of the reasons I didn’t join Labour — I don’t believe communalism brings people together. Identity politics invariably pushes communities apart, and I think it makes people behave in a more tribal way. There’s a reason why secularism works: its principles have the potential to unite people.”

Nawaz’s secularism goes beyond the narrow separation of church — or mosque — and state. He quickly moves onto the ground of a ‘rational’ ethics: a single standard applied to all, regardless of culture. It’s the idea at the foundation of the human rights framework which Nawaz so staunchly supports, and forms part of the rationale behind his controversial tweet of the Jesus and Mohammed cartoon. It’s also in opposition to the idea that cultures can only be judged by their own standards, rather than those imposed from outside.

“You can be liberal in your own choices that you make, but not preach that liberalism to me. So if I sat in front of you and said something homophobic, misogynistic or in any way bigoted, you may choose not to believe what I said to you; but it’s a different choice to correct me, to say “you’re wrong for these reasons”. What I’ve been arguing is a more active form of liberalism: the idea is that we need to reassert those enlightenment, liberal values, based in human rights.”

Nawaz speaking at Central Synagogue in the City of Westminster on 19th February 2015

Nawaz sees these ideas not as an abstract, floating above his candidacy. They offer, in his eyes, a viable route to a successful campaign.

“In times like this, when communities are pulling themselves apart based upon the way in which globalisation is affecting identity, in times like this people are looking for someone who is able to unite them around something. So I believe that in this sort of constituency, to have a candidate who stands on those sorts of values, it can bring people together.”

Perhaps ironically, this aspect of Nawaz’s personal ideology has divided his intellectual critics. It is also unlikely to be responsible for attracting a flock of voters, given its level of abstraction; though through the ‘transition themes’, efforts are being made to give the values a practical face.

How Nawaz in fact performs in May will likely depend on a multitude of factors. First, whether the personal factor can counterbalance the party’s ratings, which are currently biting at the ankles of their height in the post-debate fervour of 2010. Second, whether his existing profile and views work for or against him with H&K constituents. Third, how well he translates the abstract themes of his campaign into an accessible, engaging package — and fourth, whether Labour and the Conservatives simply crowd him out.

The nuances of the first three factors risk being drowned by the fourth. The current uncertainty regarding national outcome, and the low probability of any party achieving a majority, has a pressure-cooker effect on marginals where there’s no serious anti-establishment movement which can attract support despite adding to the probability that national chaos ensues after polling day.

Nuances between centre, and centre-left or centre-right, are in danger of being lost in this context. Those nuances are also dwarfed by the significance of whoever wins a plurality. Nawaz will have to shout loud to be heard. With plans to participate in 16 local hustings in the months of March and April, this seems to be the strategy he’s pursuing.