Open Essay

London's First Muslim Mayor: Khan and the Colour Quotient

Lance Price is an author and political commentator. He is a former BBC journalist and later adviser to Tony Blair. He has published four books including Where Power Lies and The Modi Effect: Inside Narendra Modi’s Campaign to Transform India
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The election of London’s first Muslim Mayor and race and politics in Britain

TO WALK AROUND the streets of London or travel on its overcrowded underground metro system is to meet the whole world compressed into one gloriously diverse and colourful city. There is nowhere on earth quite like London and no country on earth that hasn’t contributed to its multi-ethnic, multi-cultural kaleidoscope of humanity.

You’re as likely to hear any one of several hundred languages and dialects as you are to hear English. Go down any main road and the majority of the restaurants will be serving food from India, China, Italy, France or any number of other countries. The people you pass in the street reflect such a wide range of races that you scarcely notice after a while. The only thing that is unambiguously British is, of course, the weather.

Cultures collide but rarely clash. Religious conservatives witness same-sex couples walking arm in arm and know they are part of London’s social fabric whether they like it or not. Liberals see women in the niqab and acknowledge that none of us can or should impose our societal norms on anybody else.

So when it came to choosing their new Mayor recently, most Londoners would have been quite content to have ignored the race or colour of the candidates. The issues that mattered were the acute housing crisis, the high cost of public transport, the quality of the air and the level of local taxation. Sadly, however, race disfigured the campaign and scarred the reputations of both of Britain’s biggest parties—the Conservatives, who lost, and to a lesser extent the Labour Party, which won.

News that London had elected its first Muslim Mayor, Sadiq Khan, made headlines around the world, while to most of us who live here, his religion was irrelevant. It was a surprise to discover we were the first major city in Europe to do so, and we gave ourselves a quiet pat on the back for that, nothing more. But how we cheered when Khan’s election forced Donald Trump into an embarrassing climb down.

The man who will represent the Republicans at the forthcoming US Presidential election had made a bizarre statement while campaigning for the nomination, calling for “a complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”. He was roundly condemned at home and abroad for it but refused to change his tone until faced with the prospect of having to ban the democratically elected Mayor of London. Trump offered to make an exception for Khan, an offer that was politely rejected. “This isn’t just about me,” he retorted, “It’s about my friends, my family, and everyone who comes from a similar background to mine, anywhere in the world.”

Campaign insiders have revealed even they were disgusted by being asked to participate in these ‘dog-whistle’ tactics. A former minister, herself a Muslim, described her party’s approach as ‘appalling’

At the time of writing (Trump changes his mind so often it can be hard to keep up) the proposal has been downgraded to merely a “suggestion”. We scoff at his ignorance and his pandering to racism. David Cameron, Britain’s Prime Minister, called the proposal “divisive, stupid and wrong”. But our own politicians have been forced to look closer to home amid growing evidence that similar sentiments may lie not so very far below the surface of the rather more restrained, but no less disharmonious, political debates in the United Kingdom.

When David Cameron uttered those words he could not have anticipated that his own party’s campaign in London would be accused of being exactly that—divisive, wrong and, having failed totally, not just stupid but counter-productive.

The Conservative Party set out to paint Sadiq Khan, a moderate politician with a record as a human rights lawyer and an opponent of religious fundamentalism, as an “extremist”. It was an ugly, squalid campaign that has tarnished both the Tory Party’s reputation and that of their candidate, Zac Goldsmith, who had previously been thought of as a fair and decent man.

The Conservative campaign was racially charged at two levels. Firstly it sought to associate Khan with the views of others, including people he had defended in his job as lawyer or who had attended the same meetings. The intention was to plant in the voters’ minds, without ever quite saying so, that being a Muslim equated with being an extremist.

With the election over, David Cameron has been forced to apologise to an Imam he accused of supporting the so-called Islamic State or Daesh. The cleric, Sulaiman Ghani, had been photographed with Khan, but it emerged that he was a Conservative supporter in the past and was a vocal critic of terrorism.

Campaign insiders have since revealed that even they were disgusted by being asked to participate in these ‘dog-whistle’ tactics. A former government minister, herself a Muslim, described her party’s approach as ‘appalling’.

Guilt by association was only the most visible of the discredited campaign manoeuvres. The Conservatives also engaged in systematic racial profiling of the electorate, often based on little more than what somebody’s name on the electoral register suggested might be their religion. According to one man who saw what was happening from the inside, “crude letters were distributed to those with Indian, Sri Lankan or Tamil sounding surnames, accusing the Labour Party of wanting to tax their family jewellery”. When he complained to his superiors he was told not to worry because, “the message is getting out there”.

While all this was going on, Labour was getting into controversy of its own over remarks by a former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone,which many Jews and others regarded as anti-semitic. Livingstone overstepped the mark when he linked Hitler to Zionism and steadfastly refused to apologise. Although he was suspended from Labour’s ranks, the row did enormous damage to the party’s standing. Livingstone is a long-time ally of the recently elected leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, a man well to the left of both Sadiq Khan and most Labour MPs in parliament.

Over the years Corbyn and Livingstone have appeared together on many platforms alongside radical Palestinians, including members of Hezbollah and Hamas. They argue that they did so in pursuit of peace and protest that this is just another example of guilt by association, but Corbyn was embarrassed to be reminded that he had welcomed representatives of armed terrorist organisations as “friends”.

He had to contend with the fact that some of those on the radical left, on whose support he relies, have gone so far as to suggest Israel should be wiped off the map of the Middle East. As more and more such people were revealed to have expressed views deeply offensive to Jews in speeches, tweets and Facebook postings, more than 30 of them, including one MP, had their membership suspended. A major enquiry into anti-semitism in the party was belatedly launched but has yet to report.

Sadiq Khan was so appalled, and worried about the damage the row could do to his chances of winning the Mayoralty, that he effectively told Corbyn, his party leader, that he didn’t want to be associated with him. When Khan was sworn in as Mayor in a Christian cathedral, surrounded by people of all faiths and none, Corbyn was nowhere to be seen.

Khan has shown himself far more adept at reaching out to the UK’s many faith communities than his party leader. One of his last campaign visits before polling day was to a Hindu temple in North London. Pictures of him participating in the rituals went viral on the internet. He looked at ease, just as he has done in synagogues and churches. Because his own religion and his family obviously mean a great deal to him, he has a genuine empathy with people of other religions who also want to do the best by their loved ones.

Khan has shown himself far more adept at reaching out to the UK’s many faith communities than his party leader. One of his campaign visits before polling day was to a Hindu temple in North London

By contrast, when Corbyn speaks of having been an anti- racism campaigner all his life, he comes across as a man who lives and breathes politics and for whom racism is an issue to be confronted, like many others. What is absent is any appreciation that religious and racial identity are also about values and aspirations, things that cannot be addressed simply by issuing a statement or taking a position.

Labour sees its most immediate problem as being with the Jewish community, although to speak of one ‘community’ is both inaccurate and symptomatic of a wider lack of understanding. When Corbyn and his allies say they are not anti-semitic and yet appear alongside men who have vowed to destroy the state of Israel, they cannot be surprised when Jews fail to be convinced. He thinks he is morally right, as indeed he is, to oppose Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians but fails to appreciate that by focusing so relentlessly on that, he shows little understanding of the complexity of the situation or of the sincerity of those who may agree with him but are nonetheless proud to call themselves Israeli or Jewish.

Corbyn and his allies on the far left have a particular problem rooted in ideology and a particularly skewed world view, but misguided attitudes towards race and religion are endemic in all parties. Even so-called moderates, who would be horrified at being associated with Corbyn’s views, are not immune. There is a tendency across British politics—and it is by no means confined to Britain—to seek to compartmentalise religious and ethnic groups and to assume it is possible to assign attributes to them that can be addressed by often the crudest of gesture politics.

The problem is identified with great clarity by the man who chairs ‘Indians for Labour’, Manoj Ladwa. He says his party has for too long sought to “put communities on a seesaw— attempting to balance one group’s interests against the others”. The Conservative mail-shots warning Indian voters that their jewellery was at risk from a Labour mayor may have been crass but racial stereotyping is not the preserve of the right-wing parties, according to Ladwa.

“It saddens me to remember how many times I have heard Labour people say, ‘well Indians are getting richer so of course they will vote Tory’. What a shallow, defeatist mentality,” he says. The result has been that Labour is increasingly associated with Muslim, mainly Pakistani, voters while Hindus and Sikhs are gravitating towards the Conservatives.

The voting figures bear out Ladwa’s concerns. At the last UK general election, more British Indians voted Conservative than Labour for the first time. Thirty years ago, Labour had a 30-point lead. Hindu and Sikh voters are not looking for special favours from the party they once supported in such large numbers. That would signify exactly the tokenism that so many of them resent. Instead they want their values to be reflected in Labour’s policies—values that they share with many people of other religions and none.

As Manoj Ladwa puts it, “Very few Indians live in two million pound mansions. I certainly don’t. It may be true that we don’t regard the pursuit of wealth as something evil, and nor do we treat those who have become successful with animosity. But is Labour really saying we don’t want to represent those with high hopes and aspirations for themselves and their families?”

Inclusive politics reaches out across communities and speaks to individuals and the values they hold. It is the kind of politics that propelled Sadiq Khan into London’s City Hall. With a clear side-swipe at his party leader, Khan said, “We will never be trusted to govern unless we reach out and engage with all voters regardless of their background, where they live or where they work.”

It is one thing to scoff at Donald Trump, his divisive rhetoric and his racist policies. That is easy to do and makes us all feel more virtuous. Asking whether, consciously or unconsciously, we are guilty of racial stereotyping takes a great deal more courage and a readiness to face up to some uncomfortable truths.

I’m proud that London turned its back so decisively on this latest attempt to drive a wedge between communities and instil fear and suspicion in a city that prefers to rub along in relative harmony. And, painful though it has been, if the experience has forced all parties to re-examine their approach to race and religion, then some good has come from it.

London has not just elected a Mayor who happens to be a Muslim, it has rejected a politics where these things matter.