Sadiq Khan’s Symbolic Victory
I wasn’t expecting to be so pleased about Sadiq Khan being elected mayor of London. I was underwhelmed when he won the Labour nomination, and even more underwhelmed when the Conservatives chose Zac Goldsmith. Neither candidate seemed as if they’d rather run London than hold any other political office, and despite the mayor’s limited powers, the Londoner in me feels, unrealistically, that they should. (Perhaps unfortunately for both the city and himself, the only candidate who has ever fitted that description is Ken Livingstone, who made an uncharacteristically graceful concession speech in 2012; if only the rest had been silence.)
But Goldsmith chose to run a very particular kind of campaign. At first it was almost funny: the leaflets the Conservatives sent to people with Sikh, Hindu and Tamil sounding surnames, warning them that their ‘family jewellery’ was at risk and pointing out that Sadiq Khan hadn’t shared a platform with Narendra Modi; the campaign song by the grassroots organisation Conservative Connect, which promised Goldsmith that ‘all the Bengalis will vote only for you.’
And then the prime minister said he was ‘concerned’ that a thoroughly moderate Labour MP (whose worst fault seems to be that, unlike Livingstone, he is too eager to please an audience) had ‘shared a platform’ with an extremist ‘time after time after time’. This after Goldsmith had been calling Khan ‘radical’ – in a Muslim, rather than Randolph Churchill sense – for months. It has been a useful reminder for anyone who needed it – and I think I did – that assimilation is no protection against racists. Only election obsessives read manifestos and watch candidate’s speeches, but day after day the disturbingly visible Evening Standard has published insinuating front pages that make it unfit to be this city’s newspaper. Then again, it didn’t lead with the mayoral election on its front page yesterday, so perhaps it isn’t really a newspaper.
Now that he’s lost, Conservative politicians are lining up to criticise Goldsmith for patronising and dividing the electorate. I don’t remember them criticising the media’s depiction of Ed Miliband as a cosmopolitan north London geek who couldn’t eat a bacon sandwich like a patriot. And where were they when the Home Office’s racist van was driving through London telling immigrants to ‘Go Home’?
As for Labour politicians, one backbench opposition MP on the radio yesterday morning seemed to think that bemoaning her party’s performance in the local elections and blaming it on the leader she had nominated (she hadn’t meant it seriously!) was a good way to ensure Labour’s success in future elections.
Another complained that the party needed to reach out beyond its core vote. Do they think they can dismiss London’s highest turnout since 2000 (45.6 per cent, up from 38 per cent in 2012) and more than a million votes for Khan as the verdict of metropolitan, falafel-eating communists? Khan, who is no orator, praised the city for choosing ‘hope over fear and unity over division’, and expressed a hope ‘that we will never be offered such a stark choice again’; Goldsmith’s concession speech was so lame, it seemed more baffling than ever that he should have stood at all.
The symbolism of Khan’s win will soon fade, and politics as usual will resume. With the help of central government, his predecessor Boris Johnson – now worryingly free to lurch around the national stage – has left London a more unequal place than it has been for decades. The Labour government that was elected in 1997 had a tremendous contempt for local government, not least its own councils. The mayor of London doesn’t have control over much apart from transport and planning policies, but he administers a budget of £17 billion and, perhaps more important, has a chance to make a case for progressive politics outside parliament, which is where it began.