By Brian Cox
Labour politician Sadiq Khan was officially sworn in as Mayor of London on May 8. Replacing the memorable Conservative Boris Johnson, Khan is now the UK politician with the greatest individual mandate. His election was widely hailed by the press as the first election of a Muslim to be a mayor of a major european city. That being said, his election has not been without controversy. Come election day, his victory was considered the most likely outcome, and ultimately he collected 56.9 percent of the vote. Nonetheless, Khan’s election was notably one of the bright spots for the May 5 elections, in which Labour lost a substantial number of seats in the Scottish Parliament.
As background, going into the election there was widespread concern among Labour supporters that the election of Jeremy Corbyn, a democratic socialist, as leader of Labour would lead to the loss of local council seats, Scottish Parliamentary seats and the seat of Mayor of London. Compared to former Labour Leader Ed Miliband, Corbyn is significantly more socialist and trade unionist. His unexpected win made him Labour leader, but recently there has been talk of rebellion from within the party, as he has pushed them further to the left than they have been since their opposition in the 1980s.
That being said, Khan’s convincing win was caused in part by a substantial political miscalculation on the part of his Tory rival’s campaign. Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative party candidate, pursued a strategy which many thought was based upon Islamophobia. From implying that Khan wanted a wealth tax on jewelry, to accusing him of using Islamophobia as a tool to suppress valid criticism, Goldsmith’s campaign was implicated in invoking religion negatively during the campaign. As the campaign wore on, attacks became highly personal, and their policies were broadly similar. Both candidates put a heavy emphasis on the environment, and ultimately much of the election seems to have been decided by style. Though in polling Goldsmith never held the lead, as elections approached he fell further and further behind, which many have attributed to the personal nature of the campaign, and his campaign’s potentially islamophobic message. In a campaign where race and religion were prime topics, some likened Goldsmith’s tactics to those of Donald Trump.
Following the defeat, many Conservatives local to London politics characterized Goldsmith’s message as out of character, but nonetheless sharply criticized the campaign for its tactics, some going as far as to say it was racist. Notably, most of them thought it was out of character for Goldsmith, implying that it must have been somebody else in the campaign.
Though Khan was expected to win throughout the process, and was backed by former London Mayor Ed Livingstone, late in the campaign allegations of anti-semitism hit the Labour party.
During an interview defending the expelled Labour MP Naz Shah (who was expelled following the discovery of a social media post suggesting Israel be relocated), Livingstone stated “It’s completely over the top but it’s not anti semitism. Let’s remember when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism – this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” This statement prompted immediate condemnation from party leadership, and Khan was quick to jettison from his campaign. Nonetheless this ongoing situation certainly didn’t help Khan’s bid.
Furthermore, upon the results being released, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn neglected to attend Khan’s swearing into office. Khan rebutted Corbyn’s message that the Labour party must move to the left to win, stating that they needed a “broader reach” in order to win elections. In implying that Labour should be aiming for crossover voters, Khan embraced something similar to “Blairism,” the centrist philosophy which saw Tony Blair elected as Prime Minister. Why Corbyn didn’t attend is unknown, but considering the ongoing anti-semitism dispute, and the difference in message, it seems that a rift has developed between the two men. This led some commentators to suggest that following his four year term as mayor, Khan could aim to become Labour leader. That being said, current betting markets, as well have pundits predict that Corbyn won’t last that long. Embroiled in the anti-semitism scandal, and facing internal criticism, it appears he may be vulnerable well before the next parliamentary elections. His repeated calls for unity may fall upon deaf ears, as although he’s popular with his base he’s struggled to manage the party.
Nonetheless, Corbyn’s lukewarm support for Khan upon his election pales in comparison to some of the global reactions. The New York Post ran an article which brought up a quote in which Khan previously implied that moderate muslims were “Uncle Toms” which he had since retracted. Drudge Report, run by American blogger Matt Drudge, ran the downright offensive headline “the first Muslim mayor of Londinistan.” The far-right Britain First candidate Paul Golding turned his back on Khan while he gave his victory speech.
These specific incidents aside, global feedback to Khan’s election has been broadly positive. Bill de Blasio and Hillary Clinton both congratulated Khan on his groundbreaking achievement. Even Donald Trump ceded that Khan, a muslim, would be subject to “exceptions” in his no Muslim policy, though Khan rebuked this, citing the general absurdity of the proposed policy. Pakistanis praised his election on twitter, and tweets stating that “London Has Fallen” in a reference both to an upcoming film and Khan’s election were widely panned. However, a Pakistani activist, who said that London had “set a great example” by electing the relatively secular Khan was murdered, following his comments.
Ultimately, Khan’s first act as London Mayor was to attend a holocaust memorial, which was widely seen as a conciliatory action. Perhaps Khan’s election shows that although there may be substantial backlash, ultimately most people are reasonable and open when it comes to issues of race and religion. Although the Conservatives resorted to what were characterized as dog whistle tactics, the campaign against Khan was universally panned as being both a poor strategic choice, and as being non-substantive.
As a result of this election, Labour emerged victorious in London, but questions remain about what direction it will take following a disastrous 2015 general election and Corbyn’s leadership. Khan indicates that Labour can win through broad coalitions and moving to the center, at least in London. This could either lead to future success or continued infighting, but nobody has been willing to play their cards just yet.
The other major takeaway from the election is that although religion is still very much a subject of contention in British politics, voters are broadly averse to it being used as a talking point. Whether it be Jews or Muslims, though issues remains, the voters of London have made it known that intolerance against will at very least not be electorally successful.
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