London defies the Tories

May 12, 2024

London defies the Tories

Dear All,


adiq Khan’s victory in the recent London mayoral contest has been a slap in the face for the Conservative party: not just is he the first person to be re-elected as London mayor for a third term, he managed this despite another vicious smear campaign aimed at him.

Khan’s Conservative opponent, Susan Hall, is a London Assembly member herself. Her concession speech was as unpleasant and lacking in respect as was her campaign. But despite her nasty, fear-mongering campaign against him, the incumbent mayor was able to gain 44 percent of the vote, the same as he had managed when he was first elected in 2016.

The Conservative campaign attacked Khan not just for his policies but also, insidiously, for his ethnicity and religion. This has become standard practice in most UK elections now; the onus is on candidates from Muslim backgrounds to prove they are not ‘extremists and terrorists’ rather than on their critics to prove that they are. (The same is true for most left-leaning candidates now but the Muslim label is particularly useful for fearmongering).

In the 2016 mayoral election the Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith ran a particularly toxic campaign against Khan. The contest then was to choose the successor to Boris Johnson, who had served two terms as mayor. The stakes were very high – the London mayor has a huge budget and is able to act fairly autonomously. The then prime minister, David Cameron, set the fear-mongering tone right from the top by standing up in parliament and expressing his concerns about the Labour candidate’s “association with extremists.” The PM and Goldsmith continued to make such insinuations and references throughout the campaign. Not just did they play the religion card, they also attempted to use the famous Raj ‘divide-and-rule’ strategy by dividing the South Asian vote.

At that time some news outlets did highlight that a nasty campaign was being run. The New Statesman wrote about the ‘racial politics’ being used by the Goldsmith campaign. Anoosh Chakelian, (the editor) wrote about the controversial campaign leaflets targetting individual Asian communities saying these were being criticised not just for being ‘patronising’ but also for using campaign tactics that were ‘downright colonial.’

The fearmongering was tailored to individual communities: Indian Hindu communities for example, received pamphlets with pictures of Goldsmith and Cameron meeting with India’s Hindu nationalist party BJP’s prime minster, Narender Modi during his UK visit, saying that Goldsmith would “stand up for the British Indian community.” Gujrati and Tamil voters received leaflets implying that Khan would tax family jewellery and be bad for business and Sikhs received campaign literature focusing on “protecting the Golden Temple.” It was what one Twitter/ X user described as “Zac Goldsmith targeting Indian voters with coded Muslim bashing & open Modi love.”

London defies the Tories

Goldsmith was of course badly beaten in that contest. His reputation did take a beating (which actually doesn’t really matter if you are a very wealthy, well connected Etonian. He went on to lose the 2019 general election but the Conservatives simply gave him a peerage and put him in the House of Lords). Anita Vashist, an immigration lawyer of Indian origin who had previously worked for Amnesty International, was so concerned about the 2016 Goldsmith campaign tactics that she filed a report with the Metropolitan Police and asked them to investigate it as an incitement to racial and religious hatred. At that time, she described the campaign (to The Guardian) as “ugly and dangerous.”

The overriding message of that campaign was that Khan was ‘dangerous.’ Eight years on, this was the message that Susan Hall continued to reiterate albeit using different themes and without overt party support (many Conservative candidates in the recent local elections did not emphasise their party affiliation. Some did not even mention in leaflets that they were Conservatives). Hall tried to use Khan’s Greener London policies against him and appeal to groups such as motorists who dislike the traffic regulation rules and charges slapped on them. The alarmist tone was evident in a campaign video with an ominous tone which warned that “London was on the brink of chaos” and showed scenes of a panicked crowd rushing to get away from something. The footage purported to show London but was actually from Penn Station in New York in 2017 when there were (false) reports of gunfire there. The Conservatives had to withdraw the campaign ad when this was pointed out.

Apart from the sheer nastiness of his opponent’s campaign, Khan also had to worry about new polling rules (introduced by the Conservatives). One of the new rule was that voters had to show photo ID (only certain forms were acceptable). This is a somewhat controversial rule as there are no national ID cards in the UK and many less affluent voters may possess neither passport nor driving licence so the fear was that it may disenfranchise them. However, it seems this was well publicised enough for many of the voters to ensure that they acquired an acceptable form of ID. The second concern was that this time there was no ‘second preference’ option on the ballot. The Conservatives had introduced this presumably in the expectation that it would benefit them. However, it appears to have worked against them.

Why did Londoners vote for Sadiq Khan when his clean air policy has antagonised motorists and London’s knife crime figures are up? The answer is probably that he has, despite constraints from the Conservative government, been able to introduce measures which have helped the capital’s commuters and he continues to push policies to benefit the less affluent (free school meals, social housing, fare freeze etc). As a public figure he has managed to conduct himself with a great deal of dignity and good sense.

Being elected for a record third mayoral term is quite an achievement but in his victory speech Khan spoke of the ‘non-stop negativity’ aimed at him through the campaign. The attacks will probably continue and Khan will have to do his work quietly while adopting a defensive stance. The battle for London is an ongoing political fight and it’s fairly vicious: Labour’s Ken Livingstone who was elected twice and who secured the 2012 Olympic games for London and introduced many important policies in the capital was caught up in a ridiculous ‘anti-semitism’ controversy otherwise he might well have had a third term. It is a war but this particular battle has been won by Sadiq Khan.

And as he begins his third term as London mayor, the first person to ever do so, this is what I personally have to say: This one is for you Zac!

Best wishes.

Umber Khairi

London defies the Tories