Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
As Londoners head to the polls Thursday, they must contend with an election mired in appalling rhetoric.
As it elects a new mayor today, London is sitting on a knife-edge watching a neck-and-neck race between two brilliant, but radically different candidates.
Actually, none of that’s true. Bar a massive upset, everyone knows who will win today’s election to replace incumbent Boris Johnson: the Labour Party candidate Sadiq Khan is currently 14 points ahead of his Conservative rival, Zac Goldsmith.
Khan’s biggest threat is arguably public indifference, with a low turnout predicted. If voter numbers do indeed fall that far, the lack of exciting new policies from either candidate could be to blame—no congestion charge or Boris Bikes this time around. And yet this has been one of the most striking political campaigns in London’s history. For all the wrong reasons.
The battle won’t be remembered for its passionate political grandstanding or bold new ideas. It will go down in history for something far more dispiriting: dirty, divisive campaigning that has attempted to fragment London’s electorate along ethnic and religious lines.
When the contest started, few Londoners saw this ugliness coming. After the spectacular showmanship of departing Mayor Boris Johnson, both the two main candidates initially seemed understated, even dull. Sadiq Khan, a London-born former human rights lawyer of Pakistani heritage, had played an unobtrusive, largely backstage role as a Labour MP. Zac Goldsmith, a billionaire’s son with a past as a green activist, had a reputation as an essentially nice guy who hadn’t done much in parliament.
But as the campaign started, Goldsmith’s nice guy image tarnished fast. His campaign painted Khan, a Muslim, as an untrustworthy associate and even relative of Islamic extremists in whose hands London wasn’t safe. Realizing he faced an uphill climb in a city that had swung left since the election of Johnson, Goldsmith’s insinuations and slurs were numerous. As part of an apparent divide-and-rule policy, the Goldsmith campaign sent letters (also signed by Prime Minister Cameron) to Londoners with Sikh and Hindu surnames suggesting falsely that Khan had snubbed India’s Prime Minister Modi and planned to tax family jewelry, provoking a resentful backlash within these communities.
Elsewhere, Goldsmith has repeatedly deployed the worst sort of “dog whistle politics” in describing his Labour rival as “radical” and “dangerous.” Lately, however, euphemism has been largely dropped. Last week, Goldsmith wrote a piece for a national newspaper suggesting that Khan and the Labour Party thought “terrorists were its friends,” illustrated with an aftermath photo of London’s 7/7 bombings.
By and large, the accusations haven’t stuck. Sadiq Khan is known as a moderate Muslim who voted in favor of marriage equality, has campaigned at London gay bars and voted against a boycott of Israeli products. His family has been attacked, even though the closest relative to Khan with avowed extreme views is in fact an ex-brother-in-law who himself renounced Islamism two decades ago. Without meaningful evidence to tie him to extremism, this has left Goldsmith open to accusations of Islamophobia. To British Muslims, regularly exhorted to integrate and fully engage with British institutions, the tone of the campaign overall seemed to send the ugly message that they would never be fully accepted or trusted.
London was not the best-chosen location to try out a campaign of insinuation. While stirring up race and extremism fears might have worked in some smaller British cities, in multi-cultural London it largely fell flat. Even right-leaning commentators and Conservative colleagues damned Goldsmith’s campaign as “an embarrassment” that has imported Donald Trump-style politics into Britain.
The left, meanwhile, has hardly covered itself in glory. Labour’s campaign was itself hit by a national scandal, in which one of the party’s MPs for Northern England was suspended after she was revealed to have shared allegedly anti-Semitic memes on Twitter in 2014. This might not have affected the London campaign directly had it not been for the efforts of Labour ex-mayor Ken Livingstone.
The ex-mayor gave interviews protesting the MP’s resignation, going so far as to assert that Hitler himself had once been a Zionist. Livingstone later fought back against accusations that he himself was anti-Semitic, though his argument that a true anti-Semite wouldn’t [sic] “just hate the Jews in Israel” but also Jewish neighbors in London (which he personally didn’t) seemed to suggest otherwise. Livingstone’s outbursts may stem from his missing a media spotlight that has long ignored him, but for a former mayor still credited with pioneering anti-racist policies in the city, suggesting he couldn’t be an anti-Semite simply because he’d dated Jewish women was a pitiful last hurrah.
Mayoral hopeful Khan wasn’t involved in any of this. He has wisely steered well clear of Livingstone, calling for him to be expelled from the Labour Party in the wake of those comments. Still, it’s probable that Khan may see his voter numbers drop somewhat after the ruckus.
Ugly to watch, this embittered, racially inflected sniping had the side effect of covering up something important. When it came to bright new ideas, neither candidate had much of interest to offer. Certainly, there have been some tantalizing promises. Khan says he will instigate a public transit fare freeze and a “London living rent” on new affordable homes fixed at one-third of local wages. Goldsmith has promised to double the rate of house building. Persuasive details of how these goals would be achieved nonetheless remains absent. Even Khan’s promise to boost London’s affordable housing is undercut by his acceptance of campaign funding from developers who have opposed better regulation. Still, if neither candidate dazzled, the stream of racial innuendo from Goldsmith’s camp seems to have helped tip the scales against him. It’s a lesson future London politicians would do well to listen to.