London, one of the greatest metropolises in the world, has a new mayor. He was elected on May 5 by an overwhelming 10% lead on his closest rival. He is Sadiq Khan.
He is the son of Pakistani immigrants to Britain. His father worked as a bus driver and his mother brought up his several siblings on a council estate — subsidised housing owned by the municipality. Sadiq went to a State school and earned his place at university and then law school, practised as a human rights lawyer, joined and worked his way through the Labour Party and won a parliamentary seat as the member for Tooting in London.
He is today the first Muslim mayor of a western metropolis. It’s not as significant as the United States electing a black president, but for Britain it is a gigantic step in defining its contemporary nationhood. Yes, there are several members of parliament from the immigrant communities of Britain. Asian, West Indian and African immigrants from the ex-colonies of the British empire have made their ways in the business, professional and political structures of Britain, but the mayoralty of London, more than an electoral victory to parliament in, say, Tooting which has a decisive Muslim and traditionally Labour-voting working class constituency, is a significant step.
Sadiq’s main opponent was Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith, son of the late billionaire Sir James Goldsmith and brother of Jemima Goldsmith, who used to be Jemima Khan before she divorced the Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.
The opposing Labour and Tory candidates did of course offer the electorate promises about building more houses, restricting fares on buses and local trains, stuff that mayoral candidates are expected to promise. But this campaign for the mayoralty of London defined itself, perhaps unwittingly, in profounder ways.
It became a battle to determine how Britain today would define itself.
Zac Goldsmith, advised by an Australian called Lynton Crosby, a supposed election strategist, based his attack on Sadiq Khan on the implication that being a Muslim, he was radical and therefore a threat to the integrity and security of Britain.
Sadiq, as a human rights lawyer, was appointed to be the Chair of Liberty, a human rights charity. As such he represented clients accused of terrorist or Islamicist crimes and associations. Representing Liberty he shared platforms with some unsavoury characters — mullahs who under the umbrella of advocating human rights harboured some nasty homophobic and misogynist views. That he shared a platform with these characters had been pointed out in an attempt by Team Zac to tar him with an ‘extremist’ and ‘radical’ brush. They didn’t dare to use the word ‘terrorist’, but implied at every turn in the election campaign that Sadiq was a sympathiser of Islamic radicals. He isn’t and has in fact been the victim of Islamic radicals who accused him of selling out and being an Uncle Tom and white man’s tool when he first stood and won a seat in parliament.
Even with these public insinuations, Zac had a problem. He remains a friend of his ex-brother-in-law, who campaigned for him. The calculation was that the Pakistani celebrity endorsement would go some way to win the immigrant Pakistani Londoners’ votes away from Sadiq.
It was ill-judged. While Imran was out campaigning for Zac, a Pakistani demonstration was held outside his house, accusing him of corruption and of being in favour of negotiations with Pakistani terror groups — a view that Zac with his insinuations about Sadiq can’t possibly endorse.
The other factor that entered the electoral equation is the very recent turmoil in the Labour Party over accusations of anti-Semitism.
Naz Shah, the Labour Party’s MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party when it was reported that she had, during the conflict in Gaza two years ago, sent posts on social media saying Israel should be dissolved as a nation and be relocated to the US. She made some other remarks during her election campaign, saying the Muslims should vote for her “as the Jews were rallying.” The remarks may be interpreted as of no more significance than the prattle of an Internet monkey, but the Labour Party took them seriously as did some of their donors and a substantial section of their voters.
The charge of anti-Semitism against the party was compounded when Ken Livingstone, Labour ex-mayor of London, went on radio and TV, defending Shah and asserting that in 1932 Hitler supported the idea of a Zionist state. Livingstone is an ally and personal friend of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, but the furore and potential damage to the party forced his suspension.
In a week before the election Sadiq needed this fracas like a hole in the head and distanced himself from Livingstone and Shah and denounced all forms of racism. Despite the possible impact of this fracas, characterised as racism in the Labour Party, Sadiq the Muslim is mayor of London, pledged in opposition to racism and anti-Semitism — both traditional shibboleths of the Labour Party — and now to anti-Islamist extremism in the capital of Britain.
Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London. The views expressed are personal.