Labour candidate Sadiq Khan won London’s mayoral elections on Friday, May 6, with an emphatic victory, ending eight years of Conservative rule in Europe’s largest and most diverse city. During his victory speech, Khan praised Londoners for choosing “hope over fear” and “unity over division,” following a campaign marred by toxic identity politics and divide and conquer tactics.
Instead of broad-based, bipartisan policies focusing on key social and economic issues affecting all Londoners, the campaign waged by Khan’s Conservative opponent, Zac Goldsmith, targeted minority communities and attempted to smear Khan based on his Muslim identity. Among various unseemly tactics, the Goldsmith campaign sent leaflets to British-Indian Hindus, Sikhs, and Tamils warning that a proposed Labour wealth tax would directly target their family gold and jewelry, which some in these communities traditionally keep as heirlooms.
The leaflets also played on crudely conceived South Asian communal divides. They highlighted that Khan, who is of Pakistani descent, did not attend a London event last year for Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi (the implication being he is anti-Hindu), while praising Goldsmith for regularly celebrating the Hindu holiday of Diwali and campaigning to save the Sikh Golden Temple, or Sri Harmandir Sahib, from becoming a UNESCO site; Goldsmith falsely claimed this would remove it from Sikh control.
Conservative peer Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, among others, condemned this divisive cultural rhetoric as “dog-whistle” politics – which involves using coded language and symbols to appeal to racial, ethnic, religious, or other prejudices.
The Goldsmith campaign also played on a wider climate of Islamophobia to continuously and falsely imply that Khan had links with Muslim extremists and shared platforms with radical preachers. Exploiting popular fears about ISIS, Goldsmith’s team suggested that Khan would be either unable or unwilling to protect London from a terrorist attack. Crudely reinforcing this idea, Goldsmith wrote an opinion piece about why Khan should not be mayor, which was published by the Mail on Sunday alongside an image of a bombed out bus from the 2005 London 7/7 terrorist attacks.
Despite being condemned across the board, including from within the Conservative party, as an “outrageous,” and “poisonous” campaign, Goldmith’s strategy of appealing to identity and an “us versus them” worldview has dominated many contemporary political movements and led to major victories for right-wing nationalist parties across Europe.
Two decades ago, the London mayoral debate would have been defined by issues of social status and race – while Khan grew up in public housing as the son of immigrants, Goldsmith comes from a billionaire, Anglo-French family. Today, however, the election was and continues to be defined by the religious identity of only one of the candidates, as reflected in headlines across the world, including this one from the right-wing U.S. site, the Drudge Report: “First Muslim Mayor of Londonistan.”
While Khan’s election is a celebration of London’s multicultural identity, there is, of course, a long way to go. Even during Khan’s victory address, Paul Golding, a mayoral candidate with the far-right Britain First party, turned his back on stage in a one-man protest against the new mayor. Another member of the far-right party shouted “Britain has an extremist mayor!” while Khan laid out his vision for London’s future. Despite the appeal of racism and oppositional politics, Londoners have, nevertheless, made clear their desire for pluralism and tolerance, amid a growing national, and global, atmosphere of divisive and narrow identity politics.