THE resounding victory of Labour candidate Sadiq Khan in the London mayoral elections which took place on 5 May demonstrated two things in particular.
Firstly, in electing the first Muslim mayor of a major European city in the modern era, London’s electorate decisively rejected the hysterically Islamophobic campaign run by David Cameron’s Conservative Party and their mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith, which reached its nadir the day before elections when they outrageously tried to directly associate Khan with the 7/7 bombings in the minds of voters.
Secondly, Khan’s victory proved wrong the insistence of both the Tory leadership as well as the Blairite right MPs within the Labour Party (of whom, rather ironically, Khan is one, of which more later) that Labour could not gain votes under the leadership of a leftist like Jeremy Corbyn. Both the Conservatives and Corbyn’s opponents within his own party made the mayoral elections, and local and Scottish and Welsh Assembly elections, which took place at the same time, into a test of Corbyn’s leadership. But despite the spinning of a hostile media determined to make it look like a disaster, Labour under Corbyn actually made considerable gains, with the Conservatives losing more seats in local elections, as well as gaining back the London Mayor after 8 years under Tory Boris Johnson. And while Khan tried to distance himself from Corbyn during the campaign, it now appears that many people voted Labour because of, rather than despite Corbyn’s leadership.
While Sadiq Khan’s campaign emphasised his working class London background – after migrating from Pakistan his father worked as a bus driver and his mother as a home based garment worker, and he grew up on a council estate (social housing), the wealthy Zac Goldsmith, (ex-brother in law of the cricketer turned politician Imran Khan) ran a mainly negative campaign supported by the mainstream media and built on racism and Islamophobia and colonial-style divide and rule. Some of this backfired spectacularly, as when Sadiq Khan was accused by David Cameron of being close to a south London cleric, Suliman Gani, who Cameron claimed, “supports IS [Islamic State]”.Gani called Cameron’s comments “defamation at the highest level” and it then emerged that Goldsmith had himself invited Gani – who the Tory candidate now described as “one of the most repellent men in the country” – to a Conservative campaign event at the Tooting Islamic Centre, and that Gani had in fact some time earlier abandoned his support for the Labour Party and moved to support the Tories because he was not happy with Sadiq Khan’s position in support of the right to same sex marriage!
Goldsmith’s campaign also aimed to divide South Asian communities by specifically appealing to Hindus and Sikhs for support. The crudely targeted campaign of letters and leaflets dredged up once again tired racist stereotypes of Asians as all owners of ‘corner shops’ and other small businesses for whom ‘protecting property’ was the only concern. The campaign also simply invented a devilish Labour ‘jewellery tax’ - the assumption being that Indians and Sri Lankans would fall for this because they all have piles of gold jewellery stashed away which they are much more worried about than jobs, housing, transport or any of the issues which other Londoners were voting on in these elections. Invoking the Modi factor, Zac reminded people whom his campaign, often erroneously, assumed were Indian Hindus, of the warm and borderline obsequious welcome he and his boss extended to the ‘Butcher of Gujarat’ and drew on the ‘all Indians love Modi and vote Tory’ propaganda which dominated Modi’s November visit to London. Many took to social media to protest, with South Asia Solidarity Group launching a Twitter campaign #No2ToryHindutva and #No2RacistZac.
As it turned out, it is now clear that much of the credit for Sadiq Khan’s victory must go to Corbyn. While Zac Goldsmith’s racist campaign actually improved on his predecessor Boris Johnson’s performance in wards with majority Hindu populations (saying a lot about the stranglehold of Hindutva in these areas) and also among older white voters, Khan did well in wards with larger numbers of young voters, educated professionals and public-sector workers, who are said to have been drawn to Labour by Corbyn. This was true in London as well as in Bristol which elected a Black Mayor from the Labour left, Marvin Rees.
On the eve of the election a new attack on the Corbyn-led Labour Party by the Conservatives, the mainstream media and right wing elements within the party was launched, with accusations of ‘anti-Semitism’ within the Labour Party. Criticism of Israel and of Zionism was equated with anti-Semitism in a concerted campaign (while the persistence of anti-Semitism among the British ruling class, allies of Israel, was ignored) – an oft-repeated strategy against which many prominent Jewish anti-Zionists spoke out passionately.
While Khan’s victory is heartening as reflecting rejection of Islamophobia and a vote of confidence in Corbyn, it is unlikely that in office the ex-human rights lawyer turned Blairite will do much more for either cause, or indeed to address the acute need for affordable housing and decent jobs in a London which has been turned into a playground for the corporates. His election campaign had little to offer on these issues, emphasising his ‘pro-business’ credentials -in one interview he even welcomed the existence of 140 billionaires and 400,000 millionaires in London’s population of 8.6 million, alongside the many struggling to make ends meet, because this symbolizes “diversity”! - and his determination to ‘counter terrorism’. His post-election announcement of more armed police in London (where several unarmed people of colour have been shot dead by the police in recent years) is in line with this – as is his much derided advice to Corbyn to ‘be more like Blair’ as a strategy for the 2020 elections. The struggle to build a genuine mass movement from the hopes and energies which propelled Corbyn to the Labour leadership last summer will have to continue in London and across the country.