Duncan Thomas reflects on the election of Labour’s Sadiq Khan as mayor of London.
“How do you feel about the election results?”, people asked me after Sadiq Khan’s landslide victory over Zac Goldsmith. “Not actively unhappy” was all I could really muster by way of response. It’s strange, from a radical left perspective, to write about a political event which excites so little passion, which represents neither clear defeat nor obvious victory for our movements and aims.
Prior to the casting of ballots, rs21 published a recommendation for a “grudging vote” for Khan. Perhaps, now he has won, we can all feel grudgingly satisfied: satisfied that London isn’t ruled by a multi-millionaire, dog-whistling Tory; grudgingly so because, in his place, we have a mayor who has done everything to distance himself from Corbyn and the current of radical, participatory politics he represents.
Against racism and Islamophobia
We await the announcement of an independent enquiry into the seemingly rampant racism and Islamophobia within the top ranks of the Conservative Party. Until then, the failure of a divisive and ugly campaign to win credibility in a major British election represents the day’s best result.
Zac Goldsmith’s mother may say he’s the least racist person she knows, and his sister may be “sad” that his message didn’t reflect his real nature as a tolerant, all-action eco-warrior, but the fact remains that the Tory candidate ran on an Islamophobic strategy and lost. Had the vote gone the other way, it may well have pushed even further the acceptability of coded and not-so-coded racism in public discourse.
Meanwhile, Khan’s victory, for what it is worth, is good news for anti-racism – anything that makes Britain First’s Paul Golding turn his back in disgust must be worth celebrating. Yet the real impact on anti-racist struggles is likely to be superficial and fleeting.
Given that Obama’s presidency hasn’t been able to stop American police butchering black lives or advance in any way the conditions of poor people of colour, we should all be wary of exaggerating what Khan’s win, in and of itself, means for British Muslims and BME people in general. His bland, anti-confrontational style of politics will likely do little to empower those oppressed and excluded on racial grounds; for that, a confrontation with the various institutions and attitudes that maintain such marginalisation is needed.
It’s also worth looking at the wider picture here. Insofar as such surveys reliably reflect reality, London has long been known to be the area of the UK least likely to hold openly racist attitudes. Given this, Goldsmith’s campaign seemed extraordinarily clumsy and misjudged from the start. He got what he deserved, as the more he tried to paint Khan as an “extremist”, the more people not otherwise inspired by the Labour candidate became determined to see him in office.
Yet the racist hard right parties – Britain First, the BNP and UKIP – still garnered around 10% of the overall mayoral vote. Not a huge number by any means, and a splintering of the right as much as a sign of its strength. Yet, combined with UKIP’s gains in the London Assembly, Wales, and councils throughout England, it shows that electoral defeat for racism is not a national trend.
The Corbyn effect and implications for the left
One politician who does have a record of consistently opposing racism both inside and outside parliamentary politics is, of course, Jeremy Corbyn – and it’s hard not to think that this election wasn’t really all about him.
Of course, it’s hard to tell exactly how many voters came out for Khan to send a message of support to the Labour leader and his enemies. However, we have repeatedly been told that Corbyn’s supporters are disproportionately based in London and other “wealthy metropolitan centres”. Surely to now claim that this had no effect on the outcome is farcical in its inconsistency. With the election having been presented for months as precisely a referendum on Corbyn’s leadership, sudden attempts to divorce the two are beyond absurd.
That Khan was ultimately able to rely on the votes of Corbyn supporters and many of those to the left of them was partially a result of this framing and, more immediately, a reaction to the racism of the Goldsmith campaign.
Yet it is difficult to know what his victory means for Corbyn and Corbynism in the long-term. Khan has, of course, done everything he can to distance himself from the party leader, starting and finishing his campaign by launching attacks against him and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.
This was part of a dual campaign strategy, the two prongs of which seemingly contradicted each other. The first involved a concerted effort to mobilise Labour’s core vote on the ground – the same core vote that Corbyn has been criticised for allegedly pandering to. Contrary to Khan’s claim to have knocked on doors across the whole city, campaign insiders state that their overwhelming focus was on the most heavily Labour constituencies and wards – Tottenham and Wood Green, not Richmond and Highgate, were where Khan’s ground game was deployed.
In contrast to this, his media efforts have presented him as a “the most business-friendly mayor ever” and were largely carried by the right-wing press. One part of the campaign, in other words, targeted the people Khan needed to get him into power; the other assured that he would not be perceived as a threat by those with clout and connections once he attained it.
For the left, Khan’s self-presentation as a “mayor for all London” and insistence that politics “should never be about taking sides” has little to offer. Such statements only have meaning if politics is not seen as inherently conflictual. Claims to govern in the name of some higher, universal interest deny the existence of class divisions, obscure racism as a structural and institutional phenomenon, and use rhetorical sleight of hand to obscure power differentials and the opposed interests of different sections of society.
The London we live is not the same London that is inhabited by billionaires; Khan cannot be the mayor of both. Any attempt to serve these two cities will sooner or later have to deal with its contradictions – and at that point, it will become very much about “choosing sides”.
Khan’s victory warded off what would have surely been another vicious attack on Corbyn by the press and Labour right-wingers, but it has also given the anti-Corbyn block a position of power from which to orchestrate future assaults. Similarly, the elections to English councils and the Welsh Assembly have neither decisively added to nor checked the momentum of Corbynism.
We can and should be happy that Goldsmith’s racist campaign saw him rejected by the majority of voters. But Khan’s victory does nothing to change our belief that the real source of change is our own movements, and that our task is to build them.