On May 6 Britain went to the local bodies, regional and mayoral election in major cities, including London. The election was the largest election exercise to gauge public opinion on either side of the last and next general elections.
There was a great deal of interest in the outcome of London election for two reasons. First, it was important because despite being a Labour stronghold, London has been ruled by Boris Johnson of the conservative party. Second, the victory of Labour Party’s candidate is likely to buttress the claims of its new leader Jeremy Corbyn that he is leading the party back to electability.
On both counts the London mayoral election was a success. Labour managed to win back its lost electoral territory while establishing the beginning of its march to electability. Labour’s candidate Sadiq Khan, MP for Tooting, won handsomely, beating the Conservative Party candidate Zac Goldsmith a distant second place.
In Pakistan, London election attracted special attention because of Sadiq Khan’s Pakistani parentage and Zac Goldsmith’s connection to Pakistan via Jemima Khan, ex-wife of the PTI leader Imran Khan.
Although Labour was expected to win — to recapture London’s mayoral seat after recruiting new young voters into the party in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader, no one had expected the lead to be this big and the election campaign to be this dirty, divisive and racist in overtones.
The nomination of Sadiq Khan was also a surprise when he beat Tessa Jowell, ex-minister in Blair cabinet. A part of Khan’s surprise nomination also owes to the votes of new members. Yet once nominated, Sadiq Khan ran a very efficient campaign despite the dirtiest campaign waged against him by his conservative rival Zac Goldsmith.
Sadiq Khan was constantly portrayed as a friend of Islamic extremists, a threat to the safety of Londoners. His rival, Goldsmith, also tried to play upon India-Pakistan traditional rivalry during the election and also implied that Hindus would not be safe under a Muslim mayor. Prime Minister David Cameron also echoed this line of attack in the House of Commons. No wonder the campaign has been widely condemned by a large number of public figures including some with the conservative party. Zac Goldsmith’s sister, Jemima Khan, has criticised the conduct of the campaign.
Khan focused on housing and the rising cost of daily travel as his two key election issues which resonated with Londoners. Over the past two-decades, housing crisis in London has got worse with house prices hitting the roof, and social housing stock depleting at a fast rate.
Moreover, London has seen massive rise in transport fare over the years. Cleverly, Sadiq Khan added his own story to his election campaign. Throughout the campaign he stressed on his humble background — son of a bus driver, living in a council flat, making his way up in London – which provided an inspirational background story. In every speech, he pledged to ensure that everybody else in London would get the same opportunities which he had.
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This campaign line clearly differentiated Sadiq Khan from the super-privileged Zac Goldsmith.
Besides, Zac Goldsmith’s dog-whistle campaign may have acted to rally ethnic minority vote for Sadiq Khan. Khan also followed the policy of engaging his opponents till the end. In the last days of the campaign Sadiq Khan participated in a debate organised by the London Evening Standard, which had been in the vanguard of spewing anti-Sadiq Khan propaganda. Despite these odds, Sadiq Khan won handsomely. On second count, Sadiq Khan beat Goldsmith by a margin of 14 per cent. This is the largest mandate ever achieved by a politician in recent history.
Khan made his name as a human rights lawyer. A chair of the leading human rights legal organisation, he led many legal challenges against the police brutalities against black and ethnic minorities. This work brought him into national limelight. In 2005 he quit the practice to become an MP from Tooting, London.
Within the Labour Party, Sadiq Khan’s rise was swift. He rose through the ranks to become the minister for transport under Gordon Brown, the first Muslim cabinet minister to do so. Khan also managed Ed Milliband campaign for leadership of the Labour Party.
In Pakistan, the press commentary has focused on Sadiq Khan being a Muslim — that he has proudly displayed his religious heritage despite vicious campaign against his religious and ethnic background. Yet his politics is shaped by racism and his experiences as an Asian young man growing up on a council estate in London. His experiences also informed his legal and political work.
Sadiq Khan acted as legal counsel for Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, when he was denied entry into the UK. He is also a politician and campaigner to his fingertips, campaigning hard as a Londoner and not as an exclusive Muslim candidate. As a Londoner, seeking to unify London, he made it a point to visit the sacred places of all religions after his election.
The challenges before Sadiq Khan are huge. He will have to make good of his election promises as he will be watched very closely by the hostile London press. Khan has become one of the most influential politicians in the Labour Party. This reflects the changing character of the party and the electorate.
Beyond the London election, however, history was also made in Bristol where Marvin Ree, a black candidate, won election as Labour Mayor of the city of Bristol. The election of Ree is of huge significance in a city built on the proceeds of slave trade and with a history of regular eruption of race riots in the past.
Jeremy Corbyn, the new leader, invested heavily in the Bristol election campaign by making frequent visits. London and Bristol election victories for candidates of black and ethnic minorities background represents a watershed in the British and Labour Party politics.