The first election of a Muslim politician to a prominent political position in Britain, actually in the entire western world, is in itself of course a historical event. As fears of the rise of populist and racist politicians and parties, from the left and the right, abound in both the United States and Europe, Sadiq Khan’s victory in London gives grounds for some optimism.
The new elected Mayor of London ran his campaign under the promise to be "a mayor for all Londoners." That should have been all Londoners except one, his own Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Throughout the election campaign, Khan avoided Corbyn like a curse. He was very rarely seen together with him in public, in interviews and public appearances he criticized various aspects of Corbyn’s politics and insisted that once in City Hall, "I will be my own man." The opposing Conservative Party campaign sought to pin Corbyn to Sadiq and turn the mayoral elections in to a referendum on the controversial far-left Labour leader’s suitability as a potential prime minister. They failed and Khan won by a landslide.
The broader Conservative strategy of portraying Khan as a dangerous politician with extensive ties to radical Islamists failed for a number of reasons. First, because Khan refused to be drawn out on the accusations and continued running a relentlessly positive campaign. Second, because London with it’s generally diverse and cosmopolitan electorate simply wasn’t receptive to the Tory message. Third, the match-up between the two main candidates: The energetic and competent Khan with his compelling story as growing up on a working-class estate, the son of a recently arrived Pakistani immigrant bus-driver, was simply a much more appealing candidate than the Conservative’s Zac Goldsmith, who while he could not be blamed for having been born to a billionaire, did little to prove he was up to the job of mayor, having never really worked for a living and having run a laidback and low-energy campaign. Fourth, London is still a Labour stronghold, the only place in Britain where the party actually increased its strength in the general elections last year. The Conservatives Boris Johnson won the last two mayoral elections on the strength of his colorful character and because he was running against the toxic Ken Livingstone who had long out-stayed his welcome.
Ultimately though, the most crucial reason for Khan’s landslide victory was his move to the center-ground, presenting himself as a “pro-business” candidate and putting as much distance as possible between his platform and that of the current Labour leadership under Corbyn. His intense engagement with London’s Jewish community throughout the campaign was a major part of this strategy. In recent weeks, it seemed almost as if not a day passed without Khan donning a kippah, meeting the chief rabbi, visiting synagogues and chomping on bagels or matzos. His public positions on Israel also underwent a change, as he transformed from having supported boycotts to promising that as mayor he would host a Tel Aviv culture fair in London. Cynical? Pragmatic? A true heartfelt conversion? Whatever it was, it worked in differentiating Khan from those circles in Labour around Corbyn and Livingstone now being accused of tolerating anti-Semitic voices within the party.
London’s Jewish community makes up around 3 percent of the city’s population, though due to higher turnout rates, their electoral weight is probably higher. It still wouldn’t have made a change to the outcome in anything but a very close race. Khan’s courting of the Jewish vote however served a much broader purpose. Even before the recent furor over Livingstone’s claims that Hitler supported Zionism, Khan realized that being seen by the wider public as having a healthy relationship with London’s Jews, was one of the best ways to show how different he is from his predecessor as Labour’s candidate, Livingstone, and from Corbyn.
This is Sadiq Khan’s personal mandate, not Labour’s. While he achieved victory by a wide margin, his party’s share of the vote for the London assembly actually went down 1.2% and they did not add to their tally of seats from 2012. The Conservative vote city-wide was down as well, but in some areas with large Jewish populations such as Barnet, it was slightly up. It will take much closer analysis over the next few weeks to reach any conclusions on how London’s Jews voted and will probably prove that they were not that different from the general London population. In other parts of Britain however, it seems that local Jewish communities in the suburbs of Glasgow and Manchester turned out to punish Corbyn’s party, handing Conservative candidates surprise victories over long-entrenched Labour incumbents.
Corbyn’s team and his supporters in the British media are trying to portray Thursday’s local election results as a sort of success, simply because he lost only around thirty council seats across England. The truth is that Labour was pushed to third-place in Scotland, after the nationalists and Conservatives, and as the main opposition party failed to make any gains England and Wales in a mid-term local elections which in British politics traditionally serve as a protest vote against the party in government. With David Cameron’s Conservative government currently tearing itself apart over Britain’s future in the Europe Union and suffering a string of policy reversals on economic and social issues, Labour was in a position to win hundreds of new seats. Its abject failure in doing so underlines the fundamental truth that under Corbyn, Labour has no realistic chance to win a general election. This effectively makes Khan now an alternative leader of the center-left in Britain, eager for a more popular and effective figurehead.
Meanwhile, Candidates of racist and xenophobic parties, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the British National Party (BNP), Britain First and of course the despicable George Galloway who came a miserable seventh place, received altogether less than seven percent of first-preferences votes. UKIP won two assembly seats in London and made a few modest gains in other parts of the country, a far cry from the surge which not long ago was being predicted in the support of the anti-immigration party.
In six weeks Britons will go to the polls again to vote in the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Khan has already promised to campaign energetically for remaining in the EU, which he sees as key to maintaining London’s position as a global financial center. He will now have a media platform to do so on a national level and if his passion will resemble that of his campaign for mayor, he will far outshine both Corbyn and Cameron as a spokesman for unity both within Britain and Europe and perhaps even for a different style of western politics.
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