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Londoners vote for diverse (co)existence

The son of a bus driver who emigrated from Pakistan is entering his new position with a massive mandate

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

Fair play is one the characteristics British people are very proud of. However, this sense of fair play was missing from the London mayoral election campaign, which ended last Thursday with a very impressive victory for the Labour Party’s candidate Sadiq Khan.

The smear campaign against him by his main rival, Zac Goldsmith of the Conservative Party and other right wing parties, was repulsive with its Islamophobic innuendos. Mercifully, this did not deter Londoners from electing a Muslim, who grew up on a council estate in Tooting, to the highest position in the city—unprecedented in any Western capital.

The son of a bus driver and seamstress, who emigrated from Pakistan, is entering his new position with a massive personal mandate considering the more than 13 percent margin of his victory. This must be also considered as a testimony to the political maturity of London voters, who rejected the politics of fear of the other and elected the person who they consider the best for the very complex job of running the British capital.

Mayoral elections are traditionally fought over local issues such as housing, transport, education, crime and even environmental issues. However, this London mayoral election was unusual from the onset in the sense that there was more to it than the typical local concerns of ordinary citizens. It had to do with the two main candidates themselves as much as the general political, social and economic atmosphere in Britain and the rest of the European Union.

One could not imagine two more dissimilar candidates than Khan and Goldsmith. One epitomises the London that has evolved since the end of the Second World War.

Khan’s route (thus far) to the top represents social mobility, especially for newcomers that hardly existed before the introduction of the welfare state. It enabled someone from humble socio-economic beginnings to gain an education and complete a law degree, while at the same time staying true to his upbringing and values.

The election of Khan to this powerful political position is even more significant, considering the wider debate on migration in the European Union and the forthcoming Brexit referendum

Yossi Mekelberg

Khan’s choice to pursue a career first as a human rights lawyer, and then as an MP for the very constituency he was born and grew up in, are clear evidence of holding steadfast to his roots and values. His life’s path has been in complete contrast to that of Mr. Goldsmith. Goldsmith, who is one of the wealthiest members of the British Parliament, mainly inherited from his late financier father, and was educated in very prestigious institutions including Eaton College.

This is not to suggest that in any shape or form Goldsmith’s background should automatically make him an inferior candidate to lead such a complex and multi-ethnic city. However, it seems that after eight years of a very similar prototype, in the image of Boris Johnson, Londoners opted for someone who could relate to the daily challenges faced by ordinary citizens in this intriguing capital. Unaffordable housing, overcrowded schools and a congested transport system are affecting more ordinary wage-earning citizens and minorities, than those who come from privileged backgrounds.

Revulsion against slur

The margin of victory for Sadiq Khan also reflects the revulsion, by large parts of the London population, of the underhanded anti-Muslim slur campaign by Goldsmith and other right wing candidates. It even angered a number of members from his Conservative party, who found it shameful and outrageous.

In his desperation, Goldsmith resorted to the spreading of fear, warning that voting for Khan would compromise London’s security in the face of terrorist threats, though he had no shred of evidence to back up his claim. Khan was “guilty” by association both because he shared a platform during debates with radical Islamists, and for defending suspected terrorists during his time as a human rights lawyer.

These allegations are absurd by nature, and an obvious attempt to exploit the fear factor in a city, which is on high terrorist alert for quite a long while now. Anyone who has engaged in public debate has experienced at times fundamental disagreement with fellow panelists with whom she or he shared a stage. It is actually regarded as good practice in a pluralist society to debate with those with whom one disagrees.

Moreover, taking issue with defending suspected terrorists in court, is contemptable and bizarre in equal measures in a country which gave the world the Magna Carta eight hundred years ago. Everyone is entitled to legal representation, and if Khan’s origins had not been Muslim, this sort of denunciation would have never been leveled against him.

In a city in which nearly thirteen percent of the population is Muslim, and 44 percent black and ethnic minorities, such a move was inexcusably divisive, not to mention an act of political suicide.

Larger issues

The election of Khan to this powerful political position is even more significant, considering the wider debate on migration in the European Union, especially of Muslims, and the forthcoming Brexit referendum.

The more progressive minded would see this as a testimony of the integration of British Muslims in society and their contribution, if given the opportunity. It should provide the “Remain” campaign with some tailwind in the weeks left until polling day on 23 June.

Great credit should be given to Sadiq Khan himself for rising above gutter politics, and at the same time also strongly condemning expressions of antisemitism that tainted his own Labour Party in the run up to the London elections. He did it with great assertiveness and integrity.

In the aftermath of the elections, Khan has a huge task in front of him to fulfil his pre-election promises and keep London as one of the leading financial, cultural and political centers of the world.

In doing so he must utilize the city’s ethnic diversity as one of its biggest assets moving forward. If he succeeds in doing this, he might pave the way to 10 Downing Street to someone with a similar background, if not himself.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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