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First Muslim mayor and the anti-Trump: Sadiq Khan is more than a symbol - he is a powerful politician

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On the second anniversary of London mayor Sadiq Khan's inauguration, we reflect on his powerful political legacy that could see him become UK prime minister one day

Anna Freeman

09 Mayo 2018 17:14

Shortly after midnight in London on May 6, Sadiq Khan - a local South London boy, one of eight children, and the son of Pakistani immigrant parents - claimed his victory as the UK capital’s next mayor.

Standing on a podium at City Hall, with the River Thames’ dank waters just in front, and Tower Hill’s medieval castle protruding like an imperial emblem ahead, Khan, standing for the Labour Party, hailed a new era. ‘I want to say thank you,’ he said, ‘to every single Londoner for making the impossible possible.’ The first Muslim mayor to govern a Western capital city had been elected.

As Khan addressed the raptured crowd at City Hall that night, the candidate from Britain First, a marginal far-right party with openly Islamophobic views, turned his back. It felt like a symbolic gesture that highlighted the magnanimity of a London - and Britain - caught between two ideals of itself. It signified the waft of change that filled the room that night; the antiquated perseverance of Little England and its white homogeneity crumbling beneath this ignorant nationalist’s very feet.

Idealistic hope of a new era

Not only did Khan win, but he absolutely trounced his main competitor, the silver-spooned Conservative Zac Goldsmith, by 57-43. With 1,3010,143 votes, Khan secured the biggest political mandate of any UK politician in British history. The significance of his sweeping victory reverberated around the world.

‘Son of a Pakistani bus driver, champion of workers’ rights and human rights, and now Mayor of London. Congrats,’ tweeted Hillary Clinton. ‘London elects Muslim mayor in tense race’, read the front page of the New York Times. German magazine Der Spiegel gushed: ‘The mayoral election shows that London is more liberal, clever and tolerant than the conservative mudslingers would like to think.’

Khan had faced all the xenophobic smears one could expect from a political party that is anchored in a nostalgic, self-serving idea that there is a pure and true ‘Britishness’. Goldsmith and his Tory troupe ran a dirty campaign, attempting to characterise Khan as a terrorist sympathiser who gave ‘oxygen’ to extremists. It backfired. Anyone could see Khan was - and is - so far from an extremist that Goldsmith looked foolish. If anything, Khan is the ultimate politician: suit-clad, media-trained and power-driven.

Sadiq Khan on the London tube

In the following weeks, everyone was talking about the new man about town. He was Sadiq, not Khan. A sure-fire way to know that you’ve got legendary status among the cosmopolitan (just like Jeremy Corbyn is Jezza, but Theresa May isn’t Tezza). Khan was suddenly a beacon of hope for progressives to hang their hat on. He went from fairly unknown MP for Tooting to the subject of op-eds in The New Yorker and the New York Times. American media took a special interest. A Muslim mayor? Of London? Surely not. Far-right website the Drudge Report moaned about the success of the ‘first Muslim Mayor of Londonistan’. When the trolls attack, you know you’re hitting where it hurts most.

It was a nice moment in the sun when everything else about city life and global politics were stagnating. Khan sitting at the helm of a global metropolis and former empire was given particular porency at a time when populist demagogues like Donald Trump and Marine le Pen were winning the cultural war. For a brief, and deluded, moment, London was somehow vindicated of all its sins, racism and social issues because its people had elected a Muslim mayor. Openness had outclassed isolationism, integration against separatism.

London’s burning

Any false sense of comfort was quickly snatched away. Khan officially took office on May 9 - two years to the day - before an onslaught of tragic events that would come to mark his tenure. Just weeks after winning the position, the UK voted to leave the EU, leaving London alone as a stranded island that hoped to remain within the bloc (60% voted against Brexit). Never had the city been so at odds with the rest of the country.

Between March and June 2016, PM David Cameron resigned. His successor (by proxy) May had called a disputed general election hoping to increase her Conservative government’s majority, only to lose it. The UK’s typically boring politics was suddenly a chaotic mess. London also suffered three terrorist attacks and a horrific fire at a council tower block, Grenfell Tower, that killed more than 80 people. It felt like city was actually burning.

Khan didn’t spend most of his first moments as mayor tackling the housing crisis or travel fares like he had promised - he spent it going to funerals. He had inherited the cosmos at one of its worst moments. That summer, London was losing its veneer of greatness. It had lost its pushy, problematic, yet endearing possibility. At times, for idealistic Londoners, it felt like Khan’s election was one of the city’s only saving graces. When Trump insulted Khan via a series of tweets about his handling of the London Bridge terror attack, it was apparent Khan was rising from the ashes of tragedy to become the anti-Trump. ‘I have more important things to do than respond to Donald Trump’s ill-informed tweet,’ is all he replied.

Grenfell Tower

One of Khan’s greatest abilities is his public performance of politics. He visited Grenfell Tower citizens for five days straight and reportedly worked 20 hour days. His first official engagement as mayor was a Holocaust memorial event to combat the Labour Party’s ‘anti-Jewish’ image. He marched in Pride.

When a white man rammed his car into a Muslim congregation leaving a mosque in Finsbury Park, killing one person, Khan had the momentous task of being a spokesperson for both London, and his faith. A demand that has become more important with an increase Islamophobia. Calls for unity and peace appealed to a demographic becoming fractured by tectonic-shifting events.

Khan is the UK’s answer to Barack Obama. He is articulate, measured, on the soft left, charismatic, and an expert in saying the right thing. In the same way, he is tactical politically, impotent in some of his claims, and has a carefully-crafted persona for the public. Strategic to the minutest detail.

As a devout modern Muslim, Khan has had to work harder to be an outspoken purveyor of Western ideals. A posterboy for cosmopolitan London. With his trademark open white collar shirt and dark suits, but London-inflected accent, Khan is the ‘acceptable’ side of Islam, just like Obama represented the ‘acceptable’ form of blackness in a deeply racialised white America.

No one is naive enough to think the sharp rise in hate crimes and Islamophobia in London went away overnight because the mayor was Muslim. And many have questioned whether he would have been so successful if, for example, her wore more traditional Islamic dress or recited passages from the Quran in his speeches. Khan embodies all that is unifying about multiculturalism, and manages to allay any concerns that certain customs may be incompatible in some voters’ minds. He is London. He is its very essence. But he is also a smart politician.

Sadiq Khan

‘I’m a Londoner, I’m British, I’m English, I’m of Asian origin, of Pakistani heritage, I’m a dad, I’m a husband, I’m a long-suffering Liverpool fan, I’m Labour, I’m a Fabian and I’m a Muslim,’ Khan told George Eaton of the New Statesman. Khan knows that there is a kind of London nationalism - the ‘we’re all in it together, it’s hard at times, but it’s bloody great’ mantra - and has captured that very sentiment in his #LoveLondon platitudes.

Khan glorifies the London of his youth. His official campaign website says: ‘I want all Londoners to have the same opportunities that our city gave me: a home they can afford, a high-skilled job with decent pay, an affordable and modern transport system and a safe, clean and healthy environment.’ But ask anyone living in inner city London if they think this is achievable, and they will most likely laugh in your face.

The limitations of reality

Khan consistently hones in on his blue collar, immigrant roots as a kind of rag to riches story; the English version of the American dream. His father drove the now-famed Bus 44 route from Victoria to Tooting - repeatedly referenced in his campaign leaflets - and Khan still shops at Tooting market, goes to his favourite curry house, and although he doesn’t drink, can often be spotted at his local boozer. He grew up in a council house and slept in a bunk bed till he was in his 20s. This mosaic is one of the reasons so many people voted for him - Londoners saw themselves in his story.

And yet, Khan has drawn sharp criticism on the Left since his election for endlessly courting big businesses and having close affiliations with the financial sector. He said in his election campaign that he will be ‘the most business-friendly mayor of all time’. Among workers in The City - where the country’s richest climb the Footsie 100 in glass-plated towers - Khan has a high approval rating. One of his first campaigns was #LondonIsOpen to attract investment to London post-Brexit.

The political landscape in 2016 is almost unrecognisable now. Centrist and free market politics was still the order of the day. Now, the Conservatives have chewed off their liberal arm and have retreated to right-wing populism. Corbyn, Labour Party leader, and previously embattled socialist at the helm of the New Left, is unassailable. Although Khan and Corbyn are from the same party, they are from polar opposite wings of it.

Sadiq Khan and Jeremy Corbyn

Khan is pro-enterprise, neoliberal, a Tony Blair descendent and is a centrist soft left-winger. Corbyn is a grassroots campaigner, a socialist, a finance sector critic and proposer of increased corporate tax. Rent prices in London are out of control. An average house costs £600,000. Many people believe radical change is needed; business as usual won’t work.

Khan is in a uniquely difficult position caught between leaving the EU and securing London’s future. But critics of his see him as too much of a proponent for the very institutions that create social problems like youth unemployment, gentrification, lack of social housing in favour of luxury flats and £7 pints of beer (which might possibly be the biggest offence to Londoners of all).

In an Obama-esque way, his ‘domestic’ policies are very popular. Khan is pro-LGBT (he marched in Pride), a feminist, he started the night tube, froze travel fares in London, introduced the air pollution toxicity charge, banned sexist advertising and started initiatives to tackle knife crime and youth disenfranchisement.

But as a Momentum member told me: ‘Khan is getting more and more out of touch with the direction in which the Labour Party is going. We need a radical left as the Tories sway towards the right.’ A secretary for the London Renters Union also told me that his big promises to curtail exploitative landlords is almost non-existent. ‘If anything, it is getting worse.’

Khan has also faced claims of fierce opportunism. He initially supported Corbyn as a new Labour leader in 2015 at the time he would run for mayor, only to sharply rebuke him after in a Daily Mail article and denounce him as ‘one of the least popular politicians’. He is eating his words now (‘Labour under Jeremy Corbyn will win the next general election’ he then announced). Political commentators have credited this decision with trying to gain votes from Corbyn supporters, then quickly pandering to the concerns of the centre-left.

Rumour has it that Khan is tipped to be the next Labour Party leader. If that is the end game, some London residents may question whether their best interests are at heart. The bad taste of Blair’s government is still in the mouths of the selectorate, and it’s not hard to see Khan as one of his successors (although a lot more well-liked). Creating a pathway to the country’s top position requires ambition, popularity - and careful calculation.

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