London is more pleased with itself than usual at the moment, which is saying something. The city has just elected its first Muslim mayor, and people here are calling it our “Obama moment.” The Great British Multicultural Experiment, which many thought had failed, is alive and well, they said. Sadiq Khan, the new mayor, is a thoroughly modern Muslim. He is a devout and sober Sunni, yes, but he is also, unlike the vast majority of his coreligionists, socially liberal. He supports gay marriage and the rights of (as Barack would call them) transgendered folks. He is the son of a Pakistani bus driver, so his elevation, as almost every journalist in Britain has felt compelled to point out, shows how progressive our capital is. After his election on May 5, the London-based press indulged in an orgy of self-congratulation. “Yes we Khan!” said the headlines.
The world media chimed in, too. “The mayoral election shows that London is more liberal, clever and tolerant than the conservative mudslingers would like to think,” declared the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel. “Khan’s story should help set the record straight on immigration, integration and European Muslims,” said Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper. And Hillary Rodham Clinton added her own progressive tuppence-worth on Twitter: “Son of a Pakistani bus driver, champion of workers’ rights and human rights, and now Mayor of London. Congrats.”
It’s good to know she cares. But does the mayorship of London matter? The role has existed only since 2000. Even though its importance has increased somewhat as London has become more of what bankers call a “global hub,” the capital’s mayor doesn’t have a lot of power. According to the official London Elects website, “The job ranges from developing policies to setting budgets, from overseeing major programmes to championing London around the world—all in line with his or her vision and in the interests of London.” The mayor’s chief duty is to be a sort of ambassador for London, and to make Londoners feel that the vast metropolis in which they live is being well managed, rather than simply muddling on. It also could be a useful career stepping stone to the very top; the outgoing mayor, Boris Johnson, is currently the bookmakers’ favorite to be the next prime minister, and many Brits now think Khan will lead the Labour Party someday soon. So, yes, Khan’s election is noteworthy. But he is hardly the capital’s commander in chief.
Moreover, London hasn’t quite fallen in love with Khan, in the way it can be said to have fallen for Boris (as he’s commonly called) when he won in 2008 and again in 2012. His victory was more because of immigration than persona. This city is, increasingly, a Labour stronghold. In the general election last May, London was pretty much the only place where the party increased its share of the vote. Much like the Democratic Party in the U.S., Labour has alienated and lost a large share of its traditional working-class base across Britain. But metropolitan liberals tend to vote Labour, and the party is increasingly strong in urban areas where there are growing numbers of minorities. A recent British Election Study suggested some three quarters of Britain’s three million Muslims would vote Labour. Consider that about 12 percent of London’s population is Islamic, and that amounts to quite a lot of votes.
Just about any Labour candidate, then, would have won the mayoral election; that Sadiq was Muslim and liberal meant he was pretty much a shoo-in—especially since his Conservative opponent, Zac Goldsmith, ran such a limp campaign. Goldsmith is the son of Jimmy Goldsmith, the financier, and has been a popular MP in affluent Richmond, in west London. He’s an avid environmentalist, which plays well among well-off Londoners who worry about green issues. But he has never had Boris’s magic touch. From the start of his campaign, Zac seemed oddly ponderous and disengaged, as if he didn’t really want to win. My editor at the Spectator interviewed him and Khan in December and found that, whereas Khan was well prepped, Goldsmith kept repeating that it was “still early days” for his campaign, and he hadn’t decided how he might win. Khan’s press officer was Patrick Hennessy, a former journalist and well-connected operator. Zac’s was Katy Eustice, a p.r. girl and something of a socialite. Zac’s campaign did hire CTF Partners, the political consultancy run by Lynton Crosby, the man often credited with having delivered a majority for the Conservatives at the last election. But, up until the late stages at least, Crosby seemed to have little direct involvement, and the Back Zac campaign seemed to lack energy. Its messaging, as political wonks call it, was all over the place, and Zac seemed badly managed. He did a television interview with a black cab driver, in which he couldn’t answer fairly basic questions about London sites. He went to the Asian Awards, to show how multicultural he was, and told a TV reporter, “I’m a Bollywood fan. So anything with a Bollywood theme, I will lap it up.” The reporter smartly asked him to name his favorite Bollywood actor or film, and Zac flapped and said, “Er, I’m not going to give you one.” He was, in short, a hopeless candidate. There were rumors, too, that Conservative Central Office was quite happy to see Goldsmith fail. A Khan victory, it was said, would be a boon to Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s hapless leader. Some senior Tories would be more than happy for Corbyn to have a few easy and politically insignificant wins in order that he remain in charge of the Labour Party until the next general election, when, it is thought, he will be drubbed.
Such thinking is a clear invitation to hubris, but that is for another article. The point here is that, against such feeble opposition, Khan’s success was all but guaranteed. The only sustained attack that Goldsmith’s campaign waged against the eventual winner was over his links to Islamic extremists. As an up-and-coming Muslim politician in London, Khan inevitably shared platforms with some fairly unsavory Islamist characters, and Team Zac endeavoured to make this widely known.
But this tactic reeked of desperation and backfired spectacularly. Khan is too clever a politician to have palled around with terrorists. The Tory spin machine, and even David Cameron, repeatedly said that Khan was close to Suliman Gani, once his local imam, who abhors homosexuals and supports the Islamic State. But it turned out that Gani was a fairly mainstream cleric who had in fact encouraged Muslims to support the Conservative Party. He’d also been photographed with Zac Goldsmith. Clang! The Tories were widely reviled for having tried to stir up the politics of division. Owen Jones, the influential and screamingly self-righteous Guardian columnist, accused Zac of having
exploited and incited prejudice and hate. He undermined community cohesion. He indicated to young Muslims that there was no point engaging in the democratic process, because even the most progressive Muslim would be treated as aiding and abetting extremists.
London journalists like nothing better than a chance to boast about how tolerant they are. So Khan’s relatively insignificant victory took on a greater significance than it deserved. It gave London’s elite liberal-left, depressed as it is by the leadership of the old-school socialist Corbyn, something to cheer. And it gave them another opportunity to tell Americans how superior we are, which is the favorite pastime of the British left. People began touting Sadiq Khan as the best possible answer to Donald Trump, because the presumptive Republican nominee had called for a temporary ban on Muslims to combat the terror threat. The New Statesman, Britain’s leading left magazine, declared Khan “The anti-Trump” on its cover, with a ridiculous Photoshopped image of the new mayor catapulting a red London bus into The Donald’s chest. The author of the piece, George Eaton, wrote that,
by electing Khan, one of the world’s preeminent cities has repudiated the “clash of civilisations” thesis. His victory is a retort both to conservative nationalists who insist that Muslims cannot integrate and to Islamist extremists who insist that they should not.
He called Khan a “liberal, pluralist counterweight to conservative xenophobia.” He said it was “highly likely” that Khan would be invited to speak at the Democratic National Convention in July.
The new mayor has long enjoyed close links with his left-leaning New York counterpart, Bill de Blasio, who attended the 2014 Labour conference. Since his election in late 2013, de Blasio has ended police surveillance of Muslim residents.
Progress marches on.
Khan himself wasted no time in jumping on the anti-Trump train. “Donald Trump’s ignorant view of Islam would make both our countries less safe,” he said, before adding with, er, humility:
This isn’t just about me—it’s about my friends, my family and everyone who comes from a background similar to mine, anywhere in the world. Donald Trump and those around him think that Western liberal values are incompatible with mainstream Islam. London has proved him wrong.
The Tories probably deserved a kicking for their shambolic and cynical mayoral campaign. Khan is conspicuously secular. If British voters can’t accept a Muslim like him then we are going to struggle to deal with the fact that we have allowed huge numbers of Muslims into our country. But the silly hype surrounding the new mayor suggests the desperation of internationalist liberalism in the face of rising populist nationalism everywhere, as represented by Donald Trump or successful European conservative figures such as the National Front’s Marine le Pen in France, or the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer, who only just missed out on becoming president of Austria earlier this month, not to mention the many others across Europe. Eight years from the real Obama moment, the progressives don’t have that much to celebrate. Sadiq Khan won because he was the better candidate. The attempt to hail him as the new star of the global left smacks of panic.