by Travis Bean
The election of Labour Party candidate Sadiq Khan as the new Mayor of London by a convincing margin is being treated as historic and as reflecting an important shift taking place in British society.
An openly-declared practicing Muslim, Khan had been linked by the campaign of his Conservative opponent, Zac Goldsmith, to Islamic extremists. The attempts to smear Khan, by associating his views with anyone who he may have previously shared a platform with, was an act of desperation, as Goldsmith had been consistently trailing in the polls. Anybody who has ever spoken at a public meeting might be horrified at the prospect of finding, many years later, that one is now being associated with the current views of somebody else at that meeting. If such linkages were accepted, they would have a chilling effect on public engagement.
While there was never any direct suggestion that Khan himself ever held extremist views of Islam, those who raised the issue hoped that such smearing “by association” might, in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels, sufficiently taint Khan in the eyes of voters and make him unelectable. The tactic obviously backfired; Khan received the largest mandate of any candidate in British electoral history.
When speaking with those who voted for Khan, it becomes clear that they rejected the racist subtext of the Conservative campaign (which more liberal elements amongst the Tories themselves have criticized, after the election results were reported). These voters are not necessarily buying into the narrative of Khan as the son of a bus driver who rose up to become a successful lawyer and thus represents working-class aspiration. Most express scepticism about whether Khan is a man of the people, but they are willing to give him a chance to see what he does.
The electoral support for Khan in some way represents a similar process to that which occurred in the U.S. election of Obama. The symbolism of putting America’s first black president into office supposedly said something important about the country. The media focus on Khan, as the first Muslim and Asian to be elected to such a high-profile political position, is in itself said to represent a new acceptance of Muslims as part of British society.
It can also be expected that liberals and radicals will be as likely to be disappointed by Khan as were their U.S. counterparts when they saw the Obama administration increase drone strikes, drag its feet on closing Guantanamo Bay, fail to curb racist policing and prisons policy, and largely continue the policies and practices of previous administrations. Prior to his election, Obama never claimed to be radical, and neither has Khan. What fires people up is more the symbolism of voting for Khan than anything he specifically said on the campaign trail.
Khan is on the right of the Labour Party. Both during the campaign and after the result, he has distanced himself from its left-leaning leader, Jeremy Corbyn. In his first post-election statement highlighted by the national media, Khan said that there was no point to talking only to Labour activists or even Labour voters; he will talk also talk to those who support the Conservatives or the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). He also said that since it is important for Labour to become the party of aspiration, he will be speaking to CEOs as well as everybody else.
In a campaign in which Khan has sold himself as the most pro-business of all the candidates, this comes as no surprise. What is perhaps more peculiar is that anyone on the left could be surprised by this. In recent times, capitalism has been faltering regardless of which party is in power, and which policies are being promoted. This fact should force us to ask some much harder questions than are typically being asked. What accounts for the inability of changes in parties and policies to solve capitalism’s weakness?
There is no point in revisiting the politics of Tony Blair nor of putting one’s hopes in those of Jeremy Corbyn. The latter differ only in style of presentation; they do not represent a fundamentally different vision of how society might be organised. We should reject these “quick fix” schemes as the hollow pretences they really are