By Abeer Sharma
Soon after midnight on Saturday morning, Labour’s Sadiq Khan vanquished his Conservative rival Zac Goldsmith and became the next Mayor of London. Khan’s comprehensive victory was the denouement in what ultimately proved a procession of a mayoral race. This was in no major part down to Zac Goldsmith’s dire campaign, a case study in how to destroy your hopes of the London mayoralty and alienate people. How on earth did it all go so badly? Well…
You may have heard that Sadiq Khan is the Muslim, council estate raised son of a migrant bus driver from Pakistan? As soon as Khan pipped Tessa Jowell to the post in becoming Labour’s mayoral candidate, Goldsmith was in trouble. The contest instantly became billed as the bus driver’s son versus the super-rich trustafarian. With British distrust and hatred of the wealthy at fever pitch since the financial crisis, Goldsmith was always up against it.
Sadiq Khan has long been known as a formidable street-fighting campaigner. The onus was therefore on Zac Goldsmith to hit the ground running, bristling with brio about the prospect of becoming the next Mayor of the world’s greatest city. It was initially thought his good looks, rebellious instincts, thoughtful manner and green credentials might form the ingredients of a potent cocktail capable of matching Khan all the way. Instead, he delivered an aloof, diffident lumber devoid of passion or personality. One could not help feel that whilst becoming the Mayor of London meant everything to Khan, Goldsmith was wholly indifferent. The abiding memory of Goldsmith the campaigner will not be as a vibrant and energetic challenger, but an awkward bungler who embarrassed himself over the topics of London and Bollywood. Of course there is also THAT picture of him quaintly clasping a pint.
With neither man enjoying the public profile of their predecessors Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson there was a vacuum in terms of capturing the imagination with interesting policy. In the end, the election race was forgettable on policy with barely a paper’s width between Goldsmith and Khan. What was particularly dismaying about Goldsmith is not that he was short of policies, but that they lacked definition. By way of example, Khan proposed to freeze tube fares and Goldsmith rebuffed the idea, but instead of openly stating he would retain fare increases to allow investment in the network, he fudged the issue to the extent that no-one could identify his exact position on transport. On the crucial matter of housing, there was good policy but he could not indicate at all what would constitute “affordable” housing under his stewardship. Even if it is principled not to make promises that cannot be kept, lacking any semblance of conviction and clarity is, for voters, probably worse.
The Conservative campaign was shambolic before it even started. Labour had a high-profile contest with Sadiq Khan, Tessa Jowell and David Lammy vying for the candidacy. Meanwhile, the Tories initially tried and failed to persuade Lord Coe and Baroness Brady to run, ending up with a field of Zac Goldsmith (hardly a household name himself) and a band of nobodies. Khan’s victory was met with fanfare; the reaction to Goldsmith’s was soporific.
Once the race started it got worse. Much worse. Instead of playing to his potential strengths as a principled, independent and likeable candidate with cross-party appeal, the entire mayoral race was dominated entirely by what is regarded as Goldsmith’s “dog-whistle politics”. Labelling Sadiq Khan as “radical” was a colossal miscalculation. For starters, Khan distanced himself from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at an early stage and offered no policies fitting the definition of the word. Then you consider the obvious connotations of repeatedly calling a moderate Muslim politician “radical” in the current climate and little more needs to be added.
The onslaught continued with Khan’s human rights lawyer past dredged up along with instances of sharing public platforms with some rather unsavoury islamist characters. The nadir was arguably the targeted leaflets sent out to members of the Asian non-Muslim communities telling them that Khan would tax their jewellery and unlike Goldsmith, did not meet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his visit to India last year. These leaflets would be laughable if they were not so utterly patronising, inaccurate and frankly idiotic.
Goldsmith and his team did not reckon on two things. Firstly, such negative tactics are anathema in a multi-cultural, left-leaning city like London, particularly so given its large Muslim population. Secondly, Sadiq Khan did a sterling job of maintaining his composure throughout and never looked more impressive than when handling the issue head-on with admirable dignity and restraint.
There is credence in the anecdotal murmurings over the last few days that repulsed Tory voters either did not deign to vote for Goldsmith or voted for Khan instead. Notably, Goldsmith was fourth best on first-round second preference votes, despite observers last year holding the view that second preference votes could get him over the line in a tight battle. As the heavy criticism and recriminations continue from all quarters, Goldsmith will wonder how it all went so badly wrong; he will not have to look far and the disaster of his campaign will linger painfully for some time yet.