London's Obama Moment: A Muslim Mayor

Published: May 07, 2016 09:42 IST
After an ill-tempered campaign, with allegations of Islamic extremism flung around like political confetti, Londoners have elected Sadiq Khan, a 45-year-old lawyer, as their new Mayor. He was the Labour party's candidate in a city which tends to lean to the left. And he won comfortably.

This is a political landmark - the closest Europe has got to an Obama moment. It's the first time a Muslim has been elected Mayor of a major western capital. The Mayor of London has limited powers but a high profile, and Sadiq Khan now has the biggest personal mandate of any British politician.

The new Mayor has faced as much scrutiny in recent weeks about his religion as about his policies. His Conservative opponent, Zac Goldsmith - the Eton-educated son of a business tycoon - alleged that Khan had on several occasions over the years shared platforms with Islamic hardliners who advocated or tolerated violence. In the week before voting day, Goldsmith wrote an article for the right-wing Daily Mail newspaper which bore the headline: "Are we really going to hand over the world's greatest city to a Labour party that thinks terrorists are its friends?" It's not that Khan is himself an extremist, Goldsmith has argued, rather that his past associations point to poor judgement.  

Sadiq Khan responded that as a human rights lawyer, he was at times obliged to associate with people he disagreed with. He pointed out that as a supporter of gay marriage, he had challenged conservative and hardline attitudes within local mosques rather than endorsed them.

Many saw the Conservative line of attack as bearing a hint of the Islamophobia evident of late in American politics. It didn't impress the London electorate - and may indeed have backfired and helped Khan to his commanding margin of victory. And it also angered some within the Conservative party. Sayeeda Warsi, a Muslim who sits on the Conservative benches in the House of Lords, tweeted than an "appalling" campaign had '"lost us the election, our reputation and our credibility on race and religion".

During the campaign, Sadiq Khan made the most of his personal story - the child of working-class immigrants who has done well for himself through hard work and ability. His grandparents migrated from India to Pakistan at Partition, and his parents moved to London in the 1960s. He is the fifth of eight children. His late father worked in London as a bus driver and his mother was a seamstress. "My mum and dad would send money back to their relatives in Pakistan", Khan said recently. "My mum still does, because we're blessed being in this country."

Khan grew up in social housing in a tough area of south London and went to the local state school. He got a law degree and had a successful career as a solicitor before being elected to Parliament in 2005. He's on the centre left of the Labour party and made his mark in politics as a junior minister in Britain's last Labour government. When he became a member of the Privy Council, a role that has prestige but little power, he chose to be sworn-in on the Koran rather than the Bible.

While Sadiq Khan will have won the votes of most of London's one-million or so Muslims - who tend to support Labour in any case - it's not clear how he has fared among non-Muslim South Asians. The Conservatives repeatedly targetted Indian-origin voters in their campaign material in a manner which some took to be about stirring up fears of what a Muslim Mayor might do.

The bitterness of the campaign belies the fact that on many issues, there was little to choose between the two main candidates. Both are socially liberal and broadly pro-business - which might be why they used other gambits to attract support. "The old ideological battles are giving way to struggles over specific ethnic and religious groups", The Economist commented this week, '"the Conservative lunge for Hindu and Sikh support may be a sign of things to come."

For the Labour party, this victory is a real tonic. The party is in opposition at the national level - and in a mess. Its leader, the hard left-winger Jeremy Corbyn, is not trusted by his own MPs. But in these local elections across Britain, the party has broadly held its own (except in Scotland, where the pro-independence nationalists again emerged much the strongest party).

With Sadiq Khan in London's City Hall, Labour has not only demonstrated that it can win, but that it can stand for a more inclusive approach to politics while the Conservatives remain dominated by an old-school-tie elite.

And a world city applauded for its diversity has elected to lead it someone who reflects that diversity.

(Andrew Whitehead, a former BBC Delhi correspondent, is an honorary professor at the University of Nottingham and at Queen Mary, University of London.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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