General view of London’s Tower Bridge and The Shard. Photo taken April 20, 2016.
On May 5, London elected its first Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, who assumed office after receiving a record 57 percent of the vote in the final round. This wasn’t only a first for London but also for the West, as Khan is also the first openly practicing Muslim to become the mayor of a Western city of global importance.
As anti-Islamic sentiment is on the rise following the DAESH terrorist group’s attacks in Paris and Brussels Khan’s election victory seems to buck a trend of widening division. So how did it happen, when discord and tensions are rising elsewhere?
Anyone who has visited London knows that the city is unusual in a number of respects - first among them the diversity of its population. Over 300 languages are spoken by the city’s residents, more than in any other city in Europe. Britain’s capital is also Europe’s - arguably the world’s - leading financial centre and is home to more ultra-high net worth individuals than any other city in the world.
This means the people of London are familiar with the realities of living in an international metropolis. While the election of an openly Muslim mayor might seem out of the question in more homogenous and less globally-connected cities this was not the case in London, where Muslims make up 12 percent and ethnic minorities around 40 percent of the population.
London’s special status allowed Khan to be elected mayor there while he may not have been elsewhere. But that doesn’t explain why Khan triumphed over his main Conservative rival, Zac Goldsmith.
Aside from Khan being a Muslim, another notable feature of his victory is that he was the candidate of the Labour Party.
Labour is in opposition in the British Parliament after losing an election last year and had not been performing well in the polls. The leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, was voted into his position on a wave of enthusiasm from younger and more radical Labour members but has struggled to broaden his appeal.
In an interview he gave to the The Observer after being elected mayor in which he implicitly criticised Corbyn’s approach, Khan said, "Offering solutions to the challenges most people face every day is the only way to win elections."
During his campaign he avoided the internal and ideological battles weighing down the party and stressed things average Londoners care about such as housing and travel costs.
Goldsmith is a Conservative Member of Parliament, an environmentalist and journalist, and the heir to the fortune of his billionaire businessman father Sir James Goldsmith.
Many Londoners are struggling to pay the bills due to the rising cost of living in the capital and the after effects of the 2009 financial crisis. Goldsmith might have suffered from the perception that he couldn’t grasp their concerns because of his wealth, with a survey by Populus finding that many saw Goldsmith as "out of touch" and "posh."
Goldsmith was initially the favourite of betting agencies and at first wasn’t far behind in the polls after Khan entered the race. But his decision to pursue what widely came to be seen as a negative campaign is likely to have helped stop him from catching up.
Leaflets were sent to Sikh and British Tamil households stating that Khan didn’t attend a welcome ceremony for Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi and that his party "supports a wealth tax on family jewellery." A London Conservative councillor from a British Indian background, Binita Mihta, criticised the tactic as being "stereotypical and patronising."
Goldsmith also came under fire for seemingly attempting to link Khan to Islamic radicalism by noting that he had shared a platform with Muslim preacher Suliman Gani, whom he accused of supporting the DAESH terrorist group – an allegation Gani denied.
At one point Goldsmith asked, "Are we really going to hand the world's greatest city to a Labour Party that thinks terrorists are its friends?"
UK Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader David Cameron made comments in the House of Commons along the same lines, provoking cries of "racist" from the opposition.
Part of Goldsmith’s initial appeal was - in the words of The Independent - his "nice guy" image. By conducting a campaign which left him open to allegations of trying to exploit divisions among Londoners he likely undermined this image. The campaign's targeting of ethnic minority voters and emphasis on Khan’s background as a Muslim probably cost him more votes than it one.
At the very least - as the gap in the opinion polls between him and Khan rarely dropped below 5 percent from January until May and widened to over 10 percent in April (according to polls by YouGov and Survation) when Goldsmith made the comments linking Khan to Gani - it seems fair to say Goldsmith’s strategy was not a success.
Why is this interesting? Well, at a time when many politicians - such as Marine Le Pen in France and Donald Trump in the US - appear to be gaining support off the back of anti-Muslim sentiment, for some reason the people of London decided not to reward what critics saw as a similiar approach.
While in recent years in the West the notion of multiculturalism and cohesion between minority groups - particularly Muslims - and the majority has come under increasing attack, Khan's victory seems to stand as a counter-example showing that there is no reason to think such integration is impossible.
In a city with hundreds of different ethnic communities, the election was remarkable in the sense that the only real role ethnicity and religion played was in the backlash against attempts to make them an issue.
Aside from London’s centuries-long role as an international metropolis, the answer may have something to do with wider British attitudes. Perhaps making Khan’s religious views an issue trespassed on the British notion of playing by the rules - playing the ball and not the man, so to speak.
Or perhaps with their classically liberal and individualistic culture London and Britain have simply been better able to deal with the stresses placed on them by immigration.
Whatever the case may be, one thing is certain: for those who look on and despair at the rising tensions between ethnic and religious communities in the West - and those on all sides who seek to exploit them - Khan’s election will serve as a source of much needed hope.