Even the Observer were straight to the point in emphasising Sadiq Khan’s Muslim identity as the prominent statistic in his victory. And as any London commuter will tell you, the city’s own media certainly seemed to try their best at keeping religion and identity on the agenda. It would have taken Herculean efforts and a lot of journey naps not to have been exposed to the Evening Standard’s excitable headlines.
Much has been said these past few days in condemnation of the Tory campaign’s dangerous and disastrous tactics to draw upon the assumed prejudices of London’s electorate. Yet now that Khan has emerged with the largest personal mandate in British political history, the journey from “associate of extremists” to “our Muslim Mayor” tells us a lot about London’s attitudes to identity.
Representing London’s Muslims?
Rewind to last August when the candidates for mayor had just been selected. A poll by Survation revealed some interesting trends in how the identity of candidates influenced voting intentions.
There was a 6% increase in votes for Labour once those polled were introduced to Khan as the candidate. Not particularly noteworthy, other than that the most significant contribution to this was among the Asian community, where votes for Labour rose by a whopping 15%. Conversely, Conservative votes among Asians fell by 8% once Zac was identified as the candidate.
Perhaps this suggests that some of those within the 12.4% of London’s population who identify as Muslim, the 18.5% who identify as Asian or the 3.3% who identify as Pakistani felt a connection with someone whose name, faith and upbringing was close to their own.
At a City Circle talk on Friday, Imam Ajmol Masroor spoke of his family’s elation at London electing its first Muslim Mayor, and his seven year-old son’s immediate decision to become future mayor of London. The atmosphere there on Friday took me back to the “everything’s possible” feeling that hung in the air after Obama’s 2008 victory; the boost in confidence it brings to see someone who shares your background receive widespread public validation.
All of that said it’s a giant leap to assume that- even within the British Pakistani Muslim community- those who voted for Khan were doing so along racial or religious lines.
Islam, like any major religion, is not in the business of prescribing its believers with a political stance for every issue. As Mohammed Amin, chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, put it to me, “Islam will not provide you with any guidance regarding whether schools should be controlled by local authorities or should be academies.”
A Rebrand for London
So what about the majority of Khan’s voters who are non-Muslims? Did his identity matter much to them? Clearly the Conservative’s campaign was relying on that being the case, and there did seem to be evidence to suggest a proportion of Londoners found the notion of a Muslim Mayor unpalatable. But whether these voters stayed in, changed their minds, or voted Britain First, on voting day any negative impact of Khan’s religious identity was felt by the candidate like a feather through armour.
Khan’s campaign was very successful in making the most of the focus placed on his identity. The “Muslim who’ll take the fight to the extremists” proved an appealing image to a broad range of Londoners. And sometimes even more so among non-Muslims, where a vote for Khan became a proactive denouncement of Islamophobia.
Along with the Routemasters and the Buckingham guards, the Mayor of London is something of a city symbol, and one joy of elections is the chance for an identity makeover.
Perhaps Khan’s success was in part because Londoners spotted this rebrand potential; a shift in tone from Boris’ Englishman buffoonery to one that broadens international ideas of who we are. Already London’s image change has made a profound global impact, exposing Donald Trump in a way that Cameron’s derision never had the power to. The city has confirmed its relevance as a powerful contributor to the international conversations on race and migration.
If my Facebook friends are anything to go by, the media furore around racism in our mainstream political parties barely registered on voters’ way to the polling booth. Despite best attempts to shift policy talk into the centre pages, it seems like many of those who actually got round to voting were motivated in a first instance by their clear ideas about the way they wanted London’s housing and transport to be managed.
But it was only a few of the Khan voters I spoke to who felt his identity to be entirely by-the-by. Even for those voting primarily on an issue basis, voting for an ordinary British Asian Muslim was a secondary affirmation for their choice.
Khan the Londoner
Of course, there’s so much more to finding someone relatable than whether they share your religion or ethnic origin. And quizzing my friends revealed this quite nicely.
The multiple facets of Khan’s identity bolstered the chances of connecting to his electorate. A “South Londoner”, a “fellow British Asian”, an “estate-kid-turned-lawyer”, “a great communicator” my Khan-voting friends related to him differently depending on their own background and what they thought was important.
The over-arching theme to all of this is that- however effortless it was- Khan was successful in presenting himself as just a normal guy. As one put it, “Sadiq has the “normal factor” to such a degree that it made the racist scaremongering look silly at even the most passing glance.”
Since Khan’s victory last week, I’ve definitely felt more like a Londoner than normal. Not that I was born here, and not that I expect him to be the world’s first infallible politician, but that his victory produced a palpable sense of unity. London came together to send a powerful message at a pertinent time that tolerance and understanding is alive and well within our global microcosm.