As the dust settles on Sadiq Khan’s victory in London’s mayoral election, attentions are turning to Zac Goldsmith’s campaign and his aggressive focus on his rival’s past encounters with Muslim hardliners. A Guardian op-ed under the headline “Forgive and forget Zac Goldsmith’s racist campaign? No chance” has been shared some 25,000 times. In the Spectator, Toby Young argued: “Zac Goldsmith has nothing to be ashamed of”. Both pieces make some good and some bad points. But I sympathise more with the first. Here is why.
To begin, some concessions. Elections are a rough-and-tumble business. Candidates should expect their characters and suitability for office to be challenged; their weaknesses to be daubed in primary colours on 10-meter high billboards. And within reason, that is good. It flushes out bad ideas and unsuitable candidates for the benefit of an electorate that has better things to do than worry about the nuances of their every policy.
The themes on which Mr Goldsmith so contentiously challenged Mr Khan are hardly irrelevant. In the past year Islamist terror attacks have hit the two European capitals closest to London. Labour clearly has ingrained problems of anti-Semitism and has form when it comes to tolerating conservative practices (like gender-segregated civic events) among its British Muslim supporters. And it is true that Mr Khan has links to certain reactionary Muslims, some of whom have expressed extremist views. His new role gives him influence over London’s schools, the front-line of the government’s anti-radicalisation “Prevent” strategy. It also gives him oversight of the Met police, as well as powers of patronage and discretionary spending which Ken Livingstone, his Labour predecessor, deployed in part to the benefit of conservative Muslims.
Yet to be valid and responsible, Tory “questions” about Mr Khan’s connections needed to do three things. Given the tensions surrounding the subject, each had to kill any suggestion that Labour’s candidate sympathised with extremism. Each needed to specify in clear and concrete terms how his past encounters affected his suitability to be mayor. And each needed an appropriate degree of prominence in a Conservative campaign that had, itself, big questions to answer about its man’s plans for transport, housing and policing.
Mr Goldsmith failed each one of these tests. First, he played up ambiguities as to what, precisely, his rival had done wrong. When pushed, he insisted that he was not trying to portray Britain’s most prominent Muslim politician as an extremist. Yet his campaign seemed to imply as much. By routinely calling Mr Khan a “radical” it blurred the Labour candidate’s support for Jeremy Corbyn, his party’s far-left leader, with his links in British Islam. A spoof Tory leaflet published in the Private Eye, a satirical magazine, captured the “I’m not racist, but…” character of these insinuations: “Think about it. Funny name, Khan, isn’t it?” The Conservative candidate was surely too worldly not to have realised how reckless this was, at a time when political outfits from the Trump campaign to the AfD in Germany were questioning Muslims’ basic compatibility with Western democracies and societies.
Second, the Goldsmith campaign failed to pin down what this had to do with Mr Khan’s suitability to be mayor. The claims it raised publicly (and the more lurid ones it quietly briefed to journalists) fall into three categories. Some had to do with his background as a civil liberties lawyer; like his links to Suliman Gani, a radical imam, his “association” with whom included angry clashes over gay marriage and Mr Khan’s involvement in a bid to boot Mr Gani out of his mosque. Other crimes like having a sibling-in-law who had flirted with conservative Islam—a transgression of which Tony Blair is also guilty—pointed to Mr Khan’s Muslim family background. The third category involved his characteristic blend, hardly unique among politicians, of naiveté and electoral opportunism. Into this final basket can be counted his role on the not-impeccable Muslim Council of Britain, his defence of Recep Ergodan’s Turkey and even those unproven suggestions that he played up his Liberal Democrat opponent’s Ahmadi (a persecuted minority within Sunni Islam) identity when fighting to keep his south-London parliamentary seat in 2010. Instead of differentiating between examples, or offering their own additional categories, Mr Goldsmith’s campaigners ground them together into a rough paste of “unanswered questions” and “extremist associations” that that they smeared all over Mr Khan.
Third, Mr Goldsmith gave such observations an undue prominence in his campaign, especially towards the end. London house-prices are on track to hit £1m by 2030 and are wrecking the capital’s social mix. On this, the Tory candidate had nothing substantive to say. On transport and policing his offer was almost as inadequate. But he seemed obsessed with Mr Khan’s relationship with his co-religionists; devoting his giant op-ed in the last Mail on Sunday before the election not to any of the bread-and-butter problems affecting Londoners but to a garbled mess of an argument that smudged together Mr Corbyn’s economic leftism, Labour’s anti-Semitism problem (of which the party’s candidate for the London mayoralty had been perhaps the foremost critic) and Mr Khan’s background, faith and personal traits.
There is a broader point here. Politicians are human and thus possess hinterlands, blind spots and inconsistencies. By definition they have an overdeveloped appetite for approval that prompts them to feign sympathy, delve into parts of society where they would not otherwise venture and humour certain audiences when they ought to avoid or upbraid them. How many Conservative or Labour candidates, confronted on the doorstep by an elderly voter ranting about “the coloureds”, would call him what he is—a racist—to his face? Moreover, no politician can exist in a hermetically sealed vacuum. Britons broadly accept that in their rulers. Some politicians have wealthy backgrounds that might inhibit their understanding of material insecurity, or religious backgrounds that make them intolerant of alternative lifestyles. Many are closer than is politic—or at least reflective of the median voter’s experiences—to bankers, strikers, bible-bashers, imams, die-hard environmentalists or other representatives of esoteric social segments.
Yet as a rule we tolerate, indeed often welcome, such florae in Britain’s civic life because their tendrils extend deep into its society. Mr Goldsmith, who has links to plenty of people unsuited to setting the agenda in City Hall, exemplifies this. His father was a hardline Eurosceptic accused of being corporate raider. His former brother-in-law, Imran Khan, has all sorts of links to Islamism through his political career in Pakistan. The magazine Mr Goldsmith edited, the Ecologist, carries articles opposing economic growth, cheering on activists who break the law and looking approvingly on third-world insurrectionists. Such connections are among the factors cited when journalists describe him, approvingly, as an “independent minded” MP.
None of this compares directly to Mr Khan’s links to Muslim radicals. But while that subject is more troubling than, say, ecological extremism, should it be treated so differently? I venture (as I did in a column in January) that the very problems of British Islam make it all the more pressing to draw its representatives into the country’s politics. Can Britain combat the self-exclusion of some of its Muslims, the anti-Semitism that infects their politics and the radicalisation of the most naive among them without prominent Muslims in public life who have first-hand experience of these problems and their causes? Can the establishment support a new generation of moderates—including the liberal, telegenic imams to whose rise Jonathan Arkush, the president of the Jewish Board of Deputies, drew my attention only last week—while dismissing Mr Khan?
It is hard to imagine a successful, liberal Muslim politician who, as she advanced from her neighbourhood to the national stage, never crossed paths with the sort of reactionary that so dominated Mr Goldsmith’s criticisms of Mr Khan. And who, given British politicians’ inclination to indulge their audiences, publicly challenged every last Islamic conservative that she encountered. Which poses the question: if London’s new mayor is the “wrong” sort of Muslim to hold a major public office, what does the “right” one look like?