Fixer turns chancer
Sadiq Khan has wasted no time positioning himself for the Labour leadership, notes Paul Demarty
Last Thursday’s election results fell out more or less as predicted by opinion polls over the last few weeks and months.
All eyes were, of course, on Labour, for the first serious polling-day outing in the Jeremy Corbyn era. And, for Labour, the results are mixed (again, mixed more or less in the predicted proportions). A truly awful showing was had in Scotland, with the Scottish National Party only missing out on an absolute majority of MSPs thanks to a Tory revival, which pushed Labour into third place. Despite the latter’s cosmetic left turn at leadership level - Kezia Dugdale is actually from the right - the SNP’s grip over a good slice of the traditional Labour vote remains firm. A great deal of work will be necessary to repair the damage done by Labour’s hand-in-glove alliance with the Tories over the Scottish independence vote.
The English local results (and, for that matter, those for the Welsh assembly) were lukewarm, but better than expected, especially given the colossal sabotage campaign around ‘anti-Semitism’, which seems to have had almost no impact at polling stations at all.
The most significant result, however, was in London, where Sadiq Khan won the mayoral election. It was significant for many reasons: the London mayor was the biggest single job up for grabs, apart perhaps from Scottish first minister, and strong signals had been sent out to the effect that a Labour defeat would immediately incite a coup against Corbyn. Most of all, though, Khan’s victory has presented Corbyn with his first serious rival for the top job.
On the surface, the conditions under which Khan went into polling day were similar to those for the Labour Party nationally - that is, under a barrage of scurrilous accusations as to his fitness to hold office. In fact, if anything, he has suffered more egregiously this election season than anyone else.
Truly, the Tory campaign was characterised by the most barrel-scraping, poisonous smears we have seen in recent history. Somehow, Khan - a thoroughly ‘sensible’ politician, was painted by Tory hopeful Zac Goldsmith, the cabinet and the Evening Standard almost as Osama bin Laden. The awful truth was that his sister’s ex-husband was an ex-Islamist, and that as a human rights lawyer he had defended people charged with terrorism offences. And, er, that was about it. On that basis, Londoners were supposed to feel threatened.
Goldsmith went further, however. He specifically targeted the weak seams in multiculturalism, attempting to exploit Sikh, Hindu and other bigotry against Muslims. His moves in this direction were as ham-fisted as they were contemptible - consisting, for example, in mass mailouts to everyone in London named Singh, thus touting his friendliness towards Sikhs against the implied Muslim menace, without attention to whether all these Singhs were actually Sikhs, never mind possessed of religious and ethno-communal hostility towards Muslims. The word ‘racist’ is overused by leftists and liberals these days, but I cannot think of a more appropriate one for the foul antics of the Goldsmith campaign, and many senior Tories wasted little time in excoriating it when the result became clear. Khan’s victory, if nothing else, is at least a minor triumph for common humanity.
Khan, however, is nothing if not ambitious. The period since May 5 was marked, first of all, by the great pseudo-drama of why Corbyn was not around to formally congratulate him. Since then, the new mayor has spent a great deal of time expounding on the reasons for his victory, in terms that can only be - and have, duly, been - interpreted as a coded attack on the Labour leadership.
Foremost among these little sallies is a bland op-ed for TheObserver (May 8), in which he enjoins the Labour Party to “face outwards and focus on the issues that people care about”, and “reach out and engage with all voters - regardless of their background, where they live or where they work”. Those issues in full: “the lack of affordable housing, transport infrastructure and fares, the NHS, the need for real neighbourhood policing and pro-business policies”.
The latter phrase about “pro-business policies” rather sticks out in the list, but it has been a feature of Khan’s campaign shtick since the beginning. In all, his argument, coupled with his criticism of alleged ‘pick a side’ electoral propaganda elsewhere in the country, amounts to placing his hat in the ring for the leadership, at some point in the future. By happy coincidence, his term as mayor will end just in time to sneak back into the next parliament, should Corbyn’s days look numbered in the run-up.
There have been many names touted as a potential ouster of Corbyn, but we feel that Khan is the first serious one. Most of the others are obviously identifiable with the Labour right, which is at a nadir of popularity with the broad Labour membership. They are not ‘big beasts’, although the press is often to be found puffing them up as such - hence the supposed magisterial statesmanship of that greasy gasbag, Hilary Benn, or the swooning before Dan Jarvis, apparently some kind of great soldier-philosopher.
If Khan was not already a big beast, however, he certainly is now. The mayor’s office has proven itself a fine shop window so far - Boris Johnson is the obvious comparison, viewed as little more than a lovable twit before 2008, but after eight years in City Hall, is now the most likely pretender to the Tory leadership.
As for attachment to the right, while it is impossible to call Khan’s recent statements anything other than flirtatious towards Blairites, that is not his history. He was instrumental in rallying union support behind Ed Miliband in 2010. He retains close links with the union tops, and enjoyed their enthusiastic support for his mayoral bid, as opposed to the Blairite Tessa “Kylie” Jowell, and the ill-starred left candidacy of Diane Abbott. He is good at making deals, rather as his new nemesis, Donald Trump, claims to be: a fixer rather than an ideologue, but one with at least some attachment to Labour politics beyond pure careerism.
Thus we must characterise him, in Labour terms, as a left centrist, with the emphasis on centre - a Brownite rather than a Blairite, and a courtier of Ed rather than David Miliband. In the current situation, this makes him a much more serious threat than an idiot like Benn; with the hard right isolated within the party, they must make a bloc with the centre. The centre, on Khan’s evidence, is certainly interested. If he can get the support of the right as a contender for the leadership, glowing encomia in the very papers recently smearing him as a terrorist sympathiser will surely follow.
We should point out, for form’s sake, that the conclusions he draws from his own success are entirely spurious. He claims to have been a candidate of ‘unity’, but did that message really get out, what with the whole world trying desperately to connect him, however tenuously, with Islamic State? Were his success down to his own greatness, then it should have come as a surprise. A series of bad results in London, finally overcome by a heartfelt commitment to affordable housing and business-friendliness - that would point to Khan as an electoral alchemist.
Of course, nothing of the kind is the case. Labour has been on the rise in London for many years. In general elections, the metropolitan area has fallen, borough by borough, before the red rosette. Boris Johnson’s re-election in 2012 is an outlier, not a trend, and probably does say something about him over and above the Tory Party. Otherwise, let us be serious: Tessa Jowell would have won this election, or Diane Abbott - especially given the wretched character of the weirdo, Goldsmith. It was a victory for Labour, reflecting Labour’s growing strength in the capital.
The left has taken a rather soft attitude to Khan thus far - both in widely supporting his nomination in the first place, and now that he has won. We pick, for old times’ sake, on Left Unity, which “welcomes Khan’s victory” as an implicit endorsement of Corbyn’s leadership, and a triumph over racism.1 There is truth in these things, for sure; but it is not our job to support literally anyone who triumphs in the face of bigotry. (Benjamin Disraeli must have faced some obstacles on his way to the top, as well.)
Given that Khan’s plain ambition is to reverse the tenuous gains made by the left in the wake of Corbyn’s victory last year, we ought to be gearing up to fight him.