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No-Go London


Sadiq Khan Versus the Populists

Londoners rightly cheered for diversity when Sadiq Khan won a third term as mayor.

Forbidden Hounslow. London, July 2023.

But gentrification and the housing crisis are still destroying the city. Living in the capital has never been more expensive.

This time, Khan won 43% of the vote on a lower turnout than in 2021, while his Conservative challenger, Susan Hall, won 32%.

The victorious incumbent can still brag he has never personally lost an election. Still, it’s worth unpacking the significance of this vote.

The right often overemphasises ethnicity to explain Labour’s dominance in London. A significant percentage of conservatives is convinced multiculturalism is a conspiracy to create an electorate for leftist politics.

However, the UK has not become a more progressive country as it has become more diverse. The country was more social democratic when it was almost entirely white.

There is no inherent correlation between immigration and progressivism, as evidenced by changes in British politics since the 1970s. Neoliberalism and multiculturalism rose in parallel, and nationalism was the result.

London is a Labour heartland partly because it has always been a working-class city.

Most urban centres in the UK have historically been where working-class people lived while the wealthy retreated to leafy suburbs.

Today, Labour’s electoral coalition in London consists of working-class people struggling to make ends meet and professionals locked out of home ownership.

The housing crisis has reinforced this alliance.

Gentrification is a severe problem for the population, yet the mayor’s office supports it. Sadiq Khan has done very little to stop it, making the city unlivable for an increasing number of people.

The big property developers can rely on Khan, just as they can rely on Labour. The rental crisis means a lot of voters feel they have no choice but to vote Labour.

Sooner or later, Labour will have to deliver some kind of change or face a reckoning.

Totalled Tories

It’s no surprise Khan won because of the class dynamics in London.

The Tory vote was even lower than the usual 35% that the London Conservative vote has made up since 2016. This is partly because of the candidate they ran and the party’s approach.

Susan Hall may be the least serious Tory candidate to ever run for London mayor, but the future will undoubtedly hold even more ridiculous figures. Many Londoners thought it couldn’t get worse than Shaun Bailey, who now sits in the House of Lords.

The Hall campaign ran Willy Horton-style attack ads against Khan, complete with an American voice actor mourning the death of London since Khan “seized power” in 2016.

These words evoked false memories of a violent coup d’état.

Just picture it: large Muslim men with beards carrying Kalashnikovs marching into City Hall, the Southwark building a previous mayor described as “the glass testicle”.

Then it’s gunfire and screaming before a black flag is raised above London. This is the paranoid fantasy that the anti-Muslim right has about the London mayor.

The Hall campaign knew exactly what it was tapping into, just as the Goldsmith team knew back in 2016.

It’s no laughing matter. Khan works under police protection due to the amount of abuse and death threats he receives. But it’s not just from white racists. He has become a hate figure for Hindu nationalists and Islamists as well.

Meanwhile, the right is still claiming London’s streets are dominated by Muslim hate marches every weekend.

But this kind of narrative isn’t really for Londoners. It’s for the rest of the country, specifically voters in small-town Tory seats who are in danger of turning red or yellow at the next election.

Some right-wingers have convinced themselves that the capital city is a violent, multicultural hellscape. Yet Londoners are bemused by such a vision.

Violent crime is not as high as ten or fifteen years ago. Petty crime, especially theft, is a different story, and it’s no doubt made worse by the cost of living here.

However, the perception of crime always outweighs reality. The spectacle of crime is useful for right-wingers. Fear is a potent political force at the best of times.

Nevertheless, Project Fear was not enough for the Hall campaign and will not be enough when the general election is finally called.

Labour’s Inevitable Victory

The Westminster consensus is that Labour is almost certain to form the next government, even if it is a minority or coalition government.

However, the latter prospects are not engaged enough.

Officially, Labour did well in the local elections, gaining 35% of the vote. According to Sky News, this would equate to 293 seats in a general election, which would not be enough to form a majority government.

There are some caveats here.

Local elections tend to have lower turnout than general elections, and voters tend to take more risks on independents and marginal parties in council elections. Secondly, Labour doesn’t necessarily need a huge vote swing to win a significant majority.

The opposition just needs the Conservatives to lose a massive number of votes to win power.

Thirdly, the general election could easily see low turnout because the choice is so grim for many voters.

Most people do not see much of a choice between Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak, but at this point, they would rather change the government than not. There is no space for real opposition anymore.

The good news for disillusioned voters is that these elections are over. The bad news for them is that there are plenty more to come.

Fear and Loathing Outside London

During the campaign, Paul Scully, minister for London, called Tower Hamlets a “no-go area.”

Scully is an MP for the very middle-class London suburban constituency of Sutton and Cheam. He is a self-described conservative libertarian.

Tower Hamlets is often described as a no-go zone because it has a large Bangladeshi Muslim community. The borough is home to the East London Mosque, the largest mosque in the country.

It’s also home to Brick Lane. This street is famous for its curry restaurants, but it’s still a place where people live.

It’s easy to forget this, given that it’s such a tourist cum hipster magnet. Despite all odds, Brick Lane still has a feeling of community, but gentrification is gradually extinguishing what’s left of it.

This is a story all too common in London.

Much like when Fox News claimed Birmingham is a “no-go area”, this narrative is all about Muslims. Somehow, housing estates in West London are never mentioned as no-go zones. It’s always Tower Hamlets that gets labelled.

Yet Tower Hamlets includes tourist traps such as the Tower of London and Tower Bridge.

The borough is also home to Canary Wharf, the UK’s financial district. Someone must tell the bankers that they live under Shariah law.

Cocaine and escorts are most definitely haram. Thankfully, the so-called Muslim patrols have not got around to cracking down just yet. If this is an Islamic state, it’s the quietest in history.

Meanwhile, Sadiq Khan’s victory represents a bulwark against reaction in the minds of many Londoners.

However, the mayor’s policies are very much responsible for the dissolution of their communities. For good and for bad, London is a very atomised city.

This partly produces acceptance and tolerance amid increasing creolisation and inequality.

London’s multiculturalism is such a success because we’re so good at ignoring each other and getting on with it.

Even if the city is increasingly unliveable, we keep calm and carry on, as the saying goes.

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Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.