segunda-feira, 2 de maio de 2016

London Is Calling for its First Muslim Mayor

London Is Calling for its First Muslim Mayor
And the campaign to stop him is getting ugly.

The British weekly tradition known as Prime Minister’s Questions (or more commonly PMQs), in which the prime minister is subjected to aggressive interrogation on camera from members of Parliament, is always a brutal affair. British politicians usually see the half-hour session as an opportunity to hurl abuse at one another; prime ministers have been called everything from “dodgy” to a cross between “Stalin and Mr. Bean.” But last week was the first time in memory that MPs used it to publicly call David Cameron a racist.

The session started ordinarily enough, with Cameron and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn trading arguments on the government’s education policy. But then, the prime minister waded into a row over the alleged links between Sadiq Khan, Labour’s Muslim candidate for London mayor, and Islamic extremists. The Conservatives say Khan showed a lack of judgment when he chose to speak at the same events as fundamentalists. “I have to say,” Cameron started, looking up at the benches in front of him, “I am concerned about Labour’s candidate.”

Opposition MPs reacted with genuine fury. For some time now they’ve believed that Conservatives are conducting a dog-whistle campaign in the mayoral election — trying to link Khan with Islamic extremism in the minds of those sections of the electorate they think might be wary of a Muslim mayor — and saw Cameron’s comments as just the latest salvo.

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Suddenly a shout came from an MP on the Labour benches: “Racist!” Cameron ignored it and pressed ahead. But then another Labour MP shouted it. And then another. A flash of anxiety passed over the prime minister’s face. He put on his glasses and waited a moment, but the shouting only grew more intense. “They are shouting down this point because they don’t want to hear the truth,” Cameron said at last, rather unconvincingly. But it was too late. The ritual, theatrical mockery that usually accompanies PMQs had turned into genuine moral indignation.

Things are getting ugly in the London election. What should have been a testament to the diversity of London life — a race between the son of a Pakistani bus driver and a wealthy white socialite — is descending into a toxic campaign that has raised doubts about just how tolerant the self-styled “world capital” really is.

U.S. President Barack Obama was treated to a taste of this ugliness last week when his trip to the United Kingdom to speak out against Brexit saw London’s incumbent Conservative mayor Boris Johnson cite the president’s “half-Kenyan” background as evidence of his “ancestral dislike of the British empire.” That raised eyebrows among members of the American delegation and sparked embarrassment and outrage on the British left. But it hinted at the type of unpleasant discourse London Conservatives have sunk to during this election.

As a Muslim, Khan was always likely to find himself on the receiving end of it. The fifth of eight children, his parents came to the UK from Pakistan shortly before he was born. He became a human rights lawyer, taking on several cases in which he represented people who’d been victims of police abuses. Once he went into politics, his rise was meteoric. Within three years then-prime minister Gordon Brown had appointed him communities minister, making him only the second British Pakistani to ever serve in government. He was soon promoted to transport minister, before taking the justice brief when Labour was thrown out of power in 2010. But it has been clear for some time that his real aspiration is to be London mayor.

The Tory attempt to stop him involves a campaign targeted mainly at two groups: firstly, the predominantly white voters in outer London, many of whom feel alienated from, and resentful of, multicultural inner London; and secondly, ethnic minority voters of south Asian origins who are seen — questionably or not — as naturally wary of the prospect of a Muslim mayor.

The tactics have disappointed many Conservatives, who saw candidate Zac Goldsmith as representative of the moderate wing of the party. Goldsmith is young, soft-spoken, handsome, and very rich. He has a strong track record on environmental issues and fought valiantly for a public right to recall members of Parliament. Few expected him to ever be accused of importing Donald Trump’s campaign tactics to the UK.

But this is politics and his team is seemingly banking on balancing out his weakness in inner London — whose ethnically diverse and liberal population typically votes Labour — by piling up votes in outer London. These predominantly white and generally well-to-do areas voted strongly for the Conservatives in the last mayoral election in 2012, although they are experiencing considerable change, as low-income Londoners of all ethnicities move outward due to spiraling rents in the inner city, and the white working-class votes in those outer communities have found themselves being pushed out of the city altogether.

To win over this audience, Goldsmith’s team has gone to work linking Khan to extremists wherever possible.Goldsmith’s team has gone to work linking Khan to extremists wherever possible. Cameron’s PMQs attack, for instance, highlighted his past relationship with a radical imam named Suliman Gani (although it rather backfired when it transpired that the imam actually had backed the Conservative candidate against Khan in parliamentary elections last year).

The Conservative team even went so far as to raise Khan’s record acting as a lawyer for alleged extremists, including the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan. These tactics are ridiculous, of course. Khan no more became an extremist by representing them in court than a barrister would become a burglar by taking one on as a client. Khan’s record is impeccably moderate — whether it’s on gay marriage or terrorism. But the Goldsmith strategy is not intended to be intellectually valid. It’s intended to be effective.

At the same time as he caters to outer London’s anxieties about Muslims, Goldsmith and the Tories are targeting the inner city’s ethnic minorities. They seem to be hoping that historic tensions between Hindus and Muslims in their countries of origin could make Indian voters susceptible to the same message he is aiming at white voters in outer London.

Last month, the Tory campaign machine started churning out leaflets highlighting how Khan had failed to attend a rally in London by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year. It also warned that Khan supported a wealth tax “on family jewelry.” The wealth tax does not actually exist and, if it did, there’s no reason to believe it would apply to family jewelry. But Goldsmith’s team, playing off stereotypes, clearly believed South Asian voters would find it an evocative threat.

A similar, but slightly altered leaflet was simultaneously sent out to Tamils and Sikhs. “Sadiq Khan did not use his position to speak out about Sri Lanka or the concerns of the Tamil community in Parliament,” the Tamil variant of the leaflet read. “His party [is] beginning to adopt policies which will mean higher taxes on your family and your family’s heirlooms and belongings. We cannot let him experiment with these radical policies in London.”

The word “radical” just hangs there. Is this a reference to the radical left policies of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn? Or another attempt to subtly link Khan with extremism in the public’s mind?

Either way, the leaflets raised eyebrows across the political spectrum. Ethnic minorities had been singled out and targeted by election leaflets before, but these efforts had always been positive, aimed at showing what a candidate had done for a particular community. This was the first time campaign tactics set out to capitalize on a particular group’s fears.

“I don’t think there’s anything very surprising in a city as large and complex as London in candidates sending messages to particular subgroups,” said Tony Travers, director of a London research group at the London School of Economics. “What we haven’t seen is: ‘I know what your concerns are, my competitor will do things to your particular community which you won’t like.’”

It’s plainly a divisive tactic, but it’s not clear if it’s an effective one. There is some evidence that racial prejudice is on the rise in Britain, but not in London. If anything the capital is moving in the opposite direction, with neighborhoods becoming less segregated as time goes on. Certainly, these sorts of tactics were not used by Johnson, who famously cast himself as pro-immigration during his two successful runs at City Hall. But then, Johnson’s opponent was never a Muslim.

Is there really an underlying groundswell of Islamophobia among London’s seemingly tolerant inhabitants? It’s not clear — and it’s hard to find out. People are unlikely to tell pollsters that they harbor prejudiced views. Even so, a YouGov survey last year found one in three Londoners feels “uncomfortable” about the prospect of a Muslim mayor. If that’s the result among those who’ll admit it, maybe there really is something bigger going on beneath the surface.

It certainly feels as if something ugly is in the air. The Goldsmith tactics are playing out against the background of an increasingly volatile debate over refugees arriving in Europe from North Africa and the Middle East. Just this week, Conservatives in Parliament defeated plans to accept 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees from Europe.

The tactics Goldsmith is deploying were prepared months before the election. They bear an uncanny resemblance to those used in Australian and Westminster elections by Australian strategist Lynton Crosby, whose firm, CTF Partners, is working with Goldsmith. Crosby typically relies on highly emotive right-wing topics — usually immigration and welfare — to win elections. When he was running Australian right-winger John Howard’s re-election campaign for prime minister, for instance, his candidate falsely claimed that refugees trying to reach Australia by boat were threatening to throw their own children overboard if they were not allowed into the country.

Crosby’s team doesn’t do things on a hunch. Their messaging will have been stress-tested to within an inch of its life with internal polling and focus groups. They don’t commit to a campaign strategy unless they think it’s going to work.

And yet London has long prided itself as the most supremely tolerant and mixed community in the UK, if not the world. For years, an astonishing mix of races and religions have lived side-by-side, largely without tensions. The informal racial segregation of other major cities, like New York and Paris, tends to shock Londoners when they visit. But the Goldsmith campaign is making people ask questions about whether this tolerance may be more superficial than they’d previously imagined. If even London can’t have a Muslim candidate without the election descending into race-baiting, what hope is there for the rest of the world?

One good sign is that Goldsmith’s election strategy does not, in fact, seem to be working — for now at least. Despite eight years of Johnson, London remains a city that leans Labour and poll after poll shows Khan in the lead. The site Betfair puts his current odds of winning at 90 percent.

According to Matthew Goodwin — author of Revolt on the Right, a book on the hard right in Britain — this may be because the demographics of London have shifted considerably even in just the past few years. “The old, white working-class vote that might otherwise be responding in much larger numbers to Goldsmith’s campaign just isn’t there in the way it was in 2008,” he says.

That isn’t because they have suddenly turned into liberal multiculturalists, however. They’ve simply been pushed even farther out of London to places like Essex and Kent, where support for anti-immigration parties like UKIP has consequently gone up. Where they’ve stayed, they’ve been politically crowded out by voters from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. “The demographic change has been such that a campaign seen as exclusionary and Islamophobic is not going to connect with the modern London electorate in the way it might have done 10 or 15 years ago,” says Goodwin.

So far as moral victories go, it’s not a very reassuring one. Goldsmith’s campaign is failing not because voters are immune to it, but because the type that might be have mostly left London. If London seems to be expanding and consolidating its reputation as the most diverse and tolerant place in the country, this still doesn’t bode well for Britain as a whole.

But Khan is ultimately a canny politician, and he’s managing to turn this seemingly toxic debate to his advantage. His election leaflets now feature the slogan: “The British Muslim who’ll take on the extremists.”

His response to an ongoing row over anti-Semitism in his own party has also been revealing. Several Labour figures have come under fire either for making anti-Semitic comments or seeming to excuse them. One of them was Ken Livingstone, a former Labour mayor of London, who sparked outrage by saying Adolf Hitler was a Zionist because his initial policy upon winning power was that “Jews should be moved to Israel.”

Khan was first out the gate demanding Livingstone’s suspension. “Ken Livingstone’s comments are appalling and inexcusable,” he tweeted. “There must be no place for this in our party.” It was firm, prompt, and principled.

If this is the standard of moral decision-making and political judgment we can expect from Khan as mayor, it could have a real effect on public attitudes toward Muslims — not just in London, but the country as a whole. Assuming he survives another couple of weeks of these Tory attacks, he can show the public outside of London that Muslim politicians aren’t so scary after all. And maybe that, more than changing demographics, will lead to less toxic elections in the future.

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