The racial politics of Zac Goldsmith’s London mayoral campaign

The Tory candidate has been accused of racial profiling and stereotyping the capital’s Asian communities. Is this divide-and-rule politics, or legitimate voter targeting?

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Zac Goldsmith, the Tory candidate for London mayor, has been accused of running a campaign that exploits racial divisions. Criticisms range from the dismissal of his leaflets – which specifically target the capital’s individual Asian communities – as merely patronising, to a condemnation of his campaign tactics as downright colonial.

Votes from middle-class immigrants, particularly Indians in swing boroughs such as Ealing and Harrow, could play a crucial role in deciding who is elected mayor. So is the focus of Goldsmith’s campaign a demonstration of precision-targeting key voters, or of divide-and-rule? I spoke to politicians, Londoners, community figures, and representatives from both the Tory and Labour mayoral campaigns to find out.

What are the accusations?

Three specific criticisms of the racial dimensions of Goldsmith’s campaign have developed in recent weeks.

The first is that his leaflets and other campaign literature – including a letter to Gujarati households from David Cameron – make reductive and condescending assumptions about the priorities of Indian and Sri Lankan voters.

For example, there is an emphasis on business and protecting family jewellery in his leaflets:

And there is a reminder to voters that both he and David Cameron met the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he came to the UK:

There is also a focus on protecting the Golden Temple in literature for Sikhs:

The second is that he is trying to point out (in not so many words) that Sadiq Khan is a British Muslim from a Pakistani background. Opponents of Goldsmith claim that this is a “dog whistle” strategy, done through describing Labour’s wealth tax idea as a “tax on family jewellery”, and highlighting that Khan did not attend the Modi visit.

Goldsmith has also called Khan “radical”, and has defended comments by the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon that Khan is a “Labour lackey who speaks alongside extremists”.

The third is that campaign literature targeted at certain voters has been bungled. For example, not everyone with the surname “Patel” has a Gujarati Hindu background; the Guardian found a Barbara Patel, who had received the Cameron letter, as proof of this – her husband is from a lapsed Muslim family, and she has Jewish roots.

And not every Indian family in London has typical middle-class Hindu credentials. Multiple Sikh media outlets have pointed out Goldsmith’s “ill-informed and arrogant mailshot”, treating Sikhs like Hindus. Daily Sikh Updates wrote:

“Goldsmith assumed all the 120,000 Sikhs were middle-class Hindus, running family businesses, concerned about burglaries and possessions whilst welcoming to Modi’s UK visit last year.”

One Tory source tells me it is as if the campaign has “found a bumper book of surnames” and just spewed mailouts to them without much nuance.

 

Is this just part of campaigning?

The Goldsmith campaign is steadfast in its belief that it has done nothing wrong. Such targeted leaflets are just “modern campaigning”, sources say. They claim the focus on jewellery and gold merely reflects the real concerns of certain communities, compounded by Metropolitan Police burglary warnings to Hindus around the time of Diwali, for example. Asian gold (sometimes called Indian gold) is a broad term that covers jewellery and other trinkets bought and held by mainly south Asian families, which is often passed down through the generations or bought as wedding gifts. 

A dig around campaign leaflets from both sides in recent years will bring up all sorts of race-related references. Here’s an example of a 2010 general election leaflet targeted at the Muslim community in Khan’s constituency of Tooting, which is very direct in what it believes Muslim voters’ priorities to be:

Goldsmith himself has defended his descriptions of Khan as “radical” and “divisive”, telling the Guardian:

“He is a fundamentally partisan figure in politics. These are terms that I use and will continue to use to describe Sadiq Khan.”

But Tory figures with ethnic minority backgrounds have been vocal about Goldsmith’s campaign, insisting that this isn’t how it should be done.

Binita Mehta, the Conservative Group Leader at Watford Council, wrote a scathing piece in the Telegraph, slamming his approach as “clumsy”, “reckless”, and “patronising”:

“Elections are all about savvy strategising to maximise limited resources. But, in pursuing the suburban Indian vote, for example, it must be recognised that a blanket approach can seem stereotypical and patronising, and will certainly turn people off. I hate to have to say this but obviously we "BMEs" are much more sophisticated than these targeted letters suggest.”

Shazia Awan, a Tory activist who was the party's parliamentary candidate in Leigh in 2010 and the first Asian woman to address Conservative party conference in Wales, tells me she “was shocked” when she received one of Goldsmith’s leaflets aimed at the Tamil community (her parents are East African/Asian). “If any organisation was behaving in such a divisive, hateful and patronising way, they would be held to account and subject to serious scrutiny,” she says. “The Goldsmith campaign has shown itself to have a very ugly side . . . it is playing upon deep-rooted cultural sensitivities in the hope of making some fickle ill-deserved gains.”

She adds:

“It has made me feel that there is no place for anyone from a BME background in this party at the moment, because what they are doing is, in my opinion, racial profiling, and I find that to be divisive and racist . . . if the rhetoric running through the party is currently saying it’s OK to racially profile, it’s OK to be part of turning Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims against each other, I don’t know how anyone can be proud to defend that kind of thinking.”

Awan, who remains a Conservative but will find it “impossible” to back Goldsmith’s campaign, also decries the description of Khan as “radical”. She calls it a “shameless tactic to align Sadiq Khan with extremists in people’s minds, because he happens to be a British Muslim. It’s disgraceful and beyond comprehension.”

Who’s behind it?

Goldsmith’s communications chief insists that Lynton Crosby, the Australian spin doctor who masterminded the Conservative election win, isn’t involved. But this isn’t quite true. The campaign is using Crosby’s firm, CTF, even if the man himself isn’t officially at its helm.

In his Guardian interview, Goldsmith hints that it wasn’t all his (Goldsmith's) idea:

“This is not a normal campaign for me . . . It’s not enjoyable. I have never run a campaign that was involved any kind of attacking in my life, but it is necessary in this campaign because I am up against somebody who poses a real danger to London.”

Politicians of all stripes refuse to believe that Goldsmith is the type of character to concoct such a campaign. Even Respect candidate and general troublemaker George Galloway tells me, “this is the Crosby style of electioneering. And Zac’s actually far too gentlemanly to decide to get down and dirty on his own. I'm blaming the Australian myself!”

This view extends to Sadiq Khan’s campaign. A source says, “It’s quite clear what they’re doing – Goldsmith is in thrall to Lynton Crosby’s operation and No 10, and they’re directing this. He’s too weak to stand up to them. They are trying to divide London’s communities along faith and race lines. It’s hugely depressing.”

What do voters think?

One 25-year-old voter with the surname Patel, who lives in Ealing with his parents who are Gujarati, received a letter “targeted at Indians generally”. He usually votes Labour and is offended by the strategy, but thinks it could work, particularly among the older generation. “I thought it was really lazy, and kind of racist, I suppose, wasn’t it?” he tells me. “It’s not the most politically correct thing. It made a huge assumption that everyone has loads of gold lying around.”

He adds:

“It probably does resonate with people, because people are concerned by crime. Some people do have gold trinkets or whatever in their homes. But making a public statement about that and suggesting it’s the only issue you care about as an ethnic minority voter is lazy and shows a sense of massive generalisation – that as a racial group, we’re just concerned by specific things, which is not correct. You wouldn’t do that to white people in the same way.

Patel believes that he was meant to infer from the letter that Khan is Pakistani and Muslim. “It’s about playing on people’s subconscious prejudices, especially older people,” he says. “The India/Pakistan thing is a big thing. Someone somewhere has realised that most Indian people don’t like Pakistani people – in the same way that Greeks don’t like Turks, or whatever – and said ‘we can definitely play on this’. That wouldn’t be how you’d conduct any other campaign. This is literally purely happening because Sadiq Khan is Pakistani. If he was English, it wouldn’t resonate with people.”

He also has concerns about the focus on Modi. “It’s very clever, because a large proportion of the Indian community does support Modi and the India visit. It was a big deal last year, especially for Gujaratis, because Modi is a former chief minister of Gujarat. But again, there are a proportion of Indians who think he’s not the bee’s knees.

“And also, as a young person who’s Indian, I don’t really care that David Cameron went to meet him, or didn’t go to meet him. I’m Indian, but I live in this country. It just assumes that you’re only going to vote for someone because you care loads about the domestic politics of another country, which is weird.”

Uma Kumaran, who ran for Labour in her home constituency of Harrow East last May, has a similar view. She is Tamil and received leaflets warning that family trinkets would not be safe with Khan. “It’s the worst of the politics of the subcontinent. And second generation Asians don’t really fall for this stuff, but for my parents’ or grandparents’ generation this sort of stuff can scare people, or get people talking and plant seeds of doubt . . . I wouldn't say it would work, but it does have some degree of cut-through.”

But Anjana Patel, a National Congress of Gujarati Organisers executive committee member, who lives in Harrow – where she used to be a Conservative councillor – defends the leaflets:

“The Indian community, or Gujarati community, are not solely interested in jewellery and meeting Modi and such issues – that is inaccurate,” she says, but adds: “I feel it is time that people are made aware of how important the Gujarati Hindu community are as far as votes are concerned. Up until now, it's been taken for granted, so I think it is very good that we are finally being recognised in the media.”

She calls Modi’s visit “a proud moment for British Indian/Gujaratis” and believes, “up until now, I don’t think anybody has made any effort to woo the Gujarati Indian community. So I think it is a positive step forward for us,” adding:

“Think about it, the Gujarati community has always been recognised as a peaceful, law-abiding and hardworking community, which hasn’t been recognised before. David Cameron now acknowledges this and so does Zac. It's a good thing.

“Yes, there was a time when the majority of [our] people were leaning towards the Labour party,” she adds. “But what has the party done for our community in recent years?”

Davinder Singh, adviser to the Sikh Federation UK and a founding member of the Sikh Network, has the opposite view. He believes Goldsmith’s flyers to Indian households are “a very clear own goal”:

“It’s either the result of very poor advisers or a knee-jerk reaction,” he says. “This type of campaigning does suggest an air of being pretty desperate, given the diversity of London – it should be about Londoners, it’s not just about Hindus, it’s not just about Sikhs . . . Making a reference to the Golden Temple, for example. I reckon if you asked 100 Sikhs what he was talking about, 80 of them might be quite confused!

“And lots of people were born here. I see myself as British. It’s a very dangerous way of putting things out – it might put people off, and the majority community might be quite upset.”

Call it crass, call it divisive  the question now seems not to be whether Goldsmith’s campaign is being perceived as racist, but whether these messages will work.

> Now read Tory activist Shazia Awan on being put off politics, as a BME candidate, by the Goldsmith campaign

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.