Zac Goldsmith's failure should sound the death knell for dog-whistle campaigning

The Conservative campaign in London has undone David Cameron's efforts to detoxify his party.

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If Zac Goldsmith’s bid for London mayor was a dog whistle campaign in a city with no dogs, as one wag put it, then the Conservative’s failure can also be explained by an over-optimistic belief that the toxicity associated with the Tory brand in the past had been consigned to the historical dustbin.

Perhaps Goldsmith’s campaign chiefs were thinking too much about post-general election headlines on how well they did with ethnic minorities in the UK to look more closely at 2015 figures showing that Labour registered double-digit increases in their share of the vote in London’s most diverse neighbourhoods.

The politics of division was comprehensively routed by London’s multicultural demographics. Sadiq Khan deserves credit for attempting to rise above the slurs of Islamic extremism by association. In doing so he showed faith in the good nature of multicultural London to win out over negativity. But he also understood something about the capital that Sir Lynton Crosby’s PR firm evidently didn’t.

Political campaigns succeed or fail within the context of their brand, which is informed by the institutional memory of voters. It takes perhaps two generations or more to shake off ingrained attitudes. Conservatives' recent success increasing their share of the ethnic minority vote does not insulate them from the suspicion they could ‘revert to type’ as the ‘nasty party’.

Lord Ashcroft’s 2012 study of BME attitudes towards his party showed that the image of Enoch Powell was still fresh, 44 years after his infamous Rivers of Blood speech. The notorious Smethwick campaign came up, 48 years after posters saying ‘If You Want a N***r for a neighbour vote Labour’.

David Cameron has led significant efforts to detoxify the brand, welcoming 15 BME Tory MPs and kick-starting policy moves to address racial inequality. The Tories increased their share of the BME vote from 16 per cent in 2010 to over 25 per cent in 2015, still significantly behind Labour but catching up fast. The trends are positive; looking back the Tories were 10 per cent in 2005 and 6 per cent in 2001. Clearly the Conservatives have been moving in the right direction so far.

Yet the questions remains whether this increased BME support is permanent or temporary and subject to the party continuing to prove they are not racist. We await more detailed ward-level data from London Elects but it is possible to draw some conclusions from the assembly results. The figures suggest that Goldsmith may have abruptly reversed the positive trends, perhaps even losing an election he could have won. If so, the most likely explanation would be because the negative campaign against Khan rebooted old memories of the Tories toxic brand on race.

There is a question of whether sensitivity to negative political campaigns on race is spreading from the BME population to the White population as social media and more nuanced news coverage help explain what why offence is being caused. As our multicultural society grows up it is inevitable that understanding about race will continue to expand, and that means negative campaigns win ever less support from White voters. In other words, the proportion of dogs responding to the whistle is set to shrink faster than the rising BME population.

How much damage has Goldsmith’s campaign inflicted, not just in London but nationally, what impact could this have on the next general election?

On first preference mayoral ballot – perhaps the best indicator of real support - Goldsmith lost a quarter of the Tory vote (35 per cent to Boris Johnson’s 44 per cent in 2012) while Labour increased their share (40 to 44). City Hall and the current voting system hasn’t been in existence long enough to draw conclusive trends or to work out the ‘real’ level of party support excluding particular factors, like Boris’s personal popularity.

However, if Goldsmith had taken 60 per cent of the white vote in London and one-third of the BME vote – in line with the 2015 general election result – he would have actually beaten Khan, albeit by the narrowest of margins, instead of losing by over 300,000 votes. In other words, the difference between Mayor Goldsmith and Loser Goldsmith was his own campaign.

Theoretical assumptions rarely give us a complete picture of how it might have played out in reality, but the lessons for the Tories are stark. As ethnic minorities continue to set up home in marginal seats and the BME population edges towards 20 per cent by 2020 according to projections, the Tory leader probably needs to increase their share of the BME vote even higher than in 2015 to win another term in office. Going backwards is not an option.

The Conservatives certainly cannot afford a resurrection of their old nasty party image. Goldsmith’s campaign will have refreshed memories of the past, and Tory strategists will have to work doubly hard to assess and repair the damage.

The extent of reputational damage in multicultural London becomes clearer when looking at individual assembly constituencies. The West Central seat, incorporating the City of Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Kensington and Chelsea has returned a Tory assembly member since City Hall was established at the millennium. The Conservative vote collapsed by 10 per cent from 2012 relative to Labour.

Barnet and Camden, the focus of some media attention around the impact of Labour’s anti-Semitism rows, saw Labour’s Andrew Dismore hold his majority. While in Brent and Harrow, the target of Goldsmith’s ‘Hindu Jewels’ leaflets suggesting that Khan wanted to tax their family jewellery, witnessed a very moderate rise in Conservative support to 34 percent but significantly below the 63 percent non-white population.

If party communications chiefs have any sense then the London campaign will have marked the death knell of dog whistle racism as a weapon in the armoury of any serious party aspiring to lead the country. The challenge for Cameron is to lead from the front in driving government work on tackling racial inequalities, and ensuring that his party are never seen as ‘reverting to type’ ever again.

In the capital Conservatives could respond to Runnymede’s London Inequality report, which highlighted the unequal outcomes for BME’s in employment, housing, education and health. Certainly they need to do something to repair the reputational damage, and memories of past indiscretions on race, if they are to stand a chance in 2020.

Dr Omar Khan is Director of the Runnymede Trust. He tweets at @omaromalleykhan

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