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14 April 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 11:30am

The Labour dilemma of how to react to Zac Goldsmith’s London mayoral campaign

As racial politics from the Conservative camp intensifies, how are Labour figures and Sadiq Khan’s rival campaign reacting?

By Anoosh Chakelian

The nastiness of Zac Goldsmith’s campaign for the London mayoralty has presented his Labour rival, Sadiq Khan, with a dilemma.

So controversial and personal have the Conservative campaign’s insinuations been, Khan has had no choice but to call them out. But it doesn’t benefit Khan, who has been trying (with success) to run a positive campaign, to be constantly countering Tory tactics rather than carving his own path. Too much focus on Goldsmith would allow the Tories to dominate the narrative about the London mayoral election, however nasty their message is. Doing so could even inadvertently amplify the message.

At first, Labour’s campaign spoke out. One of Goldsmith’s earliest controversial mailshots last November was a leaflet describing Khan as “radical” and “divisive”. In response, Khan’s campaign accused him of a “coded racist” attack, sounding a “dogwhistle” to voters who may be uncomfortable with the prospect of a Muslim mayor.

Khan has also made more recent interventions. Earlier this month, in a comment to the Observer, he warned that approaches like Goldsmith’s would alienate “ethnic minority kids” from politics and playing “a bigger role in society”. And earlier this week, he mocked Goldsmith’s strategy in a tweet:

But as the racial politics in Tory campaign literature has proliferated – making crass assumptions about ethnic voters’ priorities – Khan has focused on his own campaign, reluctant to comment on each and every new story.

“That is Sadiq through and through,” says Uma Kumaran, a Labour political adviser who ran for parliament in Harrow East and helped the Khan campaign out over summer last year. She says it is “his character” to stay out of dirty politics.

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“He’s got a thick skin,” she adds. “He’s had to deal with a lot over the years, as a prominent British Muslim MP. And I think hopefully Londoners will see that this is the sort of mayor they want, who doesn’t fall for this sort of division, who will carry on promoting his positive vision for London.”

But this approach hasn’t pleased all Londoners. “Sadiq has just stayed out of it,” observes Davinder Singh, adviser to the Sikh Federation UK and a founding member of the Sikh Network. “He does nothing! Which, from our perspective, is not a good thing, because obviously we want Sadiq to be a bit more proactive [on attacking Goldsmith]. But if I had to choose, I would have thought Zac’s made the mistakes, Sadiq hasn’t. He’s playing it safe, I suppose.”

Other Labour figures have been more vocal, following the past week’s incessant attacks from senior Conservatives. In quick succession, Boris Johnson accused Khan of having “shared platforms – to put it at its mildest – with some pretty dodgy people with some pretty repellent views”, Theresa May claimed Khan “shared a platform with a group backed by an extremist imam”, and Michael Gove even tried to link a Khan mayoralty to “sharia law”.

Yvette Cooper wrote a piece in The Times this week, calling for a stop to such attacks: “We can’t let this go by – it’s time to call it out for what it really is before it gets worse. What started as a subtle dog-whistle is becoming a full blown racist scream.”

Khan has dismissed this Tory messaging as “a desperate dogwhistle campaign”, but has otherwise stuck to plugging his own vision for London. A Labour spokesperson comments on his approach:

“The Tories have been ramping up their nasty and divisive rhetoric over recent weeks and days. People like Yvette are speaking out because they have been genuinely shocked at how bad Goldsmith’s dog-whistling has become. We’ll continue focusing on Sadiq’s positive offer for Londoners.”