As it says in Ecclesiastes 3:7, there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” During the campaign for London Mayor, the media approached me many times regarding Zac Goldsmith’s comments about Sadiq Khan. I emulated a Trappist monk, but now that the election is over, I can remain silent no longer.
How I voted
As a British Muslim of Pakistani ethnic origin, I was quite pleased to see Sadiq Khan win the Labour nomination for Mayoral candidate. I have also met him on many occasions, and we are both patrons of the charitable research project Curriculum for Cohesion. However, as a Conservative Party member for about 33 years, I had absolutely no doubt about wanting to get a Conservative elected as Mayor of London. In the Conservative Mayoral primary, I voted for Syed Kamall, but was happy to support any candidate chosen by the Party’s members in London.
When 2016 started, I went canvassing for Zac in January on a cold, wet morning near Gants Hill Underground, and expected to do much more of it. (I decided in 2015 that I prefer walking the pavement to telephone canvassing as it is much better exercise.) Then something changed.
With growing intensity, Zac began to paint Khan as a closet extremist. The words were always carefully chosen (sensible when dealing with a lawyer) and emphasised Khan’s alleged lack of judgment regarding who he had shared platforms with in the past. However, the underlying message was clear to me and to everyone else who heard it. We were meant to understand that Khan kept bad company with extremist Muslims and could not be trusted with the safety of London. On top of that, leaflets were targeted specifically at London Hindus and Sikhs, superficially about Khan’s tax policies, but clearly seeking to divide Londoners along religious and ethnic lines.
It was not just me reading Zac’s messages this way. Every Muslim member of the Conservative Party who has discussed the campaign with me has understood the messages in this way, as have many, probably most, non-Muslim commentators. I concluded that Zac had abandoned any attempt to appeal to Muslim voters, and was instead seeking to maximise his vote amongst non-Muslim voters by attempting to frighten them about “Khan, the alleged Muslim extremist.”
Despite all this, I voted for Zac a week or so before polling day, as I have a postal vote. I did so because I consider Khan’s policies, especially on transport, to be rubbish. I publicised how I voted, and why, on social media. However, beyond that I could not develop the motivation to do a single days campaigning for Zac after January, because I was disgusted (I considered milder words, but decided to be frank) with the tone of his campaign and his repeated, and risible, attempts to smear Sadiq Khan.
My wife, who has been a Conservative Party member for about 10 years, and attends each Party Conference with me, was if anything even more outraged. She could not bring herself to vote for Zac at all, and exercised her democratic right to vote for Khan. She did however vote Conservative for the Greater London Assembly.
Winning isn’t everything
I am well aware of Charlie Brown’s retort that “Losing isn’t anything.” However, the classicists in our Party will know what Pyrrhic victories are.
Since David Cameron became our Party’s leader in 2005, helped by my vote in the leadership election, he has worked very hard to detoxify our brand, from hugging a hoody to living for two days with a Muslim family to bringing in equal civil marriage. It has worked. From being regarded by many Muslims as nothing more than the party of Enoch Powell, we won the votes of 15 per cent of British Muslims in 2010, rising to 25 per cent in 2015, with the trajectory being clearly upwards.
Much of this has been imperilled by the Zac campaign and we have many elections to fight in the future more important than the London Mayoral election of 2016. If we want to avoid the likely fate of the US Republican Party, we have to appeal to Britons of all ethnicities and of all religions and none.
Fortunately, for most of the campaign the Prime Minister stayed above the attempts to smear Khan, apart from two interventions in PMQs, both of which were in my view unwise.
Careless talk costs lives
Ironically, in my opinion Zac’s attempts to smear Khan have probably increased our risks of suffering terrorism. ISIS are perpetually seeking to radicalise and recruit young British Muslims to their cause. At the margin, I believe there is a risk that young impressionable British Muslims who witnessed Khan being smeared in this manner will thereby be made more vulnerable to radicalisation than they were before. I cannot quantify the scale of Zac’s impact, but have no doubts about its directionality. (Just ask yourself if you think Zac’s tactics decreased the risk of radicalisation.)
A good election to have lost?
I am an inveterate optimist and see silver linings in every cloud.
If Zac had won, for the next four years of his Mayoralty it would have rankled with most British Muslims that he won by smearing an upstanding loyal British Parliamentarian who happens to be Muslim. Since Zac lost, his campaign will soon recede into oblivion, a footnote in history, rather like the Conservative campaign in Smethwick in 1964 which I am old enough to remember even though Zac and Khan were not even born then. Accordingly, the Conservative Party’s appeal to British Muslims should recover rapidly after this debacle, provided we learn from it.
The same is true of the radicalisation effect. Whatever recruitment traction ISIS could get from the Zac campaign will vanish in the warm afterglow of London, the world’s most important city, electing as Mayor a citizen who is a Muslim of Pakistani ethnicity. That would not be the case if the smear campaign had succeeded.
Finally, Khan’s victory should help to keep Jeremy Corbyn in power. Long may he continue to lead the Labour Party!