Five years ago, the first election for London Mayor after the “Ken and Boris” era was electrified by controversy. It emerged that Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith’s campaign was targeting voters with Indian surnames with election material warning that Labour was planning a tax on family jewellery – a message designed to create alarm within that group of Londoners.
There was other material with the same objective: one leaflet pointed out that Khan hadn’t attended the welcome rally for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Wembley Stadium the previous year, while Goldsmith had. Ethnic and religious fault-lines became a campaign theme as Goldsmith, while insisting Khan wasn’t himself an extremist, went on the attack against the Muslim former human rights lawyer for giving “oxygen – over and over and over again – to those who seek to do our police and capital harm.” He claimed: “Not everyone in the Muslim community has provided cover for extremists.”
With Mayor Khan, as he became, now seeking a second mayoral term, Londoners from different South Asian communities recall their discomfort with the “Hindu jewels” leaflets. Young Sikh Conservative Harsimrat Kaur, who grew up in Walthamstow, still remembers “that stupid literature. I remember writing an email to the people at Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) who approved that”.
Her concerns were not only that the messaging was clumsy and crude, but also that drawing attention to South Asian cultural practices around valuables created a security risk. Salman Farsi, head of press at the East London Mosque at the time and later a regional press manager for Labour, says the jewellery claim also sowed doubts in the minds of some in the Bangladeshi community, with whom gold is popular.
Senior London Conservatives concurred that the Goldsmith campaign’s cultural divides strategy – which kept backfiring, as when a “repellent” Muslim cleric turned out to have backed the Conservatives and met Goldsmith – was a serious error. “London has the most sophisticated electorate on the planet,” says veteran London Assembly Member Andrew Boff. “They don’t like that stuff.”
Former Tory mayoral candidate Steve Norris says Goldsmith let himself down by having “allowed himself to be controlled by CCHQ” and have statements issued in his name that were “jarringly out of character” for an internationalist charmer with a sister and in-laws named Khan. And former Conservative Muslim Forum chair Mohammed Amin, a Liberal Democrat since 2019, observes that with such an approach, “It’s not just [London’s] one million Muslims that you alienate. Hindus and Sikhs can see you’re doing it. You’re alienating vast swaths of young metropolitan liberals, who are equally turned off”.
We don’t have data precise enough to drill down to the specific electoral preferences of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims in 2016. But figures we do have show the story of the election was not Khan sweeping to victory on a heightened wave of ethnic minority votes. On the contrary: Khan’s 30 percentage point lead over Goldsmith among non-white voters didn’t reach Ken Livingstone’s 44 point lead in the election he lost to Boris Johnson in 2012.
Rather, it was Khan’s strikingly stronger performance among white voters compared to Livingstone four years earlier that delivered him to City Hall. He finished on level pegging with Goldsmith by that measure, whereas Livingstone was around 20 points behind Johnson with this group in 2012. There were modest improvements in the Conservatives’ overall ethnic minority vote in 2016 compared to 2012, which think tank British Future interprets as Goldsmith hanging on to Asian and black voters who had backed David Cameron at the 2015 general election.
Beware all rash generalisations around South Asian voters, warn the experts. They are “as diverse as the general population”, says SOAS international relations specialist Dr Meera Sabaratnam, who describes them as encompassing Conservative-leaning “trading Asians”, poorer communities that have historically looked to Labour, and socially liberal younger people for whom the Tories are anathema (leaving aside differences of religion, nationality and caste).
According to Manchester University Professor Maria Sobolewska, political attachments are passed on more strongly from one generation to the next in South Asian than white British communities, but this pattern is changing and has political implications. Claims of a coherent bloc vote are often over-played: for example, Deltapoll research on the 2019 general election found no strong relationship between the number of voters of Indian ethnicity in a constituency and the result.
When it comes to community engagement, Khan is “terribly good at placing himself where you expect to see a Mayor of all London,” acknowledges Boff, a staunch critic. Malini Mehra, chief executive of environmental legislators’ organisation GLOBE International and a member of Khan’s London Sustainable Development Commission, praises Khan’s “ecumenical interest in all faiths and none”. Within days of his election, he was sworn in in Southwark Cathedral and took part in a Jewish community event commemorating the Holocaust. Photos of him on a visit to Neasden Temple, which he called one of his favourite places in London, went viral.
In office, Khan has attended more than 200 faith and community-based events. International media hailed him as London’s first Muslim Mayor, but he has an appeal to migrants and their descendants more broadly. He’s “a very bog standard Londoner, a religious [believer] but not particularly religious,” says Meera Sabaratnam. From a Sikh perspective, Harsimrat Kaur says Khan is admired for showing respect to his parents – the Sikh principle of izaat – for helping him achieve success.
Despite being known for sparring with President Trump, Khan has avoided taking a stance on many international questions, including communal South Asian politics, which can be played out in London. He was somewhat slow off the mark to engage over protests outside the Indian High Commission over Indian government actions in Kashmir, before responding to Labour London Assembly Member Navin Shah’s request to liaise with the High Commission, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and the Home Office over the matter.
Labour campaigners report no signs of social media activity targeted at Khan by Indian nationalist sympathisers, as was aimed at Labour during the 2019 general election campaign. Nevertheless, in some Gujarati Hindu communities Khan faces difficulty with voters who are vehemently critical of Labour’s national stance towards the Modi government under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, don’t hit it off with him on a personal level, or feel his record in office has been a disappointment. “It’s a bit of everything, a cocktail really,” says Kenton West Labour councillor Ajay Maru of these problems.
Khan’s appointment of Indian fintech entrepreneur Rajesh Agrawal as Deputy Mayor for Business might have been seen as a friendly nod to London Hindu Indians, but it’s unclear if many of them know who Agrawal is, while a not uncommon criticism of the Mayor is that he is personally aloof from voters and their concerns, surrounded by his advisers.
Other problems are how Khan might positively engage with London’s tens of thousands of South Asian business owners struggling with the increased congestion charge, and similar numbers of South Asian private hire drivers hit with his flagship policy of expanding the Ultra Low Emission Zone. A strong argument could be made that “South Asian” voter priorities should be seen primarily in terms of worries around transport, crime and support for business, ahead of questions of identity and international politics.
Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey has forged links with Gujarati Hindu groups – for example, by attending an event with businessman Rami Ranger and other community figures during last month’s Holi festival. Asian Voice has reported him promising to do “everything in my power” to protect the Indian High Commission, which has been the scene of various protests, including over Kashmir and, in December, by Sikhs sympathising with farmers objecting to new laws in India. Bailey’s assurance followed a Zoom call with the High Commissioner of India. “If necessary, this would include banning demonstrations that are deemed to put staff and visitors at risk,” he said. Critics say Bailey should instead have affirmed the right to protest and suggested demonstrations be held at an alternative location.
He has apologised for remarks in his 2005 No Man’s Land pamphlet for the Centre for Studies about Muslims’ and Hindus’ capacity to integrate, saying they were from a time before he was formed as a politician, though these haven’t been forgotten by some, including Khan. In last month’s BBC London News debate, the Mayor aimed a parting shot at his rival after Bailey had paid him a compliment: “I’ve got to be honest – some of the things Shaun has said about Eid, about Diwali, about women, about girls, about multiculturalism, I get deeply upset by.”
Politicians of all parties face continuing challenges attracting support from South Asian Londoners, including younger voters disillusioned by heads of community hierarchies mobilising backing for particular candidates – an issue best addressed, suggests Operation Black Vote founder Lord Simon Woolley, by excellent citizenship education.
Navin Shah is one of three Indian heritage Assembly Members. He is standing down from his Brent & Harrow seat this time, and is succeeded as Labour candidate by Krupesh Hirani. Shah says Hindus “tend not to be vocal,” but adds that his children’s generation “are more demanding”. Conservatives may now be uncomfortable with appealing to sectional interests and prefer to look beyond ethnicity. The Liberal Democrats have fielded numerous South Asian candidates, and there are Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims standing for the smaller Reform UK, Rejoin EU and Women’s Equality parties on London Assembly lists.
There are many different approaches to engagement and representation in 2021 but, in contrast to 2016, no overt personal attacks or audible dog whistle tactics so far.
This article was updated on 9 April 2021 to give a fuller account of Bailey assurance to the High Commissioner of India.
Photograph: Shree Jalaram Mandir, Greenford, by Paresh Solanki.
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