Londoners go to the polls Thursday to elect a new mayor, in a bitterly fought election that has laid bare tensions and divisions within British party politics.
Polls show Labour’s Sadiq Khan, a former government minister, poised to defeat Conservative Party candidate Zac Goldsmith, the environmentalist scion of a billionaire businessman, after a campaign marred by accusations of smears related to Khan’s Muslim faith and now, a worsening feud in the Labour Party over anti-Semitism.
Ken Livingstone, Labour’s last mayor of the capital, was suspended from the party last Thursday after defending a Member of Parliament(MP) who shared an anti-Semitic meme on her Facebook page. In lending support to Naz Shah, Livingstone claimed that Hitler had been a Zionist before he “went mad,” and then repeatedly refused to retract or apologize for his remarks.
Others in the Labour Party were apoplectic at the onetime mayor’s comments, coming just days before a mayoral election the party is in good position to win, and also crucial local elections. Footage showing red-faced Labour MP John Mann calling Livingstone a “disgusting Nazi apologist” outside party headquarters went viral on Friday.
Meanwhile, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn — like Livingstone, a product of Labour’s far Left — was accused of failing to take a strong enough stand against anti-Semitism, which for some in the fringes of the liberal movement is acceptable in the context of Israel’s policies towards Palestinians.
Among his critics was Khan, who moved to distance himself from Corbyn and his party over the weekend. “I am an advocate of the Labour leadership … actually receiving some training on this stuff as clearly they don’t understand what racism is, and there is no hierarchy when it comes to racism,” he told The Observer. “There are too many examples in our party of people having these views, and action does not appear to have been taken quickly enough.”
The affair threatens to widen the rift between the party’s establishment and its left wing, already yawning in the wake of Corbyn’s elevation from the party’s margins to its leader last year. If Labour suffers historic losses in Thursday’s council elections, as some polls suggest, murmurs of rebellion among the anti-Corbynites will surely become raised voices.
While the Conservative Party is no doubt overjoyed at Labour’s troubles, their own London Mayor has been doing his part to tarnish his party’s standing as his term in office comes to an end. Already under fire for what some consider his opportunistic support for the U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union, Boris Johnson last month made reference to”part-Kenyan” U.S. President Barack Obama’s “ancestral dislike of the British empire.” Howls of fury followed, with many comparing Johnson to another towheaded, politically incorrect leader — Donald Trump — making hay from Obama’s racial heritage.
Like Trump, however, Johnson remains popular, and Goldsmith has suffered somewhat campaigning in his shadow. A photograph of the Tory candidate gingerly holding a pint in both hands during a campaign event with the mayor was widely ridiculed, and held up as evidence of his distance from the hoi polloi. Goldsmith, the son of tycoon Sir James Goldsmith, seemingly fits the stereotype of the monied Conservative ruling class — especially in contrast to Khan, who has wasted no opportunity to remind voters his Pakistani immigrant father was a bus driver.
Goldsmith’s campaign has not always conducted itself entirely honorably either, courting controversy with sly, dog whistle references to Khan’s religious affiliation. Leaflets sent only to Indians, Tamils and Sikhs suggested Khan could not be trusted, including a dubious claim that he might raise taxes on family jewelry if elected. Goldsmith has repeatedly linked Khan to Muslims accused of extremist beliefs although Khan points out, as lawyer he defended clients he did not agree with. It’s not doing much to dispel the stereotype of the Conservatives as the “nasty party.”
But many in that party will be less concerned by the likely loss of London to a Labour mayor than they will be about turnout on Thursday. If all this negativity drains enthusiasm in local elections, it could spell bad news for Prime Minister David Cameron, who will need voters to turn out in droves on June 23 if his ‘remain’ side is to emerge victorious in the Brexit referendum. Britain’s ugly political season isn’t over yet.