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Labour’s Impoverished Expectations (Or, Why I Cannot Join the Centre-Left in Voting for Sadiq Khan)

NOTE: In its complete form, this is quite a long post, much of which goes over ground already covered here by habibi in recent weeks. What follows is the final section. To read the whole thing (~4k words), you can find it on my blog HERE.

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In short, Sadiq Khan’s extravagant recent claim that “I have spent my whole life fighting extremism” is entirely false. On the contrary, he has supported extremists, he has aligned with extremists, he has shared their platforms, he has circulated petitions advancing their arguments and interests, he has euphemised their blood-curdling incitement as mere “flowery words”, and he has repeatedly used his position as a human rights advocate and an MP to lend extremists’ arguments a spurious legitimacy. And while he has energetically defended the rights of Al Qaeda sympathisers and operatives like Babar Ahmad and Shaker Aamer, Khan has had precious little to say about a campaign of incitement – exposed in the Wimbledon Guardian as far back as 2010 – by the sectarian organisation Khatme Nabuwwat to boycott and ostracise peaceful Ahmadi Muslims, conducted for years on his own south London doorstep, and supported by the imam of the mosque he attends.

It is astonishing that Khan’s chairmanship of Liberty and work as a solicitor is being offered in mitigation of his behaviour. In fact, it only brings discredit on Khan and on the organisations and causes he was ostensibly representing. If anyone who has been paying attention cannot see any of this, it is because they don’t want to.

But there are plenty of people who don’t want to see it. An entirely foreseeable consequence of the Corbyn leadership has been a dramatic collapse in expectations on the social democratic Left. Many writers, bloggers, activists, and MPs on the centre-Left who were among Jeremy Corbyn’s most strident critics a few months ago are now devoting considerable time and effort to making excuses on behalf of Sadiq Khan. And they are employing the same language of “dogwhistles” and “smears” to deflect the same concerns about the political Left’s tolerance and worse of radical Islam and the justifications it offers for political terror.

This might have been understandable were Khan’s principal opponent in the mayoral race a foaming Powellite demagogue. But, notwithstanding some cynical and reprehensible campaigning gambits, Goldsmith is a political centrist. The misuse of accusations of anti-Muslim bigotry and even racism to dismiss his perfectly legitimate questions about Sadiq Khan’s sketchy record on religious extremism have been both intellectually dishonest and wildly irresponsible.

In a rather histrionic article for the Times, Labour MP Yvette Cooper described Conservative attacks on Khan’s past associations as “disgraceful, divisive” and “shrill . . . a full-blown racist scream”, before blithely repeating the lie that Khan has spent a lifetime battling extremism. Her centrist colleague Chuka Umunna has likewise accused Khan’s critics of “Islamophobia” and of attacking Khan for “the crime of being a Muslim”. Both Umunna and Khan have compared Goldsmith to the American populist Donald Trump.

“If not Sadiq Khan, then tell me,” demanded civil liberties campaigner Mike Harris in Little Atoms, “when will you vote for a Muslim candidate?” This challenge says more about Harris’s own impoverished expectations than it says about Khan’s critics. After all, Harris is implying that it is unrealistic to hope for a Muslim candidate who is not burdened by the wretched record on extremism described above. It is also a straw man, since at issue is not Khan’s faith but his political judgement, the convictions – if, indeed, he has any – that have informed it, and the choices he has made, for which no remotely satisfactory explanation has yet been provided.

And it was Khan, not his opponents, who introduced religion as a matter of electoral concern to begin with, when he argued during an interview with the Guardian last July, that the very fact of his being Muslim would strike some kind of devastating public relations blow against Islamic State. (I find this prediction to be extremely dubious, but that has not prevented it being thoughtlessly repeated by his supporters.)

That interview, as it happens, also included a petty but nevertheless telling example of Khan’s capacity for casual cynicism and duplicity. Khan revealed that in a private meeting with the Prime Minister in the aftermath of 7/7, he had faced down an improbable attempt by Tony Blair to place collective blame for the atrocity on the Muslim community. Such was Khan’s furious indignation that he refused to participate in a subsequent press conference. Only it turned out that the three other Muslim MPs who attended the same meeting did not share what they described as “Khan’s self-serving revisionism”. In a letter to the Guardian, they wrote:

To misrepresent the words of a British prime minister and to mischaracterise a significant meeting in the wake of the tragic loss of 52 lives a week earlier is frankly beyond the pale, and we write today not to defend Blair but to defend the truth.

Khan’s depiction of his bravado is almost comical, and if the events of 7/7 were not so grave, it would be unworthy of response. But this was a profoundly grave episode in our history, which necessitates challenging those who would seek to exploit it for personal gain.

While we agree with Khan that it would be great to see a Muslim mayor for London – as indeed it would to see a black mayor or woman mayor – above all it would be good to see a mayor who could truly command the trust of Londoners irrespective of their colour, creed, race, or gender.

Exactly so.

At the time of writing, opinion polling suggests that Khan’s election win is now a foregone conclusion, and that Labour will be able to take some short-term comfort in rescuing the mayoralty from what looks to be a day of otherwise dismal results on May 5.

But the centre-Left may yet repent the long-term costs at their leisure. A number of hostages to fortune have been carelessly surrendered during the course of this campaign, and both the Labour Party and British Muslims risk paying a price for the diminished expectations offered in defence of Khan’s candidacy. His past associations and statements – not to mention his slippery idea of what constitutes personal integrity – have the capacity to bring further embarrassment upon Labour. And his billing as the most progressive politician the Muslim population of Britain are capable of producing will do Khan’s co-religionists no favours in the long run, especially those Muslims who have never felt inclined to launder the reputations of dangerous fanatics or to endorse their ghastly politics.

These days, of course, Khan makes much of his determination to confront Islamic extremism. “On day one I am going to put us on a war footing with these terrorists,” he has vowed. But his failure to provide a transparent account of his former views and sympathies, or an intelligible explanation of their evolution from appeasement to bellicosity, make it impossible to know for sure whether this represents a sincere transformation of worldview, an unprincipled opportunism, or just a collection of empty words. We shall now have to wait and see. But so long as the Labour Party continues to field candidates – irrespective of faith or ethnicity – who share Khan’s history of deplorable alliances and statements, it should get used to the entirely justifiable scrutiny and criticism that follows.

In the meantime, the Khan campaign has provided a painful reminder of two things. The first is the utterly dismal state of contemporary Labour Party politics. And the second is the Left’s refusal to be honest about its unfortunate recent history of fellow-travelling with radical Islam.