October 28, 2016

A new broom for South Asian politics in London?

Sadiq Khan

Sadiq Khan, now Mayor of London, moved fast to condemn Ken Livingstoneat the end of last month for his remarks about Hitler and Israel.

Hardly a surprise – a week before polling day, he would have been well aware how his opponents in the mayoral election could have exploited his failure to condemn his Labour predecessor.

The Conservatives had worked hard to suggest Mr Khan was a fellow sympathiser with those of extreme views, especially Islamic hardliners.

Politically astute, there is also no doubting the sincerity of his reaction. A week on, he has the added advantage of being Labour’s most senior directly elected politician.

Condemnation of remarks seen as anti-Semitic, delivered by the man who is now Britain’s most prominent Muslim politician would have considerable resonance – both here and abroad.

As Mr Livingstone never tired of reminding people, the voting system gives the mayor a personal mandate unmatched even by the prime minister (who, after all, is elected by 35,000 people in Witney, whereas Mr Khan was the first choice of 1,148,716 and picked up the second preference votes of a further 161,427).

Sadiq Khan

  • Born in Tooting, south London in 1970 to Pakistani immigrant parents
  • Grew up on a housing estate, one of eight children, his father a bus driver
  • His two daughters went to the same primary school as him
  • Has lived his whole life in Tooting, the constituency he has represented since 2005
  • Previously worked as a human rights lawyer
  • Served as communities minister and then transport minister under Gordon Brown, making him the first Muslim to attend Cabinet
  • Was Labour’s shadow justice secretary under Ed Miliband

The Sadiq Khan story

What next for London’s new mayor?

Trust in community leaders

There is another way in which Mr Khan can use the power of what Americans call the “bully pulpit” (a prominent position that allows someone to speak out on any issue): by tackling the harmful aspects of South Asian politics that have taken root here.

In 2000, when Tony Blair was trying to stop Mr Livingstone winning Labour’s mayoral nomination the first time around, he attended a rally in Ealing, organised by the late Piara Khabra, the octogenarian MP for Southall.

The diminutive, enthusiastic Mr Khabra proudly – and publicly – reassured the prime minister that everyone in the room would vote for the candidate Mr Blair preferred.

The vote itself was secret and the people there may well have ignored their MP’s direction, but there was some discomfort visible on the platform.

Those present understood this was not simply hubris. In Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, politics is a mass activity, in which people often trust their community leaders to make decisions for them, including advising who they should vote for.

Mr Khabra, who described himself as a secular Sikh, was one of the generation of activists who had transplanted some of that system here when they emigrated to Britain.

What happens inside a political party is a private matter, but when it affects public elections, the law becomes involved.

Vulnerable to electoral fraud

There are those who would see nothing wrong in letting someone else use their vote. But what’s known as personation is a criminal offence (as opposed to the perfectly lawful process of appointing someone as your proxy, on the understanding that they will cast what is still your vote as you direct).

This is not a specifically a Muslim issue. In the early 1990s, a colleague was investigating the “harvesting” of the proxy and postal votes of people living in care homes in one district in Cornwall. Political activists were offering to fill in the forms for the residents, but in doing so ensuring the votes went to their preferred candidate.

In January 2015, the Electoral Commission published a report examining why Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities are vulnerable to electoral fraud. It identified a number of factors, including language barriers, kinship networks and a lack of mainstream political party engagement.

Hierarchical and patriarchal by tradition, the report’s authors warned these community networks “may undermine the principle of voters’ individual and free choice through a range of social pressures such as respect for the decision of the elders”.

Mutual support, a community that believes in self-sufficiency and which has family loyalty at its heart has a lot to be admired. A harsher verdict, though, should be delivered against those who exploit it.

Undue spiritual influence

In April last year, Lutfur Rahman, the directly elected Mayor of Tower Hamlets, a borough in east London, was found guilty of corrupt and illegal practices and removed from office. The case against him vividly illustrated some of the concerns identified in the Electoral Commission report.

Richard Mawrey QC, the presiding judge who specialises in election law, delivered a devastating assessment of the way loyalty and conservativism among the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets had been exploited, in his words, because of “the ruthless ambition of one mayor.

According to the 2011 census, 32% of Tower Hamlets residents were born in Bangladesh or were children of those who were. (Bangladeshis make up 3% of the London population, and less than 1% of people in the UK.)

The most troublesome part of the case, according to the judge, was the return of an old-fashioned offence, the exercise of undue spiritual influence. It dates from a time when priests would endorse political candidates from the pulpit.

About a week before the 2014 Tower Hamlets mayoral election, the Weekly Desh newspaper published a letter in Bengali, signed by 101 imams and religious teachers. According to the translation accepted by the court it was an appeal to voters:

“As a cognisant group of the community and responsible voters and for the sake of truth, justice, dignity and development we express our unlimited support for Mayor Lutfur Rahman and strongly call upon you, the residents of Tower Hamlets, to shun all the propagandas and slanders and unite against the falsehood and injustice.”

In a culture to which faith is so central, challenging the authority of imams is controversial.

During his election campaign, Sadiq Khan made much of his willingness to confront views with which he disagreed, for example, over same-sex marriage – a position which did not endear him to some faith leaders, and which he says even resulted in death threats.

Challenging the old style of community politics may prove a good deal easier. There’s a younger generation who were born in the UK, who speak English fluently and who are less responsive to the ties of kinship.

This form of politics is already starting to break up, helped by politicians who have reached the top on merit, and can demonstrate that there is another way. The newly-elected mayor of London is an example.

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