The polls are showing the two leading contenders for London mayor – Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson – running neck and neck. Predictably, sections of the rightwing media have started reaching for the proverbial dog whistle; playing politics with race and religion and appealing to a diminishing band of bigoted voters who respond to the politics of fear. They are painting a picture of the East End which doesn’t exist – but which aims to frighten the voters in suburbia down to the polling stations on 3 May.
Last week the Evening Standard, in a re-run of its 2008 election coverage, implied Ken was in cahoots with homophobic, antisemitic, Islamic extremists. This time it is Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman who is its Muslim bogeyman.
The Standard made a number of serious and misleading claims that were immediately picked up by other newspapers. It said Ken is allying himself to forces in Tower Hamlets that want to see women veiled, and are hostile to Israel and Jews. In fact, Mayor Rahman and councillors such as myself have a strong record of campaigning against these forces. He – and we – have worked with religious leaders of all faiths to counter racism and homophobia. Together, we led the way in stopping the far right English Defence League from taking to our streets last September. By the end of the month, Mayor Rahman had become the first Asian mayor to open a local gay pride event. Minorities in Tower Hamlets, recognising they share a common experience of bigotry, work together against prejudice rather than fuelling it.
Livingstone’s offence has been to offer support to Rahman against that rightwing backlash, after he was barred from being Labour’s candidate for mayor in Tower Hamlets despite being selected by local members. To many observers at the time, this was a typical self-inflicted wound by Labour. Throughout the Blair and Brown years, the party leadership repeatedly blocked popular local figures who, like both Livingstone and Rahman, took their case to the people – and won. The party moved against Rahman after a handful of his opponents claimed he had links with religious extremists, a suggestion that those of us who have a strong record in opposing religious fundamentalism simply find risible.
The idea – also flagged up by the Evening Standard – that changing his designation from Labour to independent made Rahman an offshoot of Respect is ludicrous. The vast majority of us independents in Tower Hamlets are former Labour councillors, and we like to think our agenda is that of a progressive, real Labour administration. We are happy to support Livingstone and Ed Miliband’s Labour party and hope that, in the event of Ken winning, we can begin to draw a line under the years of division and turmoil that a poor borough such as ours can ill afford.
According to the same newspaper, “core supporters” of Rahman and Livingstone have “homophobic impulses”. This claim was linked to a proposed ban on a gay strip club in the borough. In fact councillors from all parties had voted to review the licences held by strip clubs in our borough because many of us think strip clubs exploit women. Just because one public house, which hosts a gay strip night, has been caught up in this proposed ban, we are erroneously accused of being homophobic. As it happens we are urgently seeking a legal review as to whether this particular establishment can be exempted. The thinly veiled insinuation that those with “homophobic impulses” are likely to be Muslim and or Asian, is incredibly offensive.
What we are witnessing is the opening salvo of what promises to be a dirty campaign against Ken as he edges ahead. But the rightwing media has no right to come trampling through our community, one of the most diverse, but also one of the poorest in London, slinging vile charges around without appreciating the damage they are doing. It is ironic that so often media campaigns such as these have emanated from newspapers owned by foreign proprietors. In the case of the Evening Standard, one might hope that its proprietor – former Russian businessman Alexander Lebedev – would have known better.
Fortunately, Londoners are much more tolerant and aware than they might once have been. The “dog whistlers” can huff and puff as much as they like, but the more they do, the more determined the rest of us become to see them off.
Rabina Khan is the author of Ayesha’s Rainbow and cabinet member for housing in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Although elected as a Labour councillor in 2010, she was excluded from the Labour Party for supporting Lutfur Rahman in the Mayoral election after he had been removed as Labour candidate on the eve of the close of nominations pending investigation of complaints made against him by a losing contender who was then imposed as Labour’s candidate. This article first appeared at the Guardian Comment is Free.