LONDON, ENGLAND, UNITED KINGDOM (MAY 4, 2016) (ITN) – Sadiq Khan of Britain’s opposition Labour Party is the strong favourite to win London’s mayoral election on Thursday (May 5) after a contest marked by religious tensions and accusations of racism.
Polls show Khan, the son of a bus driver, is as much as 20 percentage points ahead of rival Conservative Zac Goldsmith in the race to run one of the world’s top financial centres. If he wins, he will succeed current Conservative mayor Boris Johnson to become the first Muslim to head a major Western capital.
London’s population of 8.6 million is among the most diverse in the world and it is rare for identity politics to enter British campaigning.
But Goldsmith, with the support of Prime Minister David Cameron, has for weeks focused on Khan’s faith and past appearances alongside radical Muslim speakers, accusing him of giving “platform, oxygen and cover” to extremists.
Former human rights lawyer Khan says he has fought extremism all his life and regrets sharing a stage with speakers who held “abhorrent” views.
He has accused Goldsmith, the elite-educated son of a billionaire financier, of using Donald Trump-style tactics to divide Londoners along faith lines, as well as being part of an out-of-touch wealthy elite.
“His campaign has been negative, it’s been divisive. It’s become increasingly desperate. It’s for him to answer for his campaign. I know I’m proud of my campaign is he?” Khan said at a campaign event the day before the election.
Last week the campaign took a new twist as Khan’s party was accused of failing to stamp out anti-Semitism in its ranks amid a row over comments by another lawmaker on her Facebook account saying that Israel should be moved to the United States.
Khan condemned the comment and distanced himself from former London mayor Ken Livingstone, who on Thursday was suspended from the Labour party for supporting the party member at the centre of the controversy.
Outgoing mayor Johnson and Cameron have publicly supported the Conservative candidate.
During Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday (May 4), Cameron continued to attack Khan’s record on sharing platforms with “extremists”.
“He shared a platform with Sajil Shahid, the man who trained the ringleader of the 7/7 attacks and accused the United States of bringing 9/11 on themselves. He shared a platform with an extremist who called for jews to be drowned in the ocean. When this was put to the honourable member for Tooting this is what he said; he described it as mere flowery language,” Cameron said.
Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn argued that Khan has been victim to a “smear campaign” from senior Conservatives.
“Last week the Prime Minister tried as he often does to smear my friend the member for Tooting by his association with Suliman Gani. It turns out Mr. Gani is actually an active Conservative supporter who has shared platforms with the honourable member for Richmond.”
The two mayoral hopefuls also have opposing stances on whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union. Goldsmith wants to leave, Khan wants to stay.
But even with a June 23 referendum on that issue looming, and the question over London’s role as a global financial centre that a vote to leave would pose, the Brexit issue has barely featured in the campaign.
Both candidates have been eager not to alienate voters who disagree with them on Brexit, saying they will fight for the capital’s interests whichever way the country votes.
Otherwise, their policies for the city are largely similar – more affordable housing, more transport investment and better local policing.
It is the political influence that comes with the post, the second-largest direct electoral mandate of any politician in Europe, that is perhaps most at stake.