On a London council estate last week, Zac Goldsmith – the Conservatives’ mayoral candidate – launched his manifesto with pledges on transport, housing and jobs. When he sits down to talk to reporters, no one asks about any of that.
Instead there’s just one subject he’s quizzed on: the racial politics of London. “Are you a racist?” is one of first questions. “Absurd,” replies the candidate. Things go downhill from there.
To some extent Goldsmith has only himself to blame – courting controversy by repeatedly attacking his Labour opponent Sadiq Khan, a former human rights lawyer, as being soft on crime and “providing cover to extremists”.
Goldsmith’s campaign has also sought to divide London’s faith-based communities. People with apparently Sikhs and Hindu names have been sent leaflets warning that a vote for Khan could lead to “a wealth tax on family jewellery”. Muslims, when they are mentioned, are “backward and sectarian”.
For many, Goldsmith’s campaign – he is advised by Tory election guru Lynton Crosby’s firm - is a dangerous attempt to win votes not by denouncing bigotry but by making subliminal appeals to it.
For critics, the Tory divide-and-rule strategy is playing with fire in as cosmopolitan a city as London – because it seeks to gain votes by creating community tensions where none existed.
London Labour MPs say they first noticed the trend during the last general election, when the Tories won the key bellwether seat of Harrow East by consolidating the Hindu Gujarati vote, a third of the electorate, behind their candidate.
Leaflets circulated in the seat called on Hindus to vote Tory as Labour and the Liberal Democrats had supported laws banning caste discrimination.
Shazad Amin, CEO of MEND, a thinktank which seeks wider Muslim voter engagement, said it was “a disgraceful spectacle to see Goldsmith’s campaign resort to incendiary and divisive rhetoric in this mayoral competition”.
He added: “He should be talking about the inequalities facing Muslims and other groups in London, not throwing around false accusations of extremism.” Amin’s organisation has links with senior Tories – Crosby appeared as their guest at the Tory party conference fringe in 2014.
Yet he describes Goldsmith’s tactics as “unbecoming of anyone wanting to lead a city like London that is so successfully multiethnic and multiracial”. He added: “From what we’ve seen so far, Londoners can be forgiven for wondering if Zac will be a mayor who works to bring London’s diverse communities together or one who will drive them apart.”
Others evince real surprise over Goldsmith’s stance. Over previous years, he had worked hard to win over many in the Muslim community, presenting himself as a maverick free thinker with impeccable green credentials.
Last year he gave a well-received speech at the Ramadan dinner of the Islamic Relief charity, telling the audience how he had read the Qur’an and of his visits to Pakistan to see his sister Jemima, who was married from 1995 to 2004 to Pakistani politician and former cricketer Imran Khan.
“He really charmed us,” said one who heard him speak. “Many in the community looking for an alternative to Labour’s machine politics were ready to give him a chance. Now we won’t.”
There is logic to Goldsmith’s campaign rhetoric. The Tories’ vote share among some ethnic minority voters has been steadily rising as the party’s toxic legacy of racism and apartheid support disappears from collective memory.
Boris Johnson, the current Tory mayor, outperformed his party by 40% to win in London in 2012. Three years later in the general election, polls suggested that more Hindus and Sikhs voted Conservative than Labour.
In targeting Hindus, Sikhs, Jews and those of Tamil ethnicity, the Tories are once again courting a suburban semicircle of boroughs in north London that traditionally are more likely to vote Conservative. These communities stretch from Ealing in the west through Harrow and Camden and over to Barking in the east.
Labour strategists also say that by using Khan’s faith, the Conservatives can tap into prejudices in older, whiter, less educated parts of the London electorate – voters hardly well-disposed to Goldsmith’s inherited riches and Eton education.
Despite this, Khan remains the favourite. In the latest polls, Labour’s candidate has extended his lead among first preference votes to eight points over Goldsmith. However, Crosby’s teams have a habit of defying the polls.
One expert on Muslim voting patterns, who requested anonymity as they worked with political parties, said Crosby appeared to be replicating a “mercenary voter” formula in London that worked for the Tories nationally in 2015.
She said the Conservatives’ continual insinuations that Khan is the London “lab rat” of Jeremy Corbyn’s communism, and that he backs extremism is designed to transmit the idea he would be “dangerous” to elect.
“Mercenary voters set aside their usual allegiances,” she said. “In the general election last year, the Tories created the idea of an immediate self-interest of voting Conservative that would deliver stability rather than chaos.
“I wonder if the calculation here, on the racially divisive politics, is to bring out the mercenary instinct among race communities in London.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010