We should hold everyone to the same standards

HA Hellyer analyses the race politics in the contest to be London mayor

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As Donald Trump becomes the presumptive Republican party nominee for the American presidency, another race has just been completed in the United Kingdom. One of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, and the proud capital of Britain, will today announce a new mayor. Sadiq Khan, the Labour candidate, is almost certainly going to be that mayor – but his journey has not been without costs. Not simply to himself – but to London, to the UK and, in some ways, beyond.

The Trump campaign has placed the Republican party in a rather awkward situation. There are few ways in which the party can escape having him as its presidential nominee, but the damage of his candidacy has been significant. Public opinion polls aren’t very encouraging about his chances of winning against the Democrats’ Hillary Clinton. But the lowering of standards in public discourse, thanks to Mr Trump’s extraordinary tirades, is going to be very difficult to reverse.

The situation isn’t quite the same in London’s mayoral race. The Conservative Party isn’t about to implode due to Zac Goldsmith’s candidacy for mayor; nor was Labour ever going to due to Mr Khan. But the race has taken a nasty turn in the past few weeks.

Recently, the Labour party has faced harsh criticism across the political spectrum due to accusations that it is soft on anti-­Semitism. These accusations have led to the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, ordering an independent inquiry into the issue of all types of racism in the party. Significant Conservative figures, and some Labour party figures, have jumped into the fray with various accusations – and the fallout has been substantial.

There are genuine questions to be asked about anti-Semitism in the UK and the distinction between it and criticism of Israel. But one thing is clear: anti-Semitism is, rightly, beyond the pale for respectable public discourse. If one is accused of this form of bigotry it results in an immense response from the public arena – and those accused of it are given pariah status. It will be important to see how the Labour party investigation pans out.

But there is another type of sentiment that is not identified as quite so deplorable. Mr Khan is visibly Muslim; he comes from an ethnic group that is predominantly Muslim (Pakistani) and he openly identifies as a believer in Islam. And throughout this campaign, Mr Khan has been attacked in ways that would have been unthinkable had he not been Muslim.

While Mr Khan has been clearly critical of radical Islamist extremism, his main opponent's Conservative party has used words such as "radical" to describe him and has tried to associate him with figures deemed to be extremist. The irony is that some of those figures were encouraging Britons to vote for the Conservatives. No questions around those associations were levelled at Mr Goldsmith – but, of course, he is a white non-Muslim. Which is why, for example, it is possible that Mr Goldsmith might publish a piece in a mainstream, right-wing publication like The Mail on Sunday criticising Mr Khan – with a picture of the aftermath of the July 7, 2005 London bombings as the centrepiece.

What sort of message does that send to voters in London and to the wider UK? Is it that two sets of standards apply – one if you happen to be of the Muslim faith in public life and one if you are not?

Beyond that particular question is a larger one – the acceptability of certain types of prejudice in public life. Anti-­Semitism, rightly, is rejected with no quarter – but can the same be said for anti-Muslim sentiment? Or is it as, ironically, the former Conservative chairwoman, Baroness Warsi, put it: that such sentiment has passed the “dinner table test”? That such discourse has been sufficiently mainstreamed that not only does it not result in pariah status, but that it might be tolerated in the media, and the political arena, in various ways?

Mr Khan may well have been unwise in sharing platforms with certain unsavoury characters. If that is a reason to be so harshly condemned, then surely the same standard ought to be applied to non-Muslim politicians as well. But will the public arena, for example, chastise right-wing politicians for sharing or even providing platforms with anti-Muslim bigots, which many among the Conservative party have done in recent years? Let alone foreign politicians with disastrous human rights records. Or is that a lesser sin? And if so, why?

As former shadow business secretary Chuka Ummuna, a Labour MP, said: “They would not be raising these questions if Sadiq was not a Muslim. If our mayoral candidate was a non-Muslim human rights lawyer, they would not be making any of these allegations at all.”

That’s a damning assessment – and it happens to be true. The health of British discourse has been damaged through this campaign in a truly cynical fashion. It’s not nearly as deleterious as the effect of Mr Trump’s campaign – and it will probably fail to keep Mr Khan from becoming the mayor of London – but it is still something that every Briton concerned for the future of British democracy ought to be concerned about.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and a non-resident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer