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Will London's First Muslim Mayor Save the City or Just Build More Skyscrapers?

The mayoral election was basically as important as a choice between flavors of pizza.

Sadiq Khan

The day before London trudged off to waste precious minutes of sunshine voting for its next mayor, the Evening Standard gleefully reported that a restaurant on Clerkenwell Road was marking the occasion with election-themed pizzas. The Zac Goldsmith pizza was supposed to represent a Sunday roast, topped with ground beef, asparagus, and, unforgivably, potatoes; the Sadiq Khan pizza had spicy chicken and "a river of pesto in the middle to symbolize the divisions in his party."


At first, I found this monstrous: For a start, no pizza has ever been improved by the addition of a "river" of anything, and it seemed gimmicky and stupid to reduce real political issues to a choice of toppings. But the more I thought about it, the more it started to make sense. What if politics really is just about pizza? The 1997 election, for instance—is there any better way of describing it other than as a victory of the Blairite pizza (prosciutto, capers, truffle oil, sashimi) over the John Major pizza (cheddar and crispy baked underpants)? In 1979, the fish-heads and aspic pizzas of the Labour government were finally brought down by Thatcher's terrifying new quattro stagioni. And in 1945, we saw the final defeat of the Third Pizzareich (cabbages and farts) by the Great Soviet Pizza (engine oil, pig iron, and dill).

If you need a metaphor for London's mayoral election, you could do a lot worse. There are plenty of reasons to feel good about Sadiq Khan's crushing victory—not least, the utter failure of Goldsmith's nasty, vicious, racialized campaign, which should hopefully stop the Tories trying anything similarly unpleasant for a good few decades. (Although it's worth remembering that Labour themselves ran a similarly toxic campaign against Lutfur Rahman in Tower Hamlets, and it worked.)

London electing its first Muslim mayor, a bus driver's son who grew up in public housing, is a great advertisement for the city's cultural openness and social mobility, even if that's not something we actually have. It's certainly worth it just for the anguish of a few scattered idiots, people who think Khan is about to drape a giant burqa over Buckingham Palace and replace Big Ben with Sharia law. And we're finally rid of Boris Johnson, that sinister slime mold of blanched-out human hair, slouching around the world to be racist toward people and tackle Japanese school children to the ground in its deadly creep toward power. Yes, he'll probably be our next prime minister, and will doubtless consume us all with his monstrous hairy tendrils, but that's a problem for next year. For now, evil slinks off the stage.

But what will Sadiq Khan's election actually mean for London? Really, the question is this: Can anyone do anything in London? Can London be saved, and is it even worth saving? This isn't a city. It's a swamp. You can try to struggle out of it, but you can't drain it of its poisons. As the premier international clearinghouse for surplus capital, London has a pretty fixed role in the world economy, and the major's job is purely managerial. In a country where the prime minister is in thrall to the City of London, the mayor of London doesn't stand a chance. Just look at the last two incumbents. Ken Livingstone was an unreconstructed socialist, probably the most left-wing politician to have held such a prominent office in recent memory. And he did some good things: an oil deal with Chavez's Venezuela, for instance, that subsidized free bus travel for retirees on pension. But at the same time, average house prices doubled under his mayorship from $216,000 to $432,000, he brought us the ghastly Visa-sponsored speculation-fest that was the 2012 Olympics (however much credit Johnson tried to take for it), and he let the overgrown babies of the finance sector build lots of shiny skyscrapers to play in.

Boris Johnson, meanwhile, ran as a lovable doofus, and he did some very doofy things: immediately scrapping the fleet of bendy buses because he didn't like the way they looked, solving the pollution problem by spraying glue on streets with air quality detectors, building a useless cable car nobody wanted, and approving a useless "garden bridge" that people want for very bad reasons, slouching around the world to be racist toward people, etc., etc. And he also watched over another massive increase in house prices and let the overgrown babies of the finance sector build lots of shiny skyscrapers to play in. What can we expect from Sadiq Khan? At a guess, higher rent, more skyscrapers.

Look at the actual mayoral campaigns, and see the same kind of glittering uniformity that's swamping the entire city. Zac Goldsmith promised to invest more in police, transportation, and housing. So did Sadiq Khan, who also promised to build more affordable housing. So did Goldsmith, who also promised to represent big businesses and ordinary people alike. So did Khan. The only difference is that Goldsmith promised to do all these things while also hating Muslims, attempting to apply the same kind of campaign that would have worked in his seat of Richmond to the entire city, and so he lost. Khan, who is actually from London, promised to do this while being a Muslim, and he won. It's pizza—it's all about pizza. Zac offered us a pizza with potatoes as a topping, and a significant majority of the city pointed out that potatoes absolutely do not belong on a pizza. Sadiq offered us spicy chicken, so we pretended not to notice the river of pesto, and we took it.

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