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How London's First Muslim Mayor Can Improve the Lives of the City's Minorities

It's great we have our first BME mayor. Now, he needs to actually make life better for us.

by Wail Qasim
May 11 2016, 3:40pm

Sadiq Kahn waves as he arrives at city hall on his first day as mayor. Photo by Jonathan Brady / PA Wire

The election of Sadiq Khan to city hall was for London as much a moment of relief as it was cause to celebrate. Boris Johnson has gone away to plot either his own downfall or the nation's, and this season's most hated man in politics, Zac Goldsmith, didn't replace him.

Beyond the collective sigh of relief, though, there has been real jubilation that Khan's election makes him the first ever non-white mayor of London, and the first Muslim to hold such a position in any major Western city. That victory is made even sweeter given he beat the racist, divisive campaign waged against him by Goldsmith and the Conservative Party.

Even Donald Trump can barely contain his excitement, promising that Sadiq Khan would be an exception to his ban on Muslims entering the US. Thankfully, London's new mayor is less than charmed by Trump's warm invitation and has pointed out that with his own election, "London has proved [Trump] wrong."

In a contest reminiscent of "Britain's most racist election"—the 1964 general election where the Conservative Peter Griffith's slogan was "If you want a nigger for a neighbor, vote Labour"—Khan faced accusations linking him to extremism, had his Pakistani background used to sew discord between him and people from other South Asian communities, and was labeled a security threat. Four days before polling stations opened, The Daily Mail used an image of the number 30 bus blown apart in Tavistock Square during the 7/7 attacks to illustrate a plea from Zac Goldsmith to vote for him.

Many were just pleased to see, with Khan's election, that such gross tactics don't work—at least not in London.

But now that he's in office, there is a lot to prove. Not only because the London mayoralty is a tough gig, but also because it isn't enough to be London's first mayor from an ethnic minority if your policies don't stand behind those communities, too.

Khan's manifesto was "A Manifesto for All Londoners," a promise of an inclusive approach to improving London. But unfortunately, it reads like pretty standard Labour Party policy—stuck between wanting to support those hit hardest by inequalities, but often finding itself egging on precisely those responsible for the problems facing London's mass of poorly paid, housed, cared for, and policed communities.

He wants to help solve the housing crisis, but still wants to be the most business friendly mayor. He wants to make London safer, but is an uncritical friend of the police. While a manifesto can profess to be "for all," you can tell something's not right if it hasn't concentrated on the specific things affecting different sectors. When it comes to race, Khan's manifesto does seem to suffer from that. So what can he actually do to turn his representation of BME [black and minority ethnicity] people into existing support for them?

Firstly, the sort of Islamophobia that Khan himself experienced during the election campaign is an everyday concern for all Muslims living in London. That is further compounded by the state-sanctioned racial profiling and surveillance policy of "Prevent." This leaves many unable to trust services they should otherwise feel safe engaging with. Schools, hospitals, and universities have become spaces where pastoral care has taken on a sinister side when it comes to how Muslims are viewed.

Just as the Greater London Council that preceded the assembly was once a springboard for opposition to central government, especially around the question of racism, Khan's mayoralty could lead the way in disrupting the smooth running of Prevent. City hall could develop its own policy: one that focuses on the well-being and welfare of young BME people facing disproportionate rates of hate crime and the mental distress that goes along with that. That way, London would be able to undercut Prevent's discriminatory agenda and turn it into something far more useful.

Looking out for London's BME population will take a lot more than trying to disrupt state-sanctioned racism. Inequalities embedded in our economy mean that many are facing a battle just to survive on a daily basis. In 2014, the Runnymede Trust showed that in three London boroughs, black and Asian Britons were most likely to suffer homelessness and overcrowded housing. Solving the housing crisis in London will be one of the key factors for alleviating racial inequality in the city.

In his manifesto, Khan promises to develop new homes at truly affordable prices, in contrast to his predecessor. But ending this crisis requires a whole new relationship with London's landlords. Their power over tenants has to be swiftly curtailed or for all the well-meaning new-builds at affordable prices, there'll be little by way of lasting impact on poor Londoners' ability to stay housed.

Sadiq Khan now finds himself in charge of the UK's biggest and most notorious police force. Thankfully, his manifesto has already promised to sell Boris Johnson's wasted water cannon, but what will he be doing to improve the huge problem of racist policing that BME people in London are subject to?

Before entering politics, Khan was a lawyer known for his actions against the police, so there are no excuses—he knows where the problems of policing lie. However, he perpetuates the myth that stop and search is worth keeping around. In London, black people are three times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts. At this point, it is such a blunt and racist tool that Sadiq Khan could do much worse than suggest the Met abandon it altogether. London could once again show that where state powers are racist, they can be done away with and things won't completely fall apart.

London is celebrated as a multicultural city that supposedly defies the idea that people from different backgrounds can't get along in close quarters. In a sense, that's true, but this picture often covers up a lot of the racism that is present. It can also serve as a convenient whitewash for those in power who happily ignore the racial inequality and racism that they are responsible for.

While Sadiq Khan's legacy will be celebrated as a triumph over base Islamophobia, he needs to act decisively if black, Asian, and other minority ethnic Londoners are to reap any of the benefits of his personal victory against racism.

Follow Wail Qasim on Twitter.

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