Is Sadiq Khan a good mayor of London? Let’s not pretend the far right cares | Zoe Williams

My kids have this stunt that I fall for every time: they ask me a question they know I’ll answer in an incredibly long, unbroken monologue, and they can zone me out until I’ve finished. It is the equivalent of putting me in a playpen. They have been doing it since they were small – “What dog will you have when you’re old?” – and have refined it over time: “What exactly happens in Heathers?”; “What’s wrong with having a single tax rate for everyone?”  

So yesterday, I got: “Is Sadiq Khan a good mayor?” In normal times, I would have talked about how all politicians shout a good game on housing, but so few of them build anything, and how Khan has broken the mould on that, though he has been frustrated in the speed of his endeavour by what they call “challenging market conditions”, when they mean, “since the Liz Truss disaster”. I’d have mentioned his Hopper fare, which lets you get on as many buses as you like within an hour for a flat fare, and how that is quite a subtle piece of policymaking, directed at people on low incomes, but not so rigidly as to need means-testing. Maybe I would have mentioned that it speaks to a politician’s ambient popularity when people generally call them by their first name. 

But the question forced me to catch up with the abnormality of the times. Khan has, of course, been under sustained racist attack since Lee Anderson claimed on GB News that he had “given our capital city away to his mates”, with the result that “Islamists have got control of Khan, and they’ve got control of London”. Since that conspiracist intervention and the subsequent removal of the Conservative whip from Anderson, Khan has had to hear meatheads on GB News describe him as “not British,” a “true racist”, and someone who “doesn’t support Britain”, while the host nods on.

This might all look like a morbid symptom, the Conservative party leaking toxic waste like a knackered battery, but in fact, Khan has been at the centre of coordinated, international far-right narrative-building since his election in 2016. Gary Younge was reporting for the Guardian on the Trump campaign trail in Indiana that year, and came back from a steak dinner with Republicans, where a guy had said to him: “How do you cope in London, when Muslims elected that mayor and you have all that gun control?” Younge replied: “Well, the Muslims didn’t elect a mayor – Londoners elected a Muslim mayor. And we don’t really have gun control for the same reason we don’t have polar bear control: we don’t have many guns.” The chair, who liked Younge because so does everybody, leant over, thinking to help him out. He said: “In London, they don’t have freedom. They don’t understand freedom.” 

If I had known that, eight years later, I would be hearing exactly the same tropes – Islam as a de facto force of nefarious control – coming from the former deputy chairman of the Conservative party, I don’t know if I’d have laughed up such a gale.  

Where would people in Muncie, Indiana, get the idea that London was oppressed by Muslims? Why would the president of the US call a mayor in the UK a “stone cold loser”, doing “a terrible job”? Why do we have a TV channel dedicated to ejecting a public servant, born and bred in south London, from the category of Britishness? Why are members of government defending Anderson’s comments (“I don’t believe Lee is in any way racist,” said Thérèse Coffey on Sunday)? Whatever this is, it’s not coincidence. And whatever kind of mayor Khan is, I would defend his legitimacy in that role as fiercely as I would defend any principle in politics. So it is irrelevant really, my final answer – but I think he’s a great mayor. 

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