by Atul Hatwal
The conventional Westminster wisdom is that this is Labour’s year in London. Labour thrashed the Tories in the capital at last year’s general election by 44% to 35% and in a recent poll, Sadiq led Goldsmith by seven points.
However, the conventional wisdom is about to be tested.
In the next few weeks, the Tories are going to roll out their main attack on Sadiq Khan: terror.
Lynton Crosby is running Zac Goldsmith’s campaign and he is nothing if not politically obvious.
The Mayoralty is not a role where conventional attacks over economic issues will resonate.
The public, and Crosby, know that the Mayor cannot crash the economy so the Tory line on what Corbyn’s Labour would do to jobs, growth and taxes, will not be effective.
Neither is the Mayor going to make a profound difference to the state of London transport – no-one can wave a wand and create the extra tube lines or rail services that the capital desperately needs.
Identity and personality not policy will determine voters’ choice.
The Mayoralty is overwhelmingly a symbolic and representative role. Who sits in City Hall says something about how Londoners’ see themselves.
As the son of a migrant, from a working class family, who rose to run a high profile legal firm, Sadiq Khan’s biography is London’s story told best.
Sadiq has also moved deftly to buttress the independence of his brand by pitching himself against Jeremy Corbyn with a range of centrist, business-friendly positions.
He is doing all that’s required to pass the Mayoral threshold in an increasingly Labour city.
The Tories need a game-changer. Something that irrevocably redefines Sadiq in the eyes of Londoners and casts him as Jeremy Corbyn’s candidate.
Cue the impending attack over terror.
Under normal circumstances, such a move could be dismissed as crude racism against one of Britain’s most prominent Muslim politicians.
But two factors change the calculus, shifting this attack from the realms of absurd, naked prejudice to an issue that is likely to gain traction.
First, there is Jeremy Corbyn’s position on Isil.
He doesn’t want to bomb them. He wouldn’t sanction drone strikes on their leaders. He avers from any notion of military response, regardless of the atrocities for which they are responsible.
Instead, Jeremy Corbyn’s response to Isil’s bombs and beheadings is to talk to them.
This makes Labour’s response to terror a live election issue.
Second, there is Sadiq Khan’s history with Babar Ahmad.
In 2014, Babar Ahmad pleaded guilty in the US to providing material support to the Taliban and Chechen jihadis by using websites to raise money, recruit fighters and provide equipment for their movements.
Ahmad’s US trial followed a failed, eight year campaign against extradition from the UK during which Sadiq Khan visited him in jail and spoke on platforms in his defence against being sent to America.
Sadiq’s position is made all the more tricky by his lack of clarity on the basis for his support of Ahmad. He has stated Ahmad was a childhood friend but then appeared to switch to explaining his visits to Ahmad as part of his work as the local MP.
Whatever the reasoning, no matter how justified Sadiq felt based on the facts available at the time, this constitutes a big problem.
Tory Ministers, MPs, GLA candidates will be lined up to cast Sadiq Khan’s relationship with Ahmad as evidence that he is soft on terror. That he is a representative of Jeremy Corbyn’s ideology. The sort of man who does not represent Londoners.
Think Michael Fallon, the general election and Ed Miliband stabbing his brother in the back. This year’s Mayoral election will star Babar Ahmad as a dead cat.
The Tory goal will be to put the words “Sadiq Khan” and “terror” together in as many stories as possible.
It’s not right, it’s not fair, but when the Tories attack, the extremity of the claim will dominate the headlines and Sadiq will need to respond.
He has three options, two of which give Lynton Crosby exactly what he wants.
The first is to dismiss the claims as racism.
Labour’s twittervists will be shouting about this. The sectarian overtones are impossible to avoid and undoubtedly there will be a voluble dog whistle with this attack.
But Sadiq’s support for a man who admitted that he had helped Jihadis and Corbyn’s equivocation on terror means the story will run. An airy, general dismissal of the claims as racism will allow the specific allegations to go unrebutted and Crosby will achieve his goal.
The second option is to take the legalistic route. To refer to the exigencies of the extradition process to the US and explain Sadiq’s defence of Ahmad as rooted in these issues.
Again, this would be disastrous.
The implicit message in the Tory attack will be that Sadiq is friends with a terrorist (their characterisation) and doesn’t have the judgement or temperament to represent London. To say Ahmad had a valid case to oppose extradition is no case at all to voters who will ask what was Sadiq doing being friends with and defending such a person.
Game, set and match Crosby.
The final option is the only viable option: Sadiq will need to unequivocally condemn Babar Ahmad, to condemn Jeremy Corbyn’s position on Isil and to say that while he might have known Ahmad when young, his interventions on the extradition were solely as an MP representing a constituent who, at that stage, hadn’t been tried.
There will still be a level of damage, but only by robustly condemning Ahmad and Corbyn can Sadiq avoid being defined by Crosby.
At the general election the entire Tory strategy was based on the Tartan scare: using fear of the SNP to squeeze wavering Ukip and Lib Dem voters into their column.
At the Mayoral election it will be fear of Corbyn’s ultra-left brand of politics and terror will be the tool they use to define Sadiq as Jeremy Corbyn’s candidate.
Sadiq Khan might be seven points ahead, but that same poll also found that 30% of Londoners were undecided.
How Sadiq deals with the Tory terror bomb will ultimately help make the minds up of this 30% and determine who wins the Mayoralty.
Atul Hatwal is the editor of Uncut