Last night Sadiq Khan was voted in as Mayor of London. The campaign was far more personal and aggressive than British people are used to.
Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative candidate, was heavily criticised for focussing on some of the people that Khan had associated with in earlier years. There is no doubt that the Labour candidate had shared platforms with some unsavoury people who held unsavoury views, a fact that was amplified by the anti-Semitism scandal that swept over the party in the weeks leading up to polling day.
Goldsmith, said that these appearances showed a massive failure in judgement, Khan replied that the criticism was "dog-whistle" politics. For those unfamiliar with the term, dog-whistle is when a candidate says something which is explicitly reasonable but implies something nastier. Like an ultrasonic whistle, silent to most ears but designed to trigger a response in its target audience. In this case it was claimed by Labour that Goldsmith was trying to smear Khan by association, the Conservative camp claimed that Khan was using the charge of Islamophobia to close down legitimate debate.
Let's not pretend we don't know what someone means when they say "dog-whistle", it has become its own dog-whistle term. It's what people say when they really want to say racist, but haven't got the guts or can't afford a deformation suit.
Claim and counter claim filled newspaper pages, twitter streams and broadcast media minutes. Anyone hoping that the London mayoral campaign would focus on transport policy, housing plans or public service reform issues rather than personal politics would have been sorely disappointed. It got very personal very quickly and stayed there.
To sensitive British ears and eyes it perhaps seemed like an outlier, an unusually nasty campaign, something shocking, perhaps the worst campaign in memory. To any American politico watching it would have looked like a few cross words between kids at a Sunday school picnic. Our friends from across the Atlantic are used to high octane campaigning, just look at the abuse, allegations and counter allegations that are thrown around in the Presidential primaries. And those are between candidates from the same party.
Some will try to pin this style of campaign on Sir Lynton Crosby, the Australian election guru credited with Boris's two London wins, the 2015 Conservative general election result, and the bête noir of the Left. He was in Australia through most of the campaign so it's a bit unfair to pin this all on him.
The real reason that this election got personal was because it was personal. It had the feel of an aggressive American election because it was more like an American election than a British one. The USA has two party politics, but their party system is weak. Candidates are often selected in primaries, just as Zac and Sadiq were, they have large and diverse sets of electors, like Zac and Sadiq had.
When you are electing someone to form a single person executive they matter more than the party, presidential style elections are between two people not two parties. The character of each candidate matters, their honesty matters, their judgement and their integrity all matter. To a large degree these things matter more than the manifesto on which they stand. That is why these personal attributes get analysed, attacked and defended. Tony Benn once said that elections should be about "ishoosh", well in the London Mayoral elections it's less about issues and more about personality.
Mayoral elections are here to stay and they have been joined by Police & Crime Commissioner elections. Single person executive politicians are becoming the norm and so will personality focussed election campaigns.
Don't like it? Well that's tough I'm afraid because they're here to stay.Suggest a correction