LONDON: One has family roots in Pakistan, the other in Jamaica: the two leading contenders for mayor of multicultural London stand out amid an anguished debate about post-colonialism and race in Britain.
The office formerly held by Prime Minister Boris Johnson oversees a budget of 17 billion ($24bn, 20bn euros) along with one of the world’s biggest transport networks and city police forces, guaranteeing the mayor national exposure.
Opinion polls tip the Labour party’s Sadiq Khan for a clear win on Thursday, five years after he took over from the Conservative Johnson, becoming Britain’s best-known Muslim politician.
“The city back in 2016 chose me to be their mayor so it shows how progressive we are,” Khan, the 50-year-old son of a Pakistani bus driver, told AFP.
“I’m really hopeful about the future, because I get to mentor and help some of those coming through the pipeline,” he said.
“And there’s a new generation of really talented British politicians coming through from different backgrounds, who I think will accelerate the progress in the future.” Khan’s main opponent is the Conservative Shaun Bailey, 49, who like him grew up in social housing. Bailey notes that he would become one of Europe’s most prominent black politicians if elected.
His grandfather emigrated from Jamaica in the late 1940s, part of the “Windrush” generation of Caribbean migrants who, along with South Asians, did much to rebuild London after World War II.
In 2017, revelations that some in the Windrush generation had been illegally deported after living for years in Britain provoked soul-searching about racism.
The debate intensified last year with the “Black Lives Matter” protests as campaigners pressed for a new examination of the country’s colonial past.
Bailey, however, is part of a new generation of minority Conservative politicians including finance minister Rishi Sunak and interior minister Priti Patel who play down race in politics.
“People are much more interested in my experience of London, and I have a unique one because of my background, but it’s not the only thing I bring to the table,” he told AFP.
Johnson’s government has been leading an “anti-woke” agenda that seeks harsh new jail terms for vandalising statues of historical figures, following the toppling of a slaver’s edifice in the western city of Bristol last year.
A government-commissioned report sparked outrage last month by saying that structural racism does not exist in Britain, prompting Johnson’s most senior black adviser to quit.
The Conservatives stand accused by some critics of promoting a few visible faces in their ranks while doing little to address structural issues holding back minorities in education, housing, health and employment.
“On the surface it will look like it’s making progress in terms of diversity,” commented Dibyesh Anand, head of social sciences at the University of Westminster, stressing that political discourse is still focused on the white majority.
Published in Dawn, May 5th, 2021