Beware Micawberish cosmopolitanism

Sadiq Khan’s victory reminds us that demographics are only partly destiny 

No British politician has ever received as many votes against their name as Sadiq Khan – 1.3 million Londoners chose him to be their mayor. Headlines around the world have emphasised Khan’s Muslim faith, usually as a hopeful counterblast to those who hanker for a ‘clash of civilisations’. But ‘only in London’ would be the worst possible response to the result, and there are dangers in seeing Khan’s election as the first victory of a ‘cosmopolitan age’ too.

What London’s election this year showed is that in British politics party colours matter much more than skin colour or faith. Voting was less polarised by race in London in 2016 than it had been in the 2012 contest between Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone, as new British Future analysis of YouGov’s final election polls of both mayoral contests shows.

Where Livingstone had trailed by 40 per cent to 60 per cent among white voters in 2012, Sadiq Khan led Zac Goldsmith by 37 per cent to 35 per cent on first preferences for mayor, before tying 50-50 after transfers. Labour’s strong lead among ethnic minorities, of 69 per cent to 31 per cent, gave Khan a decisive margin but this was a narrower lead than the 76 per cent to 24 per cent lead reported by YouGov in 2012. It was Khan’s advance with white Londoners which transformed Livingstone’s minority vote in defeat in 2012 into a winning coalition for mayor in 2016.

So he successfully marshalled Labour’s political edge in the capital, while Goldsmith proved unable to emulate Johnson’s reach beyond the Tory tribe. The YouGov poll found a strong consensus among voters across ethnicities in London on the top priorities for the new mayor – housing, transport and public health. Voters elected Khan on housing and making it easier to change buses more than to send a message to Donald Trump.

Yet Khan’s election has made him a national and international symbol of integration. As London mayor, he must be a practical champion of it too, showing how the place of most change and most churn can maintain its confidence of making diversity work for the common good. On the campaign trail the new mayor was warm about the London Citizens and British Future call for a new office of citizenship and integration, drawing on experience in American cities. Breaking down the barriers to universal English fluency; actively championing citizenship for incomers; maximising both the symbolic and practical value of citizenship ceremonies to promote civic engagement; and ensuring contact in schools between those from different backgrounds provide essential foundations.

In contrast, the idea of a ‘future cosmopolitan majority’ risks suggesting a rather passive politics – of being depressed by the present, but more optimistic about the long-term trends. It is dangerous to wait for the future to turn up. A lot will happen in the meantime.

Demographics are never destiny in politics. They provide the social context for those seeking election – but political choices will determine who succeeds and fails. That lesson of the ‘Must Labour lose?’ debate about class in the 1960s will apply equally to the political competition to grapple with the rising diversity of western democracies in the decades ahead. So the centre-left should be wary of attempts to console itself that it is now just a bit ahead of the sociological game – that its strong appeal to the young, more diverse and more highly educated that are growing in number, currently insufficient to win currently outside the capital, large cities and university towns, will bring into life a majority coalition in a couple of decades’ time.

For example, it would be a positive indicator of economic and cultural integration if ethnicity does erode as a major predictor of voting behaviour in the United Kingdom over time, far preferable to the ‘bonfire of the vanities’- style racial polarisation evident in some American cities. The modest Conservative improvement in the ethnic minority vote in London between 2012 and 2016 reflects the centre-right’s growing opportunity to build support among the growing cohorts of upwardly mobile Asian and black voters, despite the public controversy over the Goldsmith campaign. The social meaning of race in society and politics in two generations’ time is not fixed either. Those of mixed ethnicity will be the largest of the ‘minority’ groups. That three-quarters of mixed-race Britons have a white partner – the opposite of the American pattern – makes this driver of integration and sometimes ethnic assimilation stronger than across the Atlantic.

Calls for a ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ party entirely miss the central point. Instead of day-dreaming about an imagined cosmopolitan future, the cosmopolitan minority should engage and seek to win majority support in the here and now for the practical integration agenda that can help build confidence in a shared future. Arguments for the benefits of ‘open’ versus ‘closed’, preached by a narrow group of the economically and culturally confident, will only generate the response: ‘I know it’s working out for people like you – but I’m picking up that you don’t care how it feels to me’.

The British have a rather limited appetite for culture war politics. That is an opportunity for London’s mayor. There will be few winners in a polarised debate between the confident cosmopolitans and the populism of the ‘left behind’. Khan was elected to serve London, though his election has been noted around the world too. It is a grounded integration agenda for the capital that could help the words and actions of London’s mayor have resonance from Birmingham and Bradford to Lincolnshire and East Anglia, and help the national conversation about integration to help discover the common ground we need.

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Sunder Katwala is director of British Future

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