Zac Goldsmith’s campaign against Sadiq Khan to become mayor of London went well beyond the acceptable limits of democratic politics. By smearing Khan by association, by targeting Hindu, Sikh and Tamil Londoners and by persistent dog-whistling equating “Muslim” with “terrorist”, it sought to use the fact that Khan is a Muslim to defeat him.
Dog-whistle politics allows those that use it, to get over their unsavoury messages to people they think will be receptive to them while retaining plausible deniability. So a candidate can be at the same time racist and be able to deny that they are racist.
Since his defeat, Goldsmith has been widely criticised in the Tory party and by media commentators. Only a few had the moral integrity to criticise him while the campaign was in progress.
The journalist Peter Oborne, a lifelong Tory, wrote that Goldsmith’s campaign was “the most repulsive I have ever seen as a political reporter.” In his view, only two other campaigns bear comparison: the Bermondsey by-election of 1983 when the Labour candidate was targeted on account of his homosexuality - “Which Queen will you vote for?" ; and the Smethwick campaign in the 1964 General Election where the Tory slogan was - "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour”.
Tory peer Sayeeda Warsi asked - if Sadiq Khan (a long time opponent of Islamist extremism) is not an “acceptable Muslim to be mayor” then who is?
The Muslim Council of Britain has called for an inquiry into Islamophobia in the Tory party.
Goldsmith must carry responsibility for his own campaign but it is clear also that Cameron and the Tory hierarchy were four-square behind it.
The man who managed the campaign was Mark Fullbrook, a partner of the better known Lynton Crosby. Judging by what is known about Goldsmith and Fullbrook it seems likely that reports that Fullbrook drove the campaign are accurate. There is a revealing endorsement on Fullbrook’s website, describing him as the UK’s own “Lee Atwater”.
Lee Atwater was a ruthlessly effective political operator for the Republicans in the USA who, as campaign manager for George Bush senior in 1988, overturned a 17 point deficit in a few months to produce a stunning victory. Throughout his career, he used brutal dirty tricks and dog-whistling. He would often ignore the actual political issues and aim by any means to destroy the credibility of the opposing candidate.
Atwater delivered victory to George Bush senior by destroying his opponent, the Democrat, Michael Dukakis. Crucial was the issue of Willie Horton, a black man, who had been serving life for murder in Massachusetts when he was let out for the weekend under a rehabilitation scheme and committed horrific crimes. There was a legitimate question about Dukakis’ approach to penal policy but Atwater used the issue to devastating affect by mounting a nakedly racist campaign which played on white fears of black crime generally.
In addition, the press were fed untrue stories that Dukakis’ wife had burned an American flag during protests against Vietnam and that Dukakis had been treated for mental illness.
Atwater revelled in being the “hard man”. He said of Dukakis - “I would strip the bark off the little bastard” and he boasted that he would “make Willie Horton his running mate”.
In 1981, Atwater gave an interview to a political scientist which did not become public until some years later. He explained how Republicans win the vote of racists without sounding racist themselves.
“You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can't say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.” “
The Atwater I have described is the one that Mark Fullbrook is proud to reference on his website. He is ruthless and brutal and will do anything to make sure his client wins. He does not care about morality or the damage he does to individuals, communities or the democratic process itself.
Mark Fullbrook - and his partner, Lynton Crosby - are a stain on democratic politics. One person who would have agreed with that statement, I believe, would surprisingly have been Lee Atwater itself.
In March 1990, Atwater was found to have aggressive brain cancer. Treatment left him paralysed and confined to a wheelchair. Before he died a year later, he reflected deeply on the values by which he had been living and which he saw as infecting the wider society.
Atwater apologised to Dukakis for the “naked cruelty” of the campaign against him. (Will Goldsmith, Fullbrook or Cameron ever have the grace to apologise?)
And he also said the following.
My illness has taught me something about the nature of humanity, love, brotherhood and relationships that I never understood, and probably never would have.
The '80s were about acquiring — acquiring wealth, power, prestige. I know. I acquired more wealth, power, and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. What power wouldn't I trade for a little more time with my family? What price wouldn't I pay for an evening with friends? It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime. I don't know who will lead us through the '90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul.