What do parenting classes, Muslim women-targeted English lessons and radicalism-preventing measures have in common?

It’s all right, stop scratching your heads. I’ll tell you the answer: London’s mayoral election.

In May this year, voters in the British capital will elect a new mayor. The incumbent, Tory “blond menace”, Boris Johnson, will step down after eight years in power. The same length of time his predecessor, Labour’s Ken Livingstone, spent in City Hall.

Already the first salvoes have been fired. But it was only this week as I listened to Radio 4 that the penny dropped. The presenter made a reference to a new initiative by the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron to fund English classes. These will be aimed mainly at Muslim women. A couple of days before that, Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education, was on the Today programme explaining how radicalism amongst young people, especially of the Muslim variety, could be tackled in schools. Last week the main item up for discussion was the government’s idea to introduce parenting workshops.

It does not take a genius to put two and two together. The main contenders in the mayoral election are: Zac Goldsmith, on the blue corner, and Sadiq Khan on the red one. Polls at the moment put the Labour candidate ahead of his Tory rival slightly, but if there was a lesson to be learnt from the 2015 general election was that you could never trust polls. Still, Conservatives seem to be treating the London race as a litmus test for their own confrontation with Labour in four years’ time.

The mud-throwing in the London contest began early with Zac Goldsmith accusing Sadiq Khan of being a Corbynite. That mud, unfortunately for the Conservatives, has failed to stick and that is why I think that tactics have changed somewhat.

The three pieces of news I mentioned before did not come out randomly, or innocently. The three were put out by the Tory party with a two- or three-day gap in between. That was enough time for the items to sink in the minds of the electorate. The three were linked by a common theme: Islam and Muslims. You could even add that the first shot had been fired around Christmas when the Prime Minister declared that the UK was a Christian country. No surprise, then, that the headline-grabbing press release on the planned government-funded parenting classes was followed a few days after by the education-targeted, alarm-sounding news item about the alleged radicalisation of British-born, Muslim children The coup de grâce was delivered by the English-for-Muslim-women front-page maker. Suddenly you could be forgiven for thinking that unfit (Muslim) parents were not keeping tabs on their extremist offspring because they were isolated due to their lack of English.

Behind this anti-Khan attack is, I believe, the figure of one Lynton Crosby. The Australian-born strategist, hired to deliver victory to the Tories in the general election last year, is a tough-as-nails bruiser. Already an experienced hand in London’s mayoral elections (he was the person behind Boris Johnson’s triumphs in 2008 and 2012). Crosby is a man of many tricks. He needn’t mention Sadiq by name or allude to the fact that the Labour candidate is a Muslim. All he needs to do is come up with a “dead cat”. As long as people keep talking about the “dead cat”, they will not pay attention to what really matters. For instance, how the Tory party is falling apart at the seams over Europe. Even I am surprised at the split in the right over Britain’s membership of the European Union. I would have thought that having won a general election — albeit not with an outright majority, lest we forget — the Tories would have been in a merrier, all-together mood. But no, exit (or Brexit), or remain (Bremain) is just as important for Cameron’s troops as beating Jeremy Corbyn (if he is still in charge of the Labour party) in 2020.

Crosby is a cunning man but he is not infallible. Sadiq Khan is not Ed Milliband, against whom Crosby deployed every single (dirty) weapon he had at his disposal. Just when the former Labour leader’s campaign was gaining ground on the Tories, out came Michael Fallon, Defence Secretary, with a totally made-up story about Milliband, knifing Britain in the back over Trident in the same way he had “stabbed” his brother. The news made no sense at all but it managed to push Ed Milliband’s well-thought reforms to the inside pages of newspapers.

What can Khan and his team do? First off, have a word with the gaffer. Jeremy Corbyn needs to win London as much as he needs to win the country. It is not a surprise that Boris’ victory in 2008 ushered in the Tory-led coalition in 2010 and that his success again in 2012 resulted in Cameron’s moving the furniture around at Number 10 but not chucking it out as many of us had hoped. Labour needs to stop its silly in-fighting. Like it or not, Corbyn won fair and square. Last time I checked Britain was still a democratic country. Run by Russian oligarchs and Arab oil magnates, yes, but still, if you like, democratic on the outside. Secondly, please, Corbyn and team, get rid of the whole socialism rhetoric. Voters are not binary beings anymore. You can be an eco-minded person but conservative (small “c) when it comes to the economy. You might believe in same-sex marriage and civil partnerships for heterosexual couples, but be concerned about immigration. This is the nature of London in the 2016. Heck, this is the nature of the developed world in the 21st century. I strongly believe that Sadiq Khan can deliver this message efficiently. Thirdly, invest in social media. The Tories coughed up a lot of dosh on advertising space on Twitter, Facebook and other social platforms for the 2015 general election. They targeted wavering voters. Savvy, London-dwelling techies should be easy to convince and sway to the party of the ever-smiling, council-estate-raised, business-friendly Sadiq Khan for the mayoral contest.

I do not think that the Tories will stage an all-out attack on Khan. They tried that tactic at the start of the mayoral election and it backfired. That is because London is not the rest of the country. The Conservatives did not fare as well in the general election in the capital as they did in the shires. Plus, they are also attempting to portray themselves as multicultural-friendly. Instead, what they will do is “guilt by association”. It is more subtle and effective. They do not need to name Khan, but mix and match words that will cling to him: Muslim, parent, extremism, radicalism, Islam, schools. You could call it political antonomasia. Identify a person by appellatives but never use his name. This is no longer Michael Howard’s 2005 “Are You Thinking What I Am Thinking?”. And Lynton Crosby is part of that change.

Will Khan pull it off? I hope he does. The capital needs an injection of realism and pragmatism. It needs someone with a plan and concrete ideas on how to tackle the lack of affordable housing, unemployment, transport, the environment and education. I know that many voters will look at patrician, millionaire Zac Goldsmith and will see a safe pair of hands. But, how can a city like London, with the sheer variety of cultural backgrounds we possess, be governed by someone who was given money by his dad and a job by his uncle and has never had to face hardship?

The road ahead will be tough for Sadiq and his team. Better to start piecing together some of the headlines that will be appearing in the next few months. After all, in politics, nothing is random.n charge of the Labour party) in 2020.

London-based, Cuban writer. Author of “Cuban, Immigrant, and Londoner”, to be published by Austin Macauley. Has written for The Guardian and Prospect.

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