Letter from London

By Daniel Swift

Lately it feels like it has been nothing but elections. In September 2014, there was the Scottish referendum, when the people of Scotland—slightly to everyone’s surprise—voted against becoming independent from the United Kingdom. This was followed in May by the General Election, and this time everybody confidently predicted national chaos: a split country, political deadlock, and the nightmare known as a hung parliament, when no party has a majority and neither the Conservatives nor Labour would be able to form a government. I stayed up late that night, to watch the results come in from places with baronial names like Kingswood, Waveney, Nuneaton. In Sunderland South, a woman in a pink jacket thanked the police and then her agent, like she was winning an Oscar. She was the Labour candidate, and perhaps this victory was a sign; the TV news cut to a whiskery pollster who said, one swallow doesn’t make a summer. While waiting, I spoke to my five year old son on Skype. He asked what was going on, and I told him it was a race between two men, one called David and the other called Ed. I asked him which one he would vote for. He thought about it for a while, and then he said he had a dream about voting for Ed.

It turns out that this was not a useful exit poll, for the next morning it was clear that David—Cameron—of the Conservatives had won an outright majority over Ed—Milliband—of Labour. But since then I’ve tended to understand elections as races between first names. Perhaps I’m behind America in this: the current presidential campaign is as much a struggle between Hillary and Donald as one between Clinton and Trump, and surely part of Obama’s trouble was always that he had such a foreign-sounding first name. But British politics has always been a little more decorous than this. At least, until recently. Over the past few months, the campaign for the new Mayor of London has been unusually bitter, and all you need to understand this most recent election are the first names of the two candidates: Zac and Sadiq.

They conform perfectly to expectation and type. Zac Goldsmith is a Conservative MP for a very expensive part of London, and famous for being an environmentalist and the son of a billionaire. He wears, he told a journalist, his father’s tailor-made suits, which had been made on Savile Row. This is the epitome of poshness: both very expensive and second-hand. Sadiq Khan, on the other hand, is Labour MP for Tooting in south London. His parents are Pakistani immigrants and his father was a bus driver. When Sadiq was made Transport Secretary in 2009, he was the first Muslim to take a high-ranking position in British politics. All of English history and politics is laid out in the family trees of these two men.

Sadiq vs Zac: it has been a nasty campaign, and its terms of abuse have been about attachment, and family; about who can be linked to what, or who is connected to who. Zac loudly claimed that Sadiq had shared a platform at an event with Suliman Gani, the fundamentalist imam at a mosque in south London who was rumoured to support ISIS, but then a photograph emerged of Zac grinning with this same cleric. The next day, Suliman Gani told reporters that he had voted for the Conservative candidate at local elections. Undeterred, Zac accused Sadiq of associating with radicals, and he handed out leaflets which hinted that minorities weren’t really part of Britain. I don’t know about you, but I don’t trust politicians who speak loudly about the importance of keeping things apart: about building walls, and dividing the races. “O, the difference of man and man” declares Goneril in King Lear, and she is a psychopath. For Shakespeare, the perfect villainy lies in those who wish to separate.

On Thursday, I went to vote. Nothing is as local as local politics, and the polling station is a six minute walk from my house in east London. There is no security, and they don’t even ask for ID. Instead, an elderly volunteer hands me a card and points me towards one of the spindly booths lined up at the edge of the school gym. I look at the list of names. It costs £500 to register as a candidate in an election, and £150 to register as a political party, so there are several special-issue parties here. There is one called “Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol,” and another with a crypto-nationalist name, Britain First. I put my cross next to the predictable candidate, and walk home in the sunshine.

By late afternoon on Friday, it was clear that Sadiq had won it. Senior members of the Conservative party started giving interviews to journalists about how they were ashamed of Zac’s nasty and divisive campaign. In one of the ugliest rituals of modern politics, they were turning against their own man, and condemning him because he lost. I think they should have condemned him for being a racist, winner or loser. Across Europe, the headline on newspapers was “London’s first Muslim Mayor,” and this was the point made both by those who supported him and those who were scared. Everyone told a tale of two families. In Paris, Le Monde noted that “the son of an immigrant bus driver from Pakistan” had beaten “the son of a Franco-British Billionaire of Jewish origin.” In America, the right-wing political blog The Drudge Report announced “First Muslim Mayor of Londonistan.” My favourite response came from the American writer Rebecca Solnit. On Facebook, she posted a photograph of the Queen in her customary paisley headscarf, with the caption: “It’s barely been a day and already the Queen is wearing a hijab.”

One enjoyable spin-off of the days following the mayoral election has been a new contest: Sadiq vs Donald. In a irresistible bit of name-calling, Sadiq described Zac’s campaign as “straight out of the Donald Trump playbook,” and in an interview the day after he was elected as the new Mayor of London, Sadiq joked that he hoped to travel to the United States, but that he would have to go soon, “in case Trump gets elected.” This was a reference, of course, to Trump’s promise to ban all Muslims, and Trump responded by offering an “exception” to Sadiq. Sadiq immediately turned it down: “This isn’t just about me,” he said: “it’s about my friends, my family and everyone who comes from a background similar to mine, anywhere in the world.” Quite right, but we might also be a little cynical here, and see in this grandstanding a bid to make local English politics bigger than it is. The Mayor of London has very narrow responsibilities: for the police and public transport. In squabbling with a candidate for the US presidency, Sadiq is suggesting that his position is global, and that all politics are personal.

*    *    *

A few days after the election I went to speak to one of the men who had run in it. He wasn’t one of the winners, but I suspect we might learn more about an election from its losers; he wasn’t even running for Mayor of London, but instead in a by-election for the parliamentary seat of Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough in South Yorkshire. All the names in British politics sound a little medieval: this was simply a contest to elect a new Member of Parliament from a northern constituency, since their standing MP had died unexpectedly in February, and it was scheduled for the same day as the London Mayoral election. The Labour candidate was also the widow of the recently deceased previous MP, and she won in Sheffield, but I went to speak with a man called Bobby Smith. He got 58 votes, or 0.3% of the total. This might be because he campaigned wearing the red furry costume of the Sesame Street character Elmo.

I met Bobby in the sunshine outside a pub in a concrete plaza in a town called Stevenage just north of London. As we shook hands I joked that I thought he might be wearing the Elmo costume, and he told me that it is too hot in that suit. On the night of the election, as the results were announced, the BBC and Sky News showed a video of Elmo standing alongside the other candidates, and as the victory for Labour was announced, Bobby calmly took off the suit and threw it into the crowd, who cheered.

Elections are boring, Bobby tells me, and this is why he dresses up as Elmo. Because the press need something strange or funny to show, and so they show him: a heavy set white man with a shaved head and armfuls of tattoos, dressed up as a children’s character. Then, once he’s got their attention, he can talk to them about what he really cares about, which is equal rights for fathers. Bobby has two daughters, but he has not seen them since 2013. In 2010, he and his partner started a baffling series of court hearings and legal procedures. Bobby was accused of a series of crimes, but never convicted; his partner was given custody of the girls, and since then has stopped all contact; now the UK family court, which is one of the very few courts in Britain to meet in secret sessions, refuses to order that he should be granted access. I don’t blame my ex, he says to me several times during the afternoon, and goes on: the government is supposed to look after us. But it doesn’t. Now he doesn’t know where his daughters live, or where they go to school.

In late 2013, Bobby started the protests. He turned up with banners at the Prime Minister’s country house in Oxfordshire, and the next year he became more audacious. He started dressing up and climbing onto public buildings. In November 2015, he climbed onto the roof of Buckingham Palace. In April 2016 he dressed up as Iron Man and stood on the balcony of Boris Johnson’s house. Johnson was then—and until very recently—the Mayor of London, and a Conservative MP, but Bobby is equally skeptical about all the political parties. There is a video on his website of him trying to stop Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, in the street. For him, all the politicians are the same, and all elections are simply an opportunity to dress up once more.

The idea of the costume doesn’t originate with Bobby. Members of the groups Fathers 4 Justice began dressing up as superheroes—Batman, Superman, Father Christmas—and standing on the tops of buildings and bridges in the early 2000s. But Fathers 4 Justice supported the Conservative party in the 2010 election, and stopped their public protests. On Bobby’s website, there is a legal disclaimer. “All content contained within this is entirely fictional and is intended for entertainment purposes only,” it runs, and: “at the end of the day I can’t be the only fully grown man in the UK who dresses as Elmo, it could have been anyone.” Bobby hopes to draw attention to his cause, and he hopes, too, that his daughters will notice his unlikely, embarrassing campaign. He hopes that they will be able to find him, this way.

There are some unattractive elements to the wider Men’s Rights movements. Their calls and slogans can at times be anti-feminist, even misogynistic; their chest-thumping is often alarmingly conservative in its attitudes towards family and the wider political questions of rights and responsibilities within the state. Political correctness is an easy target. If you search the internet for “masculinism”—the opposite of feminism—you will find some unpleasant results. And yet: suicide rates among men in the UK are alarmingly high, so that 75% of suicides in this country are men, and suicide is the leading cause of death amongst men under the age of 45. Bobby recounts these statistics to me, and he says, any major change in history has come from people holding placards and refusing to move. Once the public are aware, it has to change, he says, like the junior doctors whose recent strike has forced the government to renegotiate their contracts and working hours. But there are 55,000 junior doctors in England, and there is only one Bobby, sweating in an Elmo suit.

Before I leave him, Bobby tells me he has just registered to run again: in the election for a new MP for Tooting, which is the seat which has just been vacated by Sadiq Khan. The election is scheduled for early June, and Bobby has been writing his manifesto. He’s going to call for independence for Tooting, and once the borough has devolved from the rest of the UK he proposes to rename it Elmonia.