London vs. the Culture War

With monumental challenges facing the capital city, why are the mayoral candidates mainly basing their campaigns on nonsense?

London vs. the Culture War

Optimistic voters would be forgiven for hoping that, even as British politics rapidly loses its credibility, the London elections would retain some integrity. When the official ‘London Elects’ leaflet lands at your doorstep containing phrases like ‘Third World cesspit’ and ‘Stand Up to Woke’ I fear said hope is misplaced. 

Culture War

Post-Brexit Britain has grown accustomed to inflammatory, bigoted discourse. The calamity of Brexit, COVID-19 scandals and the mismanagement of the cost of living crisis have landed this Conservative government in an inescapable political depression that threatens to doom them. In the absence of any legitimate solutions, the government has turned to culture wars. Right-wingers have stoked social anxieties around migration, safety and identity to scare voters into submission, at the expense of the diverse tapestry of people that actually make up modern Britain. This is often referred to as dog whistle politics; designed to attract a certain demographic of voter. From centring its identity around sending refugees to Rwanda, to transphobic jibes in the presence of Brianna Ghey’s mother, the government has set the bar so impossibly low that it may as well not exist at all. The gloves are off and grassroots politicians are looking to exploit these fears for their own gain. 

Radical Misinformation

“In the depths of these narrow passageways tread squads of ULEZ (Ultra Low Emission Zone) enforcers dressed in black,” narrates an American voice, over grainy black and white footage. “Faces covered with masks, terrorising communities at the beck and call of their Labour master.” This now-deleted Conservative campaign advert went on to incorrectly assert that Mayor of London Sadiq Khan “seized power” and included a clip of panicked crowds in a New York City subway station. 

Conservative candidate Susan Hall has done little to raise the decorum; mailing flyers to Londoners deceptively designed to look like a penalty fine, claiming that Khan is planning on introducing a pay-per-mile charge for drivers (something the Mayor has in fact pledged not to do). Scandalising ULEZ is likely to win some votes amongst suburban Londoners who rely on their cars, but at what cost? Misinformation like this has fuelled a surge of racist and Islamophobic abuse directed towards Khan, contributing to a broader environment of racial hostility in the capital. According to The Guardian, Khan has received over 300,000 pieces of racist abuse since being elected in 2016, with a spike after the introduction of ULEZ.

Susan Hall has personally liked overtly racist content on X (formerly Twitter), including one post with an image of Enoch Powell with the caption “it’s never too late to save your country,” and another post referring to Khan as the “nipple-height mayor of Londonistan.” Britain First candidate Nick Scanlon has used more brazen discourse, claiming that “London is fast-becoming a Third World cesspit, where crime is rampant and radical Islamic extremists dominate the streets!” This quote – printed in the official ‘London Elects’ leaflet and delivered to doorsteps around the capital – carries abhorrently racist motifs of disease, poverty and colonialism. Xenophobia like this is a large part of the government’s strategy to win votes and was central to achieving Brexit. But can it work in London? A survey by anti-fascist group Hope not Hate revealed that 74% of Londoners don’t think that a London Mayoral candidate who likes racist and Islamophobic comments can fairly represent all Londoners, underlining the incongruence of xenophobic politics to the capital.  

The Woke Question

Initially defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “aware of social and political issues, especially racism,” Woke very quickly became a lightning rod for right-wing critics and is almost exclusively used pejoratively: Snowflakes, Guardian-reading tofu-eating wokerati, etcetera. As anti-Woke outrage becomes more performative it is increasingly difficult to judge how much of it is genuine and how much is a charade to win votes. Social Democratic Party candidate Amy Gallagher personifies this. Upon hearing that Gallagher “passionately believes that everyone should be treated equally” and that as mayor she would “protect religious freedoms, women’s sex-based rights and gay rights,” you would assume that she reads The Guardian and eats tofu. But then you see her tagline – Stand Up to Woke – and hear that as mayor she would make it her priority to “defund divisive diversity and inclusive spending.” This contradictory messaging suggests that she is either suffering an identity crisis or simply throwing the term around in an attempt to snatch a few votes – probably both. 

Predictably, Woke has been a focal point for many candidates. Nick Scanlon bemoans “spending on woke nonsense,” whilst Reform UK’s Howard Cox vows to “sack police chiefs who put woke priorities before tackling crime.” Whilst it is difficult to confirm what these candidates refer to exactly, it is reasonable to assume that the mayor’s ULEZ initiative and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programmes fall into the category of ‘Woke nonsense.’ So let’s say for a moment that these policies are scrapped. Where does that leave us? What does that do for the main concerns of Londoners: housing, health services and the cost of living? Do candidates genuinely expect to sell their plans to slash diversity funding to a city that is nothing but diverse? Tokenistic politics like this fail to address the endemic causes of the issues that affect Londoners and, whilst they might make some right-leaning voters feel heard, are very unlikely to win many votes.

London’s London

Over the past few years, British politics has become a battleground for a Culture War, attacking principles of equality at the expense of the most historically marginalised members of our society. The government has been able to harness social anxieties to retain some support. But what London is – who London is – is fundamentally opposite to this and in the Mayoral election, the dog whistle will fall mostly on deaf ears. 

Article by Marley Markham

Follow Marley on Instagram


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