Why Labour are dog-whistling about Zac Goldsmith’s wealth

Sadiq Khan's team have spent recent weeks accusing Zac Goldsmith's team of "dog-whistling" about the Labour London mayoral candidate's background.

They claim that Goldsmith's labelling of Khan as "radical and divisive" is a "coded racist attack" which plays on the fears and prejudices of those who feel uncomfortable about the idea of a Muslim mayor representing the city.

They also point to Goldsmith campaign material which suggests that "it's not clear where Sadiq Khan stands" on Islamic extremism.

Whatever Goldsmith's denials, there is the definite sound of a dog-whistle to this line of attack and it's a sound which many Conservative supporters seem to have heard.

But if you listen very closely there's also a very high pitched sound emanating from the Khan camp.

Until now Labour have repeatedly insisted that they don't plan to make an issue of Goldsmith's own background.

They don't mean it. There's a reason Sadiq Khan endlessly mentions that his dad was a bus driver, and it's not because Londoners have an extraordinary affection for the men and women who drive the number 44 to Tooting.

Similarly, there's a reason why Khan's team repeatedly mention that Goldsmith's sole work experience before becoming an MP was editing a "magazine owned by his uncle" and it's not because they believe the public hate magazine editors.

The real reason Khan's team have made such a big issue of Khan's 'ordinary' background is because they are deliberately trying to contrast it with the far more remarkable background of the Conservative candidate.

Today they released a spoof CV (seen above) for "Frank Zacharias Robin Goldsmith" who they attack for his "lack of work experience" and being a "serial underachiever."

It also makes several digs at his background, pointing out that "he was left money by his daddy" and has "followed his father and two MP grandfathers into politics."

The advert is none too subtle. But let's be honest, Goldsmith's background really is quite remarkable. Here in Britain we have become used to being represented by very wealthy politicians. After all, both the current mayor of London and the prime minister are former schoolmates at Eton and it didn't stop either of them from winning two terms in office

But even in a country as dominated by a wealthy elite as the UK is, Goldsmith stands out as being from a different league.

Estimates of his wealth vary. When Zac's father Sir James Goldsmith died in 1997, he left his children with a £1.2 billion fortune in trust. Seven years ago, tax experts estimated that Goldsmith's share of that trust would net him at least £5 million a year, without so much as lifting a finger.

Boris faced much criticism a few years back after labelling his £250,000 salary from the Daily Telegraph as "chicken feed". But if Boris considered that chicken feed, then Zac wouldn't even consider it sparrow feed. 

Goldsmith has never said exactly how much he gets from his family trust. However, he has not been exactly shy about talking about his wealthy background either. Famously kicked out of Eton for smoking cannabis, Zac went on an extended gap year in the Himalayas and California, before returning to edit the Ecologist, then owned by his uncle.

Asked by the Guardian in 2000 whether he'd been handed the job out of nepotism, he replied: "The point about nepotism: sure, if I wasn't Teddy's nephew, it wouldn't have ended up in my lap.

"[But] If I discovered tomorrow that I was doing a bad job, I'd leave" adding that "In 10 years' time, I might be an eco terrorist."

The magazine routinely lost money under his editorship, but Goldsmith didn't seem to mind. "The prime purpose of money for me personally is to enable me to do what I'm doing," he explained.

He boasted that his wealth meant he was immune from legal threats, saying that when people threatened to sue the Ecologist for libel, he would encourage them to do so and even offer to pay their costs.

Later Goldsmith was persuaded by David Cameron to take up politics. Goldsmith was a curious choice, given his past comments about the party. Of former leader William Hague, he once said "I'd have to drug myself before I voted for him. Get drunk beforehand. And then wash myself afterwards". However, when asked why he had joined the Tories, he replied that: "I am not politically ambitious, and I do not need a career in this world". He insisted that he'd merely joined because he fancied a "punt" at being a politician.

Goldsmith's rise in politics was not straightforward however. In 2009, while standing in Richmond, there was huge controversy after it was revealed that Goldsmith retained non-dom status for tax purposes.

Goldsmith no longer carries that particular privilege, however there was further controversy in 2010 when Goldsmith was accused by Channel Four News of misreporting his election expenses. In a famously explosive interview with John Snow, Goldsmith went on the attack, accusing Snow of being a "charlatan" and filibustereed the entire interview with a rant about when he was asked to come on. The electoral commission later found some "concerns" about Goldsmith's expenses but cleared him of any criminal wrongdoing. However, the row and Zac's remarkable performance left lasting doubts about his ability to cope under fire. He has reportedly since turned down front bench roles in government. 

Taken together, it is easy to see why Goldsmith has often been written off. Writing in the Times earlier this year, Janice Turner wrote that "Dilettante Zac doesn't deserve to be mayor" and compared Goldsmith's easy-going life and manner to the ambition and determination of his predecessor.

"Whatever you think of the blonde Lannister-lookalikes, the Johnsons are self-made overachievers who went to posh schools on scholarships and got top Oxford degrees because they are pathologically competitive," Turner wrote. Zac, by contrast, is not.

There is also a major difference in how the wider public see Goldsmith. Johnson, for all his faults, does have an eye for a populist comment or policy. There's a reason why Johnson did relatively well among lower paid voters in the last two mayoral elections and its not to do with his housing or transport policies. With his good humour and ear for a winning phrase, Boris is able to connect with the public in a way which even his predecessor, the lifelong working class Londoner Ken Livingstone, was never quite able to match.

The early signs are that Goldsmith does not have anything like that ability. Perhaps for that reason, Goldsmith (who is currently on paternity leave) has been notably absent from the limelight in these early stages of the campaign. Indeed in recent weeks it has sometimes felt like it is Boris rather than Zac who is running for mayor. Anyone receiving one of Goldsmith's campaign leaflets through the door in recent days will have been hit by almost as many mentions and images of Boris as there are of the actual Conservative candidate.

The polling also suggests that while Boris was a definite asset to his party in 2008 and 2012, running well ahead of his party in the polls, Zac is so far not having that effect. The latest mayoral poll suggests just 35% of Londoners plan to vote for Zac, compared to 37% who plan to vote for the Conservatives.

Khan by contrast is slightly ahead of his party's vote on 45% to 44%. While the Tooting MP may not exactly be whipping up Londoners into a state of Khanmania, he doesn't really need to be. In order for Khan to win, he needs to hold onto Labour's vote. In order for Goldsmith to win, he needs to significantly outpoll his own party. So far he's failing to do that.

Goldsmith is a charismatic and handsome politician who has the potential for cross-party appeal. He also has a good election-winning record in his own seat, having massively increased his majority last year. However, he is relatively unknown in the rest of London, with the little that Londoners do know about him, not being entirely positive.

Labour know this, which is why they are already trying to fix an image of the Richmond MP as an aristocratic dilettante, before he can fix a different image himself.

Yesterday, both Khan and Goldsmith appeared in the Commons to debate the Housing bill. When Khan stood up, he warned that London risked becoming the preserve of a "wealthy elite". There was clearly one wealthy and elite figure in particular who he had in mind.

If Labour were to run an overtly class-based campaign, it would fail. As Boris has proven, most Londoners are not class-warriors on either side of the battle lines. If they can be convinced that Goldsmith has their best interests at heart, then he still has every chance of winning.

But by repeatedly highlighting Khan's own 'ordinary' background, Labour hope that voters will join the dots about Goldsmith's very far from ordinary background themselves.