In the London Mayoral race mainstream politicians must stop a genuine debate on crime from being hijacked by the radical right. 

In the last few days the Conservative Party candidate for Mayor of London, Shaun Bailey, has been tweeting prolifically with the hashtag #MakeLondonSafe. It’s a central part of his campaign against the current incumbent, intending to focus minds on Sadiq Khan’s first-term record on crime and policing. Bailey and his supporters believe that responsibility for the rise in certain violent crimes in London since 2015 lies ultimately with Khan, and that replacing him with a Conservative mayor is the only way to reduce crime rates. Whatever one thinks of that argument, the hashtag seems a pretty standard, uncontroversial campaigning slogan – but a quick look into its origin flags the potential for it to be utilised to convey radical right sentiments.  

In December, Shaun Bailey originally adopted the slightly different hashtag #MakeLondonSafeAgain, tweeting it on nine separate occasions. It had also been used by his campaign team and some high-profile supporters. The slogan echoes Donald Trump’s 2016 slogan ‘Make America Great Again’, a surprising choice for someone aspiring to lead a city as diverse as London. Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign was the most overtly racist and vitriolic since the civil rights era, characterised by vicious campaign rallies in which he denigrated Latino migrants as predominantly rapists and criminals, proposed banning all Muslim immigration and made numerous false allegations against the media and political rivals. That association alone should be enough for any candidate to avoid using it, especially one who has previously apologised for making offensive statements about London’s ethnic diversity.

But this adapted slogan did not originate with Shaun Bailey’s campaign. The slogan was coined by Yanny Bruere, a self-styled free speech activist who gained notoriety in early July 2018 by launching a successful crowdfunding campaign to produce a Sadiq Khan balloon, in response to the mocking effigy raised by those protesting against Donald Trump’s visit to London which portrayed the US President as a crying infant. On 25th July 2018, Bruere created the Make London Safe Again page on Facebook to capitalise on the popularity of his Crowdfunder campaign. The page seeks to highlight cases of violent crime in London, posting articles from media outlets as well sharing footage and photos of street violence recorded by witnesses.

An investigation by the investigative journalism website Bellingcat later found that Bruere had used since-deleted Twitter accounts to post antisemitic conspiracy theories alleging that Israel created ISIS and that the White House had been ‘hijacked’ by Zionists. Bruere claimed that those tweets had been taken out of context, but his decision on the 15th of July to give an interview to Paul Joseph Watson on the Alex Jones Show – and to retweet him over ninety times since – is a further indication that he is not averse to peddlers of conspiracy theories. He also used that interview to say that the blimp, which had not been designed at that stage, would “have to capture the horrible features of Sadiq Khan, you know, the horrible hook nose”. 

The ‘About’ section on Bruere’s personal Facebook page gives a clue as to his political leanings, and suggest that his objections to Khan might extend beyond his record on policing:

“Against political correctness. Pro free speech. Make London Safe Again”

Similarly, text from the now-dormant website makelondonsafeagain.org.uk (archived here) and the merchandise available from the online shop suggest that concern for the safety of Londoners was not Bruyere’s  predominant concern in launching his campaign against Sadiq Khan, and that his echoing of Donald Trump’s campaign slogan was reflective of a broader sympathy with the US President:

Much of this was born out of irritation and surprise that the London Mayor had made such an unprofessional decision to mock the president of the United States of America during his visit to London, especially with political knowledge that the USA is the United Kingdom’s greatest ally”

Along with cataloguing incidences of violent crime in London, the Make London Safe Again page on Facebook has posted dubious content that plays into Islamophobic and antisemitic tropes:

The comments sections on page posts that reveal the identities of perpetrators from BME backgrounds are riddled with racist comments:

Once Bruere announced his protest on Twitter, the hashtag immediately took on Twitter, and was quickly adopted by a rogues gallery of alt-right and unpleasant figures, including Katie Hopkins, Raheem Kassam, David Vance, Godfrey Bloom and the Tommy Robinson News Network. While they may find crime statistics a useful stick to beat the mayor with, these figures make no secret of their dislike of immigration and diversity in the capital, which they believe is the true source of the capital’s ills. It is certainly not a list that one would expect a prospective mayor would wish to add his name to. 

Perhaps with these associations in mind, Bailey’s campaign advisors decided to quietly drop a word and repurpose the original hashtag. It’s not possible to say why Bailey thought adopting the slogan would be a good idea in the first place, perhaps it was a genuine and unwitting mistake, but it’s a welcome change that his campaign are no longer directly mimicking the language of extreme figures. 

It’s not a coincidence that crime in the only European capital with a Muslim mayor has become a focus for the radical right populists. President Trump has directly attacked Khan on the issue on Twitter and frequently tweeted content focusing on crime in multicultural places such as Malmo in Sweden – the unspoken, though unsubtle, link being between immigration and criminality. It’s a pattern of argument that predominates across both the radical and the far-right.

Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with expressing concern about crime rates in the capital, it will be a central issue in this election, but bearing in mind the toxicity of the 2016 Mayoral Race, in which Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith tried to link Khan to Islamic extremists, it’s important that the Conservatives don’t allow #MakeLondonSafe to become a new, sanitised dog whistle around which racists can congregate to empower dangerous and divisive politics. 

Shaun Bailey’s campaign team were contacted for a response to this story but had not replied at the time of publication. This piece will be updated with their comment if they send one.