‘London’s shop steward’

First published in Progress magazine

The soon-to-be mayor of London Sadiq Khan talks to Richard Angell and Adam Harrison, and he is hungry for new powers

We lost to everyone, everywhere’, says Sadiq Khan, quoting his friend and colleague Jon Cruddas, Labour’s former policy chief speaking on the party’s defeat last May. Scotland was a wipeout, few marginal seats were won, and the Tories even took the constituency of Gower for the first time ever. In another first, Labour lost to the Tories among Sikh and Hindu communities, and in every age category over 44. There is one exception: the capital city. In London, Labour polled 300,000 more votes than the Tories. This should be more than enough to propel the son of a bus driver into city hall this May.

Khan, however, is not complacent. His office is a hive of activity. We struggle to find a quiet spot to huddle as meeting rooms are filled with campaigning briefings and organiser training, and the phones are ringing off the hook. Karen Buck, a long-time ally of Khan and winner against the odds in hyper-marginal Westminster North, is meeting with councillor and housing lead James Murray, who splits his time between Islington town hall, the leader’s office and the mayoral campaign. The staff make up the rich diversity of Labour’s political family – everyone from ardent Corbynista to ‘redeployed’ former Michael Dugher adviser. The whole Labour family has jumped behind the member of parliament for Tooting.

Khan is certainly running an energetic campaign, popping up all over the city. ‘I dream about the campaign, wake up with ideas, and there is a buzz’, says the wannabe mayor. ‘We’re having fun’, he insists, ‘which is very important. And I’m loving the campaign. [Every day] I go to bed fizzing with ideas.’ The cycle, it seems, continues. This is a marked contrast to Tory Zac Goldsmith who looks sluggish and complacent in comparison.

He sets out his initial task: to be ‘London’s shop steward’. In the next ‘100 or so days’ Khan says he must ‘demonstrate that [he] will be everyone’s mayor.’ ‘There’s a great phrase that Tessa [Jowell] had during the selection process called “One London”.’ He continues: ‘If you meet successful mayors – not just in this country but around the world – the most successful mayors [are] non-tribal mayors.’

He says he has a ‘32-borough strategy’ to match this ambition. In direct contrast to Ed Miliband’s pre-May 2015 ‘35 per cent strategy’ of winning the previous election’s Labour voters and some Liberal Democrats, Khan insists he is ‘speaking to people who voted Conservative in May.’

‘We’ve got to demand more powers for London’, he insists. Manchester and other city-regions are catching up with London, and in health devolution have been overtaking. Londoners, Khan suggests, ‘need to be in charge of rehabilitation, skills, FE; we need to be in charge of part of health services.’ The United Kingdom remains, ‘the most centralised democracy in the world … If you compare and contrast all the powers of the mayor and [those] the local authorities in London have versus New York and Tokyo, it’s stark: in London we spend seven per cent of the monies raised [in the city]; in New York it’s 50 per cent, in Tokyo it’s 70 per cent.’

‘Devolution doesn’t mean the mayor taking powers from local authorities’. Khan gives examples of the opposite. ‘If [mayor of Hackney] Jules [Pipe] was in charge of what courses local FE ran, if Jules could get employees involved, you’d have people leaving FE colleges with the skills local employers need.’ Why should London councils not get more powers, given their track record of exciting innovations? ‘Last week I was in Camden, under the brilliant leadership of Sarah Hayward … They had a piece of land [and rather than] sell that land to a developer – where you can bring in big money to provide essential services – Sarah said, “We’ve got a housing crisis in Camden, we’ll keep this land, and what we’ll do is work with a developer to have half of homes on this site affordable homes for Camden, the other half for market value.” Not simply have Sarah’s team ensured half the homes on that site that are genuinely affordable but also used the revenue to refurbish the council estate next door.’ It is impressive stuff.

The first mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, is a friend and mentor of Khan. His former Labour opponent to be Labour’s candidate for mayor of London Nicky Gavron coined the phrase to describe him as the ‘Zone one mayor’. Is the 2016 hopeful worried about the same charge? ‘What’s really important is that we understand that the problems in Camden are different to the problems and challenges in Barking and Dagenham or Redbridge’, he insists. Outer boroughs are full of ‘upwardly mobile’ people who have ‘become successful’ and ‘moved from a flat to a home, or a two-bedroom home to a three- or four-bedroom home with a garden’. Zones three and beyond are ‘great places to live’, Khan argues, partly due to access to ‘parks, schools [and] hospitals’ and ‘[my administration] will recognise that.’

He has two big ideas for London’s future, which he is keen to credit to big figures on the left. Homes for Londoners – the new agency using Transport for London land across London to build affordable units to buy and rent – was an idea worked up and championed by Khan’s summer rival Jowell. The second is ‘Skills for Londoners’. ‘It’s an idea I pinched from Bill de Blasio in New York’, he boasts. His soon-to-be counterpart, ‘set up a tech talent pipeline working in the tech sector’. The New York mayor, ‘helped devise the curriculum’ and Khan thinks he can do the same while he ‘gets schools involved and inspire[s] young people’. ‘That way we’ll make sure the people who are needed for finance, tech, culture, manufacturing low carbon, are in the capital and ready to work’, he argues.

Goldsmith and the Tories, Khan believes, are showing how ‘out of touch they are’. They are literally ‘demonstrating [it through] their policies’: ‘a so-called starter home costing £450,000, which Shelter – the national housing charity – say you need an average annual salary of £77,000 and deposit of £98,000, are not affordable or accessible to average Londoners’.

So what will the capital be like after a term under Khan? ‘In four years’ time, we’ll have started the process of fixing the housing crisis. In [another] four years we’ll be able to fix the problems completely. In four years’ time you’ll be paying the same on public transport – fares on the buses, the DLR and Overground – as you’re paying [now]. Hopefully … more people [will be] receiving a living wage than they are now. In four years’ time I’d also like to see more progress in making the air less of a killer.’ Between 2004-2010, 10,000 Londoners died from air pollution and there are children in parts of London whose lungs are underdeveloped. ‘We are currently in breach of a supreme court judgement about air quality. I’d like that to change in four years’ time.’

With the ‘Main Gate’ decision on the Trident submarines due before the summer, it is highly likely the Tooting MP will have to wade into the issue. What will Khan do when faced with a choice on Britain’s continuous at-sea deterrent? ‘I cannot foresee any circumstances at all where I would vote to unilaterally get rid of a nuclear deterrent. It’s important people understand, right, a nuclear determent is just that: it deters others from sending their weapons towards you. And it’s worked … I’d like to live in a world where there aren’t nuclear weapons, but at a time when North Korea is testing weapons, at a time when Russia has expanded into Ukraine, at a time when none of us by the way can foresee what’s going to happen in the next five years, to unilaterally get rid of [Trident], I think it would not be wise. And I can’t think of any circumstance in which I would support that.’

Team Goldsmith believe Khan’s achilles heel is that he nominated Jeremy Corbyn last year – a fact his Tory opponent is going to ensure he is forever associated with. Labour’s candidate is not being complacent. Goldsmith had his first run-in with team Khan over his use of the words ‘radical and divisive’ in a leaflet to all Londoners associating the Labour candidate and Labour leader. Khan calls out the ‘dog-whistle’ politics with which Goldsmith’s campaign manager Lynton Crosby has long been associated. Highlighting the Muslim heritage of the Tooting MP is a ‘strategy that his advisers have told him may help him win an election.’ ‘I would have thought Zac is bigger and better than that … I hope he is.’

Khan is keen to emphasise the independence he will have as ‘London’s champion, London’s advocate’. And not only in standing up to the Conservative government. ‘That can be, by the way,’ he adds, ‘sometimes [standing up] to the Labour leadership, if, for example, I think there are policies pushing forward that I don’t think are in London’s interest.’

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