Sadiq Khan interview: "housing, housing, housing" is the priority for London

The shadow London minister says the capital needs 800,000 new houses and criticises Labour's London mayoral "beauty parade".

Spend an hour with Sadiq Khan and you will leave feeling more optimistic about the future of British politics. The sharp-suited shadow justice secretary combines energy and charisma with a meticulous grasp of his brief and a gift for speaking fluently without lapsing into press-release jargon.

It is these qualities that Khan is seeking to put to use in his new role as shadow minister for London. Eleven months after he took over the post from Tessa Jowell, the MP for Tooting has edited a Fabian pamphlet entitled Our London: the Capital Beyond 2015, with contributions from Doreen Lawrence on racial diversity, Andrew Adonis on transport infrastructure, Bonnie Greer on the arts and the Green peer Jenny Jones on the environment. “It’s not a Labour booklet; I’ve deliberately sought not to be tribal,” Khan says when we meet at Portcullis House, Westminster. “Some of this stuff wouldn’t be in the Labour manifesto, let’s be frank – some of it isn’t Labour policy at the moment – but these are the sorts of discussions we should be having as people who care about London.”

He contrasts his urgency with Boris Johnson’s ill-defined vision. “My big criticism is not that he’s a part-time mayor, or that he’s distracted in his job by becoming the next leader of the Conservative Party. My biggest criticism of him is his lack of ambition for London.”

Khan’s own chapter reflects on what, echoing Tony Blair on education, he describes as the three biggest issues facing the capital: “housing, housing, housing”. Having grown up on a council estate in Earlsfield, south London, before his father, a bus driver, saved enough to buy his own home, he tells me: “I understand how important council housing is. I actually think it’s got so bad that housing is the single biggest challenge facing London politicians of my generation.”

While Ed Miliband has pledged to build at least 200,000 homes a year by 2020 if Labour is elected, Khan points out: “The number of new houses we’ll need in London is, according to councils, 800,000 . . . it’s arguable that London could take it all. We’ve got big, big questions and no one’s talking about them.”

Would he like to see the cap on council borrowing removed to allow local authorities to build more affordable housing? “That’s one of the things we’re exploring with Ed Balls. There are a number of options we have. What I’m hoping is that the lobbying pays off . . . it’s a good example of London setting the agenda.”

The mention of Balls prompts me to ask Khan for his thoughts on the shadow chancellor’s much-criticised response to George Osborne’s Autumn Statement. “The reality is, in that House of Commons chamber, when Ed Balls stood up, there was a wall of sound and it was quite clear, whatever he would have said, that the Tories had orchestrated and organised to give him a hard time, and that was going to happen. You can either plough through it, or allow yourself to be defeated by the Tories.” He ends with those words often regarded as the political kiss of death: “Ed Balls has the full confidence of the shadow cabinet, I’m sure.”

One of the policies announced by Balls and Labour – the introduction of a mansion tax to fund the return of the 10p tax band – was recently criticised by Jowell, David Lammy and Diane Abbott, all likely candidates for the 2016 Labour mayoral nomination, as a “tax on London” that would penalise the asset-rich but cash-poor. Khan does not disguise his anger at their comments. “All I say to colleagues, in the kindest, politest way, is: ‘Actually, you look at the bigger picture. Are you in favour of trying to help those who own the least by giving them a new rate of tax at 10p? If you are, then ask yourself how you go about doing that.’ What I’d [like to] do is work collegiately with senior members of the Labour Party to find a policy that works, rather than going for the cheap soundbite, which doesn’t address the issue of making sure that we’ve got a fair tax policy.”

Lammy, Abbott and Jowell were speaking at an event hosted by Progress at which Khan was scheduled to appear but from which he pulled out. “When I was first asked to do the Progress event, I was told it was going to be a forum to discuss ideas about London and it was quite clear to me that it was turned into a beauty parade,” he says. In an uncoded rebuke to those already positioning themselves to win the mayoral selection contest, he adds: “I’ve got no interest in playing ego politics. It’s about me making sure that I do the job I’ve been given as shadow minister for London with the seriousness it deserves.

“I’m a member of Team Labour. My obsession is to make sure we do the best we can in the local elections in May 2014.”

When I point out that Khan’s pamphlet is likely to be seen as his own pitch for the mayoral nomination, he replies: “I think the job of a conscientious, hard-working shadow minister for London is to bring together the best ideas in the business and do this booklet. If I was running for the job of mayor of London, this would not be the time to be having long, deep discussions about the future direction of London, but I think it’s important for London’s future and for Labour’s future. I’m not interested in a beauty parade or a contest of personalities.”

But he notably refuses to deny that he has an interest in the post: “If others want to flatter me and throw me those compliments, I’m not going to reject them.”

Sadiq Khan speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Power Games

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.