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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“We don’t BeLiviu”: how Romania is rising against corruption

Night after night, activists gather in Victory Square to demand the resignation of the government.

For much of the year, the large tarmac square in front of the main government building in Bucharest is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded by towering, communist-era blocks on one side and a wedge-shaped park on the other.

But when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these past weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent-up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction in which the country is heading and the way many politicians continue to use the public purse as a source of cash for their personal use. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in power for less than a month, sneaked in a piece of emergency legislation during a late-night session to weaken the punishment for abuse of power, negligence while in office and conflict of interest. In effect, the move decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage caused amounted to less than roughly £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll even though they do not work for the state. He is one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he has already faced the courts, earning a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister despite his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and, once, half a million took to the streets to protest. On 5 February, between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across Romania, with 300,000 in the government square alone. Demonstrations have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in the country, as well as in the Romanian diaspora.

The government backed down on its immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week and, despite snowfall, show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, civil servants, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate as if they were above the law. This was certainly not helped by the attempts to change the anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The demonstrations, the largest in the country since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that is increasingly using the streets as a communication platform. Large-scale protests in Romania also brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that left 64 dead, and before that, mass protests during the 2014 presidential election, this time over mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, although, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February, the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering night after night in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the government building is officially known – are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, but would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and the prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protesters have become very creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have appeared, as have messages written with lasers and projected on to nearby buildings. Some have shone the Batman symbol on to the roof of a nearby museum, a funny (or perhaps desperate) plea for help. The national anthem is often sung. On Sunday, a sea of protesters held up pieces of paper coloured over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination evident and it has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February the national parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, as proposed by the protest-supporting president. But most of those on the streets these past weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Many Romanians are increasingly frustrated that they have to head out to protest time and again in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that the present political class can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Even so, she – like so many others – is likely to continue to go out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, in order to make sure her voice gets heard.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times