Sadiq Khan hits out at Labour London mayoral "beauty parade"

The shadow London minister tells the New Statesman: "I’ve got no interest in being involved in a beauty parade" and accuses Labour's mayoral hopefuls of "playing ego politics."

Although there are no officially declared candidates (with the exception of transport expert Christian Wolmar), it often feels as if the race to be Labour's next London mayoral nominee has already begun. David Lammy, Tessa Jowell,  Andrew Adonis and Diane Abbott are all positioning themselves to stand, with a regular stream of op-eds and other interventions.

In an interview with me in tomorrow's NS, Sadiq Khan, who was appointed shadow minister for London in January, hits out at what he calls "a beauty parade" and accuses his Labour colleagues of "playing ego politics". When I asked Khan why he withdrew from a recent Progress debate on the future of capital, which featured Lammy, Jowell, Adonis and Abbott (the first hustings in all but name), he told me:

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 actually turned into a beauty parade. I’ve got no interest in being involved in a beauty parade, or 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 elections in May 2014.

As shadow minister for London, Khan enjoys the advantage of being able to prepare the ground for a future mayoral bid without being accused of "ego politics". When I pointed out that he was viewed as one of the frontrunners for the post, he notably refused to rule out a bid: "If others want to flatter me and throw me those compliments, I’m not going to reject them, but my focus is definitely on the jobs I’ve asked been by Ed Miliband to do."

Defends the mansion tax against Lammy, Jowell and Abbott

Khan also criticised Lammy, Jowell and Abbott after they denounced Labour's proposed mansion tax as a "tax on London" (at the Progress event) and warned that it would penalise the asset rich but cash poor. He said:

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 rather 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 really address the issue of making sure that we’ve got a fair tax policy.

On Boris Johnson's Thatcher lecture: "simplistic snobbery"

In response to Boris Johnson's recent Margaret Thatcher lecture, in which he argued, "Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130", Khan said:

"I took the trouble of reading the speech, as well as the soundbites, and it was a frankly offensive and ill-thought through speech for the mayor of London to deliver. For a candidate to be the next Conservative Party leader, I can see why a speech talking about the importance of having more grammar schools and rewarding the top 10% can be seen as an attractive speech. But actually, in a city where you’ve got cleaners, bus drivers, hospital porters, working incredibly hard, to make a speech talking about how the lowest 16% should basically just accept it, take it or leave it, and how those top 10% should be given automatic knighthoods, showed a lack of understanding about this city."

He added:

"Let me pose this challenge; if Barack Obama’s IQ was tested at age five, 11, 16 or 18, I doubt whether it would have been very high, he wasn’t necessarily a brilliant student, but he worked hard, he had aspiration, he reached for the top and he’s now president of the United States of America. Or if Nelson Mandela’s IQ had been tested three, five, seven, eight, 12...that sort of simplistic snobbery is not what we want the mayor of this great city to be talking about.

"What he should be saying is every child deserves to fulfil their potential, every school should be a good school, we want to make sure that everyone shares in the joys of London, whether it’s the arts, the culture, the theatre, the academics, every son or daughter of a bus driver, a cleaner, a hospital worker should recognise that the reason why your mum and dad people are doing those jobs is not because they’re not bright but because they’re very important jobs that need to be done in London.

"Give them pride in the work they’re doing. We are a London where we should be one city recognising that, to win the Olympics, the work of the construction worker was just as important as the work of Sebastian Coe."

Pick up tomorrow's New Statesman to read the interview in full. You can also listen to George discussing this interview with Sadiq Khan on the NS podcast:

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

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder