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

Corbyn is personally fireproof, but his manifesto could be torched by the Brexit blaze

There is no evidence that EU migration has depressed wages – but most Labour MPs believe it has.

News, like gas, expands to fill the space available to it. That’s why the summer recess can so often be a time of political discomfort for one party or another. Without the daily grind of life at Westminster, difficult moments can linger. Minor rows become front-page news.

There are many reasons why Theresa May is spending three weeks hiking in northern Italy and Switzerland, and one of them is that it is hard to have a leadership crisis if your leader is elsewhere. That makes the summer particularly dangerous for Labour. The danger is heightened as the majority of the press is unsympathetic to the party and the remainder is simply bored. Even a minor crisis could turn into a catastrophe.

Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show on 23 July, therefore, carried the same risks as juggling lit matches in a dry forest. The Labour leader ruled out continuing participation in the single market after Britain leaves the political structures of the European Union. For good measure, he added that the “wholesale importation” of people from eastern and central Europe had been used to undermine pay and conditions for British workers. Both statements only aggravate the stress fractures in the Labour movement and in its electoral coalition.

The good news for the Labour leader is that he is fireproof. Only God or Corbyn himself can prevent him from leading the party into the next election, whenever it comes, and no one will be foolish enough to try to remove him, even if they had the inclination. Also, while the question of what flavour of Brexit to pursue divides Labour in the country, it doesn’t divide Labour at Westminster. Most Labour MPs nodded along in agreement with Corbyn during the Marr interview. They believe – as the shadow international trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, outlined a day later – that remaining in the customs union and the single market would be a betrayal of the wishes of Leave voters, who want full control over Britain’s borders and laws.

There is no evidence that migration from the eastern bloc has depressed wages. But most Labour MPs believe that it has. “I am convinced,” one formerly pro-European MP told me, “that no matter what the studies say, immigration has reduced wages.”

Most of the Labour people who are willing to kick up a fuss about “hard” Brexit are outside parliament. These include the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, who wants Britain to remain in the single market; the general secretary of the TSSA union, Manuel Cortes, who recently used the New Statesman website to urge the party to keep all of its options open, including a second referendum to keep Britain in the EU; and the rapper Akala, who lambasted Corbyn’s interview on Twitter. While a large minority of Labour MPs back a softer version of Brexit, they are a minority, and not a large enough one to combine with Tory dissidents to make a Commons majority, even when the votes of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green MP Caroline Lucas are taken into account.

This increases the party’s dependence on Jeremy Corbyn. As the leader’s aides observe, even among the quarter of the country that believes the government should simply overturn the referendum result, only a quarter of that quarter do so because they have a particular affection for the institutions of the European Union.

For the majority of hard Remainers, Brexit is a significant battleground in a larger culture war, one in which Corbyn is otherwise in perfect alignment with their values. His electoral appeal to Labour MPs is that he is someone who can say the same things on Brexit and migration as Yvette Cooper or Stephen Kinnock previously did, but without losing votes in England’s great cities.

The electoral threat to Labour from backing a harder form of exit is, in any case, often overstated. The first-past-the-post system makes the Liberal Democrats an inadequate refuge for anguished Remainers in England, while the SNP’s support for Scottish independence makes it an unsuitable home for Labour refugees in Scotland. Team Corbyn feels that Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats’ new leader, will struggle to convince Labour voters that he can be trusted because of the role he played in designing the new system of tuition fees (having previously pledged to vote against them). In any case, the risk of letting in a Conservative prime minister – probably one committed to a version of Brexit even harder than Labour’s – further locks Remainers in Labour’s corner.

That leaves Labour in Westminster free to pursue a version of Brexit that meets the needs of both the leadership, which relishes the freedom to pursue a more radical economic policy unconstrained by the European Union, and Labour MPs, particularly those with seats in Yorkshire and the Midlands, who are concerned about opposition to immigration in their constituencies. This has the happy side effect of forcing the Conservatives to take the blame for delivering any Brexit deal that falls short of the promises made by Vote Leave during the referendum and in the high-blown rhetoric used by Theresa May during the election campaign.

However, all is not rosy. What most Labour MPs seem to have forgotten is that Brexit is not simply a political battleground – something to be leveraged to reduce the number of complaints about migration and to hasten the Tory government into an early grave. There is a political victory to be had by using the Brexit process to clobber the government. But there is also a far bigger defeat in store for the left if leaving the EU makes Britain poorer and more vulnerable to the caprice of international finance. That Jeremy Corbyn is personally fireproof doesn’t mean that his manifesto can’t be torched by the Brexit blaze. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue