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Sadiq Khan interview: “London can’t have somebody stuck in the 1980s or 1990s”

The Labour London mayoral candidate on why he is the "modern" figure the city needs, Tessa Jowell's "control freakery", and Islamist extremism. 

"You’ve brought the sun out!" says Sadiq Khan as he greets me on the rooftop of Boxpark in Shoreditch, east London. I quickly slake my thirst with the water provided by his aide but Khan does not. The Tooting MP and devout Muslim has begun fasting for Ramadan, abstaining from food and drink for 19 hours a day.

If Khan, who is 44, is low on energy it does not show. The former shadow justice secretary speaks fluently and passionately about his bid to become Labour’s London mayoral candidate and his vision for the capital.

He reveals his intention, if he wins, to establish the Bazalgette Award, named in honour of Joseph Bazalgette, the Victorian creator of the city's sewer network. "We know London's got huge problems in relation to infrastructure, in relation to environmental concerns, in relation to simple things like not having air conditioning on the tube ... 150 years ago London also had problems and people with foresight designed sewers, for example, fit not just for the 19th century but still working in the 21st century ...

"What it will be is an award for innovation, for solutions, so I’ll be saying to Londoners and those around the world, 'Look, here are some of our problems, if you come up with a solution not only will you get an award, not only will you get reward money, we’ll spend money to do feasibility studies, we’ll spend money to consult, we’ll spend money to make sure that your ideas bear fruit.'" 

He also vows to introduce "Skills for Londoners" - a partnership between business, the mayoralty and educational institutions, modelled on programmes such as New York mayor Bill de Blasio’s Jobs for New Yorkers and Tech Talent Pipeline. Khan promises to "train Londoners for the skills of tomorrow: tech, creative industries, low carbon, manufacturing". He notes that Tech City, where we are sitting, "now rivals the finance sector in relation to what it contributes to our country” and asks “What about the next Tech City? I’m going to be the mayor who thinks about tomorrow’s jobs."

Khan continues: "London’s a modern city and it needs a modern mayor ... What I think we can’t have as a city is somebody stuck in the 1980s or 1990s, we need somebody who’s thinking about the 2020s." His words are a coded attack on rival candidates Diane Abbott, the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington since 1987, and Tessa Jowell, who served in Tony Blair’s cabinet. "Tessa and Diane have been in politics since I was at school and I’ve got a huge amount of respect for them, it’s on their shoulders that many of us stand,” he tells me. “I don’t think [Jowell’s] got the answers for the 2020s, the future business, we’re a modern city, we’re young, we’re diverse." I ask if he is suggesting that Jowell, who is 67, is simply too old to be mayor. "For me, it’s not about age, it’s about asking the right questions, it’s about understanding tomorrow’s problems," the 44-year-old replies.

It is the former Olympics minister who is Khan’s main opponent in the Labour nomination contest. A recent YouGov poll found that he had narrowed her lead among party supporters (who will select the candidate in a primary) from 15 points to just three and several bookmakers have installed him as the favourite. But Jowell’s allies eagerly cite a survey putting her 14 points ahead of the most likely Conservative candidate, Zac Goldsmith (57-43), with Khan merely tied (50-50). "Two weeks after launching my campaign I’m neck-and-neck," he says when I reference the poll. "I’m confident that over the next few weeks and months I’ll show that I’m not only the only candidate that can win, I’m winning for a purpose."

One of Jowell’s biggest hindrances is her association with Tony Blair, who she once declared she would “jump in front of a bus to save”. Jowell recently denied making the remark only to be contradicted by a 2009 video in which she affirmed her pledge. When I mention the imbroglio to Khan he laughs and says “It’s no secret how close Tessa and Tony Blair are. It’s for Tessa to answer that question. I was surprised when I read the tweet in which she said that she hadn’t said that. It’s for Tessa to explain her local difficulty.” He goes on to accuse her of New Labour "control freakery" - "When your supporters turn up to a hustings to cheer you on, that’s just so 1990s. [In fact, Ed Miliband's supporters did the same for him at the 2010 New Statesman Labour leadership hustings.] The idea you have people turning up to a CLP [Constituency Labour Party] meeting, organising so other candidates are nominated, that’s just so 1990s. My criticism is not her age, it’s the way that sort of politics is done, I think it’s past its sell-by date." 

But what does Khan say to those who brand him "the union candidate" and "the Ed Miliband candidate"? "The fact that other people who are running to be mayor are being negative speaks volumes for them," he says. "I’m really proud that nurses, bus drivers and lollipop ladies are supporting me in my candidature to be mayor of London," he adds in reference to his trade union endorsements. "I’m also really proud, by the way, that chief executives, business owners and entrepreneurs are supporting me as well. I’m really proud that Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews and Christians are supporting me."

He says that Miliband, who appointed him as shadow London minister in 2013 and whose leadership campaign he managed, should remain an MP for the next five years.

"One of the first things I said to Ed after the results was what you cannot do is step down from parliament, you’ve got a lot to offer. He’s 45-years-old, he’s got a huge amount to offer and it’s really important that he does so." But he adds: "The important thing for me though is I’m my own man, I’m Sadiq Khan. Ed and others will offer ideas, some of them I’ll take on, some of them I won’t and I’ve got to be allowed to be my own man. What's been great about the last few weeks is I’ve been able to get people to know me."

Sadiq Khan was the first British Asian and the first Muslim to attend cabinet. He speaks with justifiable pride of his background. "As the son of a bus driver, as somebody who’s the son of immigrants, as somebody who was raised on a council estate, as somebody who slept on a bunk bed when he was 24, I get aspiration," he says in reference to the political word du jour. He criticises those in Labour who "give the impression that only those who shop in Waitrose have aspiration".

He reflects on how London has changed since his father arrived as an immigrant from Pakistan. "When my dad first came here there were signs up literally saying 'No blacks, no Irish, no dogs.' Thirty years on, my dad would have to pinch himself and my mum still does, that their son is on the cusp of being elected as mayor. And their pride isn’t in me, their pride is in London, their pride is in Tooting for electing their son MP, their pride is in London for being on the cusp of choosing their son to be the mayor of this great city."

On the day that I meet Khan, David Cameron has argued that some Muslim communities have "quietly condoned" Islamist extremism. "You’ve got to be very careful with language, you don’t want to inadvertently help others do the job for them," says Khan, adding that he believes "Cameron’s intentions are noble". His message to "anybody thinking about going to Syria or Iraq" is that "you can do far more good for the people of Syria and Iraq, getting involved in a mainstream charity, giving money to good causes, helping us try and influence foreign policy, helping us reach a resolution to the problems of the Middle East, you can do far more as an active citizen here than going to Syria and Iraq, especially if you’re a woman."

He continues: "I say this as the father of two daughters who’s worried about what goes on the internet. It is the case that in many Muslim majority countries women don’t have equality ... I say this to my daughter: you’ve got far more chance of fulfilling your potential here than in Syria and Iraq. That’s why it’s so important for someone like me to be the mayor of this great city, to send a message, to be a beacon."

Khan has announced policies including a new "London living rent", a four-year freeze on Tube and bus fares, and opposition to a third runway at Heathrow. He supports far greater devolution to the capital. "I want to be in charge of skills, I want to be in charge of back-to-work, Londoners should be much more in charge of housing. I think Londoners should be in charge of infrastructure, I think Londoners should be in charge of the NHS in London, we’re already in charge of public health. The more power London’s got over its own destiny, the better we’ll do and the better the country will do as well." 

When I mention that another rival candidate, David Lammy, has accused him of opportunism over his stance on Heathrow ("If the facts change, I change my mind," Khan tells me), he replies: "David Lammy, Diane Abbott and Tessa Jowell all may be saying beastly things about me, I take that as a badge of pride. If they’re rattled that’s for them to be rattled. I’m really not taking an interest in what they’re saying about me that’s negative. I want to have a positive campaign, I want to have an open campaign, I want to have a campaign that’s very much fraternal." 

And should he fall short, will he seek to return to the shadow cabinet? "I’m an optimist. I’m in this to win this and I’m confident that I’ll be selected as Labour’s candidate and I’m confident that I’ll be mayor of London after 5 May."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

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

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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