Miles Cole for New Statesman.
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The pugilist: Sadiq Khan’s quest to become mayor of London

Can the Tooting MP complete the journey from council home to City Hall? 

One recent morning, Sadiq Khan entered the ring at Earlsfield Amateur Boxing Club in Wandsworth, south London. He ­began sparring with one of the regulars: ducking, weaving, throwing jabs. Khan learned to box as a boy, partly for self-defence; two of his brothers are coaches at the volunteer-run academy near Tooting, the constituency he has represented since 2005. Among those pictured on the wall is Frank Bruno, the club’s most famous son.

Khan had invited me to join him, and soon after I arrive at 10am, Pop, the youngest of his seven siblings, inducts me in the ring and we begin 90 minutes of training. “Boxing isn’t fighting,” Khan told me when I interviewed him two days earlier. “It’s a classic mistake people make – boxing is a sport. The skills you learn are life skills: being magnanimous, what to eat, how to keep fit, how to look out for each other. The first thing you learn in boxing is defence – you’ve got to defend yourself . . . We all boxed [in my family] and that gives you confidence if you get into bother on the street.”

The only one of his brothers not to compete at amateur level, Khan preferred football and cricket (he had trials for Surrey). But he moves with an agility seldom associated with MPs – many of whom are more likely to be found in the Palace of Westminster’s bars than its gym. As a devout Muslim, Khan does not drink, and in 2014 he ran the London Marathon.

During our warm-down we pass a road on which his father drove the number 44 bus. A few minutes away is the council estate where Khan grew up. He doubts that bus drivers today could afford to live in the area, and speaks with sadness at how gentrification has frayed the bonds of community. It was the fear that working-class Londoners were being denied the opportunities ­afforded to his family that partly inspired his candidacy for mayor of London.

***

In eight weeks, on 5 May, Sadiq Khan will compete in the UK’s biggest bout of all. With the exception of the French president, no European politician has a larger personal mandate than the mayor of London. The city's leader controls a £16bn budget and housing, planning and transport policy. If the government lives up to its devolutionary rhetoric, the next incumbent will acquire still greater powers.

For the past eight years, London has been led by Boris Johnson, who twice defeated his Labour predecessor, Ken Livingstone. But Khan is predicted to win back City Hall for Labour. Zac Goldsmith, the Tory MP for Richmond Park, whose billionaire father founded the Eurosceptic Referendum Party, was the candidate that many in Labour feared: telegenic, green (he edited the Ecologist magazine) and socially liberal. The Tories’ hope was that, like Johnson, Goldsmith would attract non-Conservative voters. Yet in a city that leans ever more towards Labour – the party won 45 of its 73 seats in last year’s general election – few believe he can emulate his predecessor. Fellow Tories have criticised his campaign as “low-energy”. The most recent poll, published by Opinium on 8 March, gave Khan a 10-point lead in the final round.

“I’m the least complacent person you’ll find but I’m quietly confident,” he told me.

Khan, colleagues often say, is “a winner”. At the 2010 general election, he defended his Tooting seat from an aggressive and well-funded Conservative challenge. In the same year, he managed Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign, masterminding the defeat of Miliband’s elder brother, David. In the 2014 local elections, after Miliband rewarded him with the post of shadow minister for London, Khan achieved Labour’s best result in the capital since 1971. At last year’s general election, on an otherwise morose night, the party gained seven seats in London, its strongest performance since 2001.

When Khan announced in May last year that he would stand to be Labour’s mayoral candidate, many expected him to be defeated by Tessa Jowell, the popular former Olympics minister. It was not an assessment that Khan ever shared. As David Lammy, who finished fourth in the selection contest, told me: “I remember Sadiq sitting in his office – it would have been six months before the campaign got going. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘You know, I am going to do this.’ He was steely about it and very clear in his own mind.”

Khan’s team emphasised an ­elementary but overlooked truth: it was Labour Party members and supporters who would choose the candidate. The party’s leftwards trajectory gave him the advantage. Unlike Jowell, an unashamed Blairite, Khan opposed the Iraq War, a totemic issue for activists. He worked hard to win the endorsements of Ken Livingstone, the Unite, GMB and CWU trade unions and his fellow London MPs. Khan’s nomination – if not support – of Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership and his opposition to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill gave him further credibility among the party’s selectorate. His policies included a London Living Rent (based on a third of average local income) and a four-year freeze on Tube and bus fares.

While Jowell and other candidates attempted to appeal to existing party members, Khan recruited new ones. Over the four-month campaign, he made more than 200 visits to workplaces, community centres, churches, temples, mosques and shopping malls. “The thing that should never be underestimated with Sadiq is his ability to campaign,” Lammy told me. “He’s a bit like a terrier; when he gets his teeth into something he’s not going to let it go.” Jowell simply told me that Khan was a “formidable campaigner” and that “all the signs are that he’s going to win”.

When the selection result was announced on 11 September 2015, with Khan beating Jowell 59-41 in the final round of voting, many were stunned by his landslide victory. But not him. “I never thought it was going to be a close race,” he told me just after the result was announced at the Royal Festival Hall. “I always knew – irrespective of what respectable London newspapers may write and who they’re going to endorse – when it comes to voters seeing what the candidates stand for and what their vision is, I’d win.”

No one I spoke to doubted Khan’s political skill, but some questioned his integrity. “He has got a tendency to want it so much that he slightly overeggs it,” a senior Labour MP told me. “Some of that mud will get thrown at him: that he changes his position, that he is politically expedient – and that then goes to trust. What does he really stand for?”

Having nominated Corbyn for the leadership, Khan was derided for sharply rebuking the new Labour leader in a Mail on Sunday interview on 20 September. He warned that Corbyn’s meetings with Hamas and Hezbollah reinforced Labour’s “anti-Jewish” image, criticised him for failing to sing the national anthem (“He was very unwise. You are trying to be the British prime minister”) and vowed to “work closely with a Tory government if it is in London’s interest”.

Such comments, opponents suggested, would never have been made during the selection contest for the mayoral candidacy – when he needed the Corbynites. But he insists there was no inconsistency. “I was quite clear when I nominated Jeremy that I wasn’t going to vote for him [Khan endorsed Andy Burnham]. Look on my Twitter timeline. And, George, in the selection process I was asked whether I would serve in his shadow cabinet, if I wasn’t successful, and I said no – because we come from different parts of the party. We believe in different things.”

Without the help of Khan and other non-supporters, Corbyn would not have made the ballot. Khan insisted that he had no regrets. “Jeremy Corbyn, to give him some credit, won among Labour Party members, among Labour Party supporters and among trade union supporters . . . You can have an analysis of why the other candidates failed to inspire, enthuse and engage with the membership, whereas Jeremy did, and that’s a conversation for them to have.”

He rejected the suggestion that his victory was a by-product of Corbynism. Were that the case, he said, one would have expected Diane Abbott or Christian Wolmar (both of whom voted for the eventual leader) to win. “The reason why that didn’t happen was because in my campaign I managed to enthuse, inspire and engage the selectorate. My mandate is similar to Jeremy’s, almost 60 per cent ... We were fizzing with energy, we had ideas and we won.”

His attempts to distance himself from the Labour leader have led the Tories to label him “Corbyn’s man”. At a Goldsmith rally on 26 January, David Cameron warned voters that they would be “lab rats in the first Corbyn economic experiment in public life” if Khan won.

However, in tacit acknowledgement of the risk posed by Corbyn’s unpopularity, Khan does not plan to appear in public with him in the lead-up to May (to the consternation of Corbyn’s allies). The leader’s role will be limited to voter mobilisation: leafleting, fundraising and phone banking. Yet Corbyn has more cause than most to hope that Khan is successful. Labour is forecast to become the first opposition since 1982 to lose council seats in a non-general-election year; retaking the mayoralty would provide crucial consolation.

Khan is also avoiding campaign appearances with Livingstone and has ruled out giving him a job if he wins. “If you’re running for mayor, your job is to represent London – you’ve got to stand up for London,” Livingstone said of Khan. “You often have to disagree with a Labour government, as I had to. It’s a campaign between Zac and Sadiq; it’s not a rerun of me and Boris. We should keep out of it.”

***

The day after Corbyn made the Labour leadership ballot on 15 June last year, Khan was again accused of expediency when he announced that he opposed a third runway at  Heathrow Airport in favour of Gatwick. “Sadiq was for Heathrow expansion in 2008; he was for it when he was transport minister in 2009. Zac Goldsmith has announced he is running [the Tory candidate is a long-standing opponent], and suddenly he’s against it,” Lammy told a mayoral hustings. But Khan denied that his stance was born of opportunism. “It was born out of the facts. Unlike Zac Goldsmith, I accept the case for an increase in flight capacity in this part of the country. I think the case has been made for jobs and growth.

“But in the last full year for which there’s data almost 10,000 Londoners died because of air pollution. There are children in parts of London whose lungs are underdeveloped. The UK Supreme Court last April held that the air-quality directive had been breached. So air is a killer – it makes you sick and it’s illegal. In those circumstances, you can’t say yes to a new runway at Heathrow.”

At Gatwick, he added, far fewer people were affected by air and noise pollution.

The Tories have recently levelled a far graver charge than that of Corbynism or opportunism: that Khan is a friend of Islamist extremists. On 7 February the Sunday Times reported that Khan had attended four meetings of the group Stop Political Terror (while campaigning against the US-UK extradition treaty), which had the support of Anwar al-Awlaki, the late al-Qaeda cleric. On 12 February, across two pages, the London Evening Standard noted that Khan’s former brother-in-law, Makbool Javaid, had attended events organised by the extremist group al-Muhajiroun in the 1990s (the pair have not spoken for a decade). Four days later, MailOnline reported that Khan had given a speech at the 2008 Global Peace and Unity festival while the “black flag of jihad” was flying.

Nick Timothy, a former chief of staff to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, told me: “Khan wants to be the mayor for millions of Londoners at a time when the terror threat is very real. An attack could happen at any time and he would have to respond and unite the city in those circumstances – he will be responsible for policing and community relations. He’s campaigned against the role of the police and allowed himself to share platforms with people who very definitely have the wrong kind of views. It’s not very good judgement if he wants to be the mayor of a city like London.”

Such comments frustrate Khan. “People who understand politics understand what happens at these things,” he said. “What happened was very simple.

“Many MPs from all parties, including Boris Johnson and Zac Goldsmith himself, had objections to the US-UK extradition treaty . . . Now, often when there are meetings happening about a cause, what happens is you’re very busy; the meeting may have been taking place for two, three, four hours; you’re doing other stuff. You go along, you take the stage, you do your spiel, you speak and more often than not just leave to do your next event.

“Often you’ve got no idea who was speaking before you, who’s speaking after you. Nobody could honestly, hand on heart, think I agree with the sort of views spouted by other people who spoke at the same meetings: that’s not the way it worked.

“I’ve been quite clear in my views in relation to extremism and radicalisation. I’ve been quite clear in my views in relation to people who claim to follow the same faith as me but have views that are abhorrent.”

He added: “So, what are you implying by your nudge-nudge and your wink-wink? What are you saying either about me or about the one million Londoners of Islamic faith? I get people approaching me all the time who are Muslim who say, ‘If they’re doing this to you, what chance have I got?’ or, ‘You’re encouraging us to get ­involved in mainstream politics yet this is how you’re treated’ or, ‘If they’re digging around, as they’ve been for months, about your extended family – about who used to be related to you, or whatever – what chance have we got?’”

He spoke of his dismay that Goldsmith, who some believed would shun such tactics, had pursued this path. “Those advising Zac to do this sort of stuff, it’s foolish advice. I thought Zac was bigger than this.”

Khan has received death threats from extremists for his involvement in democratic politics and, more recently, for supporting equal marriage. Friends say that despite the political and physical risks posed by taking this stance, he never hesitated. As a former human rights lawyer and champion of civil liberties (he chaired Liberty for three years), it was an automatic choice.

In a speech to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in November, a week after the Paris terror attacks, Khan spoke of how “successive governments had tolerated segregation in British society” and had allowed “the conditions that permit extremism to continue unchecked”.

He warned: “We’ve protected people’s right to live their cultural life at the expense of creating a common life. Too many British Muslims grow up without really knowing anyone from a different background, without understanding or empathising with the lives and beliefs of others.”

None of this has prevented his rivals making the claim that he is a friend of extremists and, by implication, one himself. But unlike Livingstone, who responded vociferously to accusations of anti-Semitism, Khan has maintained his composure.

“I’ve watched him go through this extremism row two or three times quite closely,” an MP told me. “He’s extraordinarily calm under that level of pressure. He draws on a well of inner stability that is really impressive. Tony Blair could obviously do it in spades but there are not that many senior politicians who can do it.”

***

Sadiq Aman Khan was born on 8 October 1970 at St George’s Hospital in Tooting. His grandparents emigrated from India to Pakistan following Partition; his parents emigrated from Pakistan to London shortly before his birth. Khan was the fifth of eight children (he has six brothers and one sister). His late father, Amanullah, was a bus driver for more than 25 years; his mother, Sehrun, was a seamstress.

Khan attributes his work ethic to his upbringing. “My dad worked all the hours that God sent as a bus driver. If he got overtime he’d take it. My mum not only raised eight children but was sewing clothes in the house while raising us, while cooking.

“I was surrounded by my mum and dad working all the time, so as soon as I could get a job, I got a job. I got a paper round, a Saturday job – some summers I laboured on a building site.”

He was taught to support those in need. “My mum and dad would send money to their relatives back in Pakistan. My mum still does, because we’re blessed being in this  country.”

The family grew up on the Henry Prince council estate in Earlsfield, where Khan and his seven siblings squeezed into a three-bedroom home. He did not travel abroad until he was 23 and slept in a bunkbed until he was 24. He attended the Ernest Bevin comprehensive school (named after the former Labour foreign secretary), which Independent editor Amol Rajan described as “the dreaded second choice ... the staple of local news reports about drugs, gangs and local hoodlums.” I asked Khan if this Tarantino-esque description was accurate.

“Listen, I’m very careful of speaking about certain things because it gives the impression ... Look, it’s still a school and children still go there, you don’t want to tarnish the reputation of the school. It was a great school, it fulfilled my potential. I’m not one of these people who moans that I could have been this if I’d gone to this school. It was a great school, the teachers worked their socks off.” He added: “It was a tough school, though, you had to be streetwise, you had to look after yourself.”

Racism was a feature of the family’s life. Bus passengers referred to his bearded father as “Paki Santa” and assaulted him. Such insults sometimes prompted Khan to use his boxing skills. “We went down on the floor hitting each other,” he told the Mail on Sunday of one fight. “He didn’t call me the ‘P-word’ again.”

Khan and his brothers also encountered racism on the football terraces. “I experienced Wimbledon, my brothers experienced Chelsea,” he told me. “At Stamford Bridge there’s a place called ‘the shed’. The NF [National Front] would sell newspapers and wear boots and the green bomber jackets and chase people like my brothers away, call them names.

“I didn’t support Chelsea because I didn’t want to support a club that had racist fans. Plough Lane was down the road ... I remember going to watch Wimbledon vs Spurs, it was an FA Cup game. Although I was a Wimbledon fan, at the Wimbledon end, after the game I was racially abused by fans using the Y-word and the P-word.

"I didn’t go back to Plough Lane.”

He then spoke movingly of the extent to which London had progressed. “My daughters [Anisah and Ammarah] are 16 and 14 and they’ve basically grown up in the same area that I grew up in and my wife grew up in. They’ve never been called the P-word – they’ve never been the victim of overt racial abuse. That shows the progress we’ve made.”

At school, a teacher told Khan, who studied biology, chemistry and maths at A-level, “You’re always arguing. Why don’t you be a lawyer, rather than a dentist?” It was this, as well as LA Law on television, that inspired him to join the Bar. He studied at the University of North London (now London Metropolitan), where he became a visiting lecturer, and took his finals at the Guildford College of Law. Having joined Labour at the age of 15, he was elected as a councillor in Wandsworth in 1994. That same year, he married Saadiya Ahmed, a fellow solicitor.

Khan told me he made a conscious decision to specialise in human rights law (“acting for the underdog”), rather than corporate law. “It wasn’t work for the sake of becoming a millionaire. It was working hard and giving something back.”

He became a trainee solicitor in 1994 at Christian Fisher under the renowned human rights lawyer Louise Christian. Three years later, he was made a partner – a precocious achievement for someone of his age and background. In 2004 he left the company, which had been renamed Christian Khan, to become the Labour candidate for Tooting. Khan and his former partner, who was aggrieved by his sudden departure, have not spoken since.

As a human rights lawyer, he acted for what he recently described as “unsavoury individuals”, such as Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, and Babar ­Ahmad, who pleaded guilty in the US in 2013 to “providing material support to terrorism”. Ahmad, whose extradition was opposed by Khan and other MPs (including Goldsmith), was a childhood friend. Khan’s opponents have sought to exploit this.

“We never went to each other’s houses. We weren’t close friends but we knew each other growing up – we’d see each other at mosques,” Khan told me. “When you see people at the mosque you don’t discuss politics and stuff. It’s, ‘How you doing? How’s things?’ You may play cricket together, as most kids do at the park and stuff. I can’t remember having an argument about his views in detail. What I do know is that when he was arrested it was a big deal because he was the victim of police misconduct. He brought a claim and won damages in relation to how he was treated – he suffered serious injuries.” Khan has seen Ahmad twice since he was released from prison in the US: at a funeral at Balham Mosque and on the Tube with his lawyer.

In 2005, Khan was elected as the MP for Tooting, his lifelong home. He was praised by former shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, who represents neighbouring Streatham, as a constituency champion. "In spite of the fact that he's had a national role he was never seen to have taken his eye off the ball of the local situation," he told me. 

Six months after entering parliament, Khan rebelled over Tony Blair’s attempt to introduce 90-day detention for terror suspects, the first of several clashes with the then prime minister. In 2006 he signed an open letter warning that the government’s foreign policy provided “ammunition to extremists”. On the tenth anniversary of the 7 July 2005 London bombings, he spoke of how Blair had “called the four MPs of Islamic faith in to No 10 and sat us round a table and said – to Mohammad Sarwar, Khalid Mahmood, Shahid Malik and myself – it was our responsibility.

“I said: ‘No it’s not. Why have you called us in? I don’t blame you for the Ku Klux Klan. Why are you blaming me for the four bombers on 7/7?’” (This account is contested by Mahmood and Malik, who accused Khan of “self-serving revisionism”.)

“They’re allowed to recollect things how they like,” he told me. “I’m quite clear in my recollection . . . It reinforces my view that we’ve got to defeat radicalisation and extremism by all of us working on this – this isn’t a uniquely Muslim problem. There’s a great saying, which is, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ Similarly, it will take a village to defeat terrorism and extremism.”

In Gordon Brown’s 2008 reshuffle, Khan was appointed communities minister, becoming the second Muslim to serve in government. The following year he was made transport minister: the first Muslim to attend cabinet and become a privy counsellor. “The palace called me and said, ‘What type of Bible do you want to swear on?’ When I said the Quran, they said, ‘We haven’t got one.’ So I took one with me.”

Of his faith, he told me: “It’s part of who I am – that’s the best way of describing it, because I’ve been asked this a lot. We all have multiple identities: I’m a Londoner, I’m British, I’m English, I’m of Asian origin, of Pakistani heritage, I’m a dad, I’m a husband, I’m a long-suffering Liverpool fan, I’m Labour, I’m Fabian and I’m Muslim.”

I asked him how he felt when an LBC/YouGov poll was published showing that 31 per cent of Londoners would be “uncomfortable” with a Muslim mayor. “That was during the selection campaign. When I saw it I was thoroughly depressed.

“When you’re the candidate in a campaign, you’ve got to be strong; you’re the leader. I went to the campaign – we’ve got lots of volunteers – three of my volunteers of Islamic faith were devastated. Two of them were crying. They just didn’t want to carry on because they were devastated that the impression was given that three out of ten Londoners are somehow Islamophobes.

“That’s not what the survey was about. With surveys, with polls, it’s how you ask the question. If I ask you the question, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if the mayor of London was of Islamic faith?’, what sort of message would that send? It elicits a very different answer to, ‘How comfortable are you with the mayor of London being a Muslim?’ And so I’ve spoken to people at LBC who on reflection realised that the question maybe shouldn’t have been asked, or at least asked in a different way.

“You can slice and dice it whichever way you want, this is a great, great city. There is no other city I’d rather raise my daughters in. I’ve got cousins in Pakistan, ethnic majority and religious majority, and they say to me they couldn’t achieve in Pakistan what I’ve achieved here.

***

For some politicians, campaigning is mere business; for Khan it is a pleasure. I joined him in east London as he visited start-ups hosted by the Bootstrap Company in Dalston: a film-maker, a bakery, a dressmaker. “Are you making a profit yet?” he asked. At a time when his party is increasingly perceived as “anti-business”, Khan takes every opportunity to present himself as a friend of enterprise. He has been aided by Goldsmith’s decision to support Brexit.

“We’re a city where literally more than 500,000 jobs are directly dependent on us being a member of the EU,” he said. “We’re a city where 60 per cent of the world’s companies choose their headquarters. Forty-three per cent of London’s exports go to the European Union. In those circumstances, if you want to be a good mayor, how can you be in favour of leaving?”

Goldsmith has argued that a Conservative mayor will invariably get a better deal from the government, a notion that Khan dismisses. “To give the current government their due, they do business with a Scottish Parliament, which is not Tory . . . they do deals with the Welsh Assembly, which is not Tory. They’ve given greater devolution to Greater Manchester, which is not Tory and probably never will be.

“I actually get on with George Osborne and other members of the government. Many of them sponsored me when I did the marathon. I think I’m friends with some of them.” Osborne, a fellow Londoner, personally congratulated Khan when he won the mayoral nomination.

Khan’s name is often mentioned alongside that of Sajid Javid, the business secretary and fellow bus driver’s son (“I’m the son of a bus driver. I used to love that line ... then Sajid fucking Javid came along,” Khan quipped during his press gallery appearance). “I saw him the other night, actually,” he said. “I think one of the great things about politics now is if you’re an ethnic minority the sole party for you to choose isn’t the Labour Party. That’s fantastic, I think, it’s really encouraging that both mainstream parties have embraced the importance of reflecting society.”

During his time in the shadow cabinet, Khan was one of Ed Miliband’s closest allies and a tribune of the soft left. But he told me that he no longer supports signature policies such as a 50 per cent income-tax rate or a “mansion tax”.

“It’s really important to understand that we had a manifesto, which we fought the 2015 election on, and we lost – we lost badly for the second time in a row.

“In the Eighties when we were losing elections, members of my party had a phrase, which I think was wrong, which is ‘no compromise with the electorate’. The electorate are always right.”

In his book If Mayors Ruled the World, Benjamin Barber writes that “a preference for pragmatism and problem-solving over ideology” is a feature of successful city leaders. It is a model that Khan – like Ken Livingstone before him, a socialist who forged an alliance with big business – has embraced.

If Sadiq Khan wins the race to lead London, he will capture a prize that increasingly eludes Labour outside the city: elected office. The election of a British Muslim mayor would be an event of international significance, and a symbol of London’s cosmopolitanism. “I’m fed up of losing. I don’t believe in heroic failure,” he told me. “I’ve got the policies, I’ve got the principle. We need the power to improve London.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho

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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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