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Sadiq Khan: champion of the underdog

The shadow justice secretary grew up poor – now, as a card-carrying member of Ed Miliband’s “new gen

I arrive at Sadiq Khan's office in Tooting, south London, to find the shadow justice secretary chatting with one of his female constituents in Urdu. Khan is one of 19 Asian MPs and was the first Muslim to attend cabinet. "I don't call myself a Muslim MP," he tells me. "I'm an MP who happens to be Muslim."

Khan has been MP for Tooting, where he was born and brought up, since 2005. Last year, the Tories - bolstered by Lord Ashcroft's millions - targeted the seat; Khan's majority was slashed by nearly 3,000 votes. When his re-election was announced by the returning officer in May, his supporters chanted "Yes, we Khan", in the manner of a Barack Obama rally. "We were the seat that the Tories needed to form a government," he says proudly.

Khan's unlikely victory in Tooting was followed by his appointment as campaign manager for the Labour leadership bid of Ed Miliband - whose victory, too, was against the odds. In October, Khan, a former civil liberties lawyer, was elected to the shadow cabinet and given the role of shadow justice secretary. He was charged with shadowing two of the coalition's biggest beasts, the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, and the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg (on constitutional affairs). Young and articulate, he is a card-carrying member of his leader's "new generation".

Born in 1970 to immigrants from Pakistan, Khan was the fifth of eight children - he has six brothers and one sister. He grew up on a council estate. "It was crowded," he tells me. "There were two and a half bedrooms." His father was a bus driver and his mother sewed dresses. He did not go abroad until he was 23, when he went on holiday to the United States.

“Class is still relevant," Khan says. "I don't think we should pretend it isn't." However, he dismisses Labour's antics in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election of 2008 - sending out activists in top hats, dressed as toffs - as "crude" and "not smart politics". He is keen to warn against the conflation of "aspiration and class". "Labour has got to be careful if it is to carry on being the party of aspiration," he says.

What about the coalition? Does it matter that there are 22 millionaires in the cabinet? "That they are rich is relevant because of the lack of empathy. I'm not saying that they can't empathise - but they just don't get it.

“For them, tightening your belt is taking two holidays a year instead of three . . . or having one au pair rather than two. I think it is a problem if you have a cabinet that doesn't understand the real challenges that people face. If you have a background that is one-dimensional and have not had the life experiences or understood what sacrifice means to ordinary punters, I would say it is difficult." He then hastens to add: "I'm not saying you can't empathise without experiencing things - but it is difficult."

Does he consider himself to be working-class or middle-class? "I am middle-class by profession, but I hope I've not forgotten my working-class roots."

I point out that there are few politicians with working-class roots left on the Labour front bench after the former postman Alan Johnson's resignation as shadow chancellor. Khan nods. "Johnson going is not only a huge disappointment. Very few of us in the major parties have diverse experiences and that is a problem. We are going backwards."

Khan mentions the potential impact of the new, austere MPs' expenses system, overseen by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa). "One of the unintended consequences of Ipsa will be that you will end up with people who are independently wealthy, or who haven't got any dependants, or whose families need to live hundreds of miles away, while they are living by themselves in Westminster." He smiles, before adding: "And we know all the mischievous behaviour that can cause. It is inevitable that politics will become a middle-class vocation, which is dangerous . . . we, as a party, need to do more and the trade unions have also got to step up to the plate."

But isn't he embarrassed about how elitist Labour seems to have become? Three of the top posts in the shadow cabinet - the leader, the shadow chancellor and the shadow home secretary - are held by middle-class Oxbridge graduates who spent much of their pre-parliamentary careers as special advisers.

“I am not saying that there is anything wrong with wanting to be a politician," he says. "What I am saying is that it is not a good thing when you have all three parties in parliament filled with career politicians."

Given his background, how did Khan end up as a lawyer? "LA Law," he replies, referring to the hit US television drama series of the 1980s. It starred, among others, the Hispanic actor Jimmy Smits as the dashing young attorney Victor Sifuentes.

Khan cites the character of Sifuentes as an inspiration (he pretends not to hear me when I remind him that Smits went on to play the US president in The West Wing and I ask him whether he has similar leadership ambitions). "Don't underestimate the power of TV. In LA Law, you had these lawyers acting for underdogs, doing these great cases, and I was reading in the newspapers about the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six and all those miscarriages of justice. Those were my formative years."

What prompted him to specialise in human rights? "Acting for the underdog," he says. "When I was growing up, I saw friends' big brothers being stopped and searched by the police; people losing their jobs; my dad's garage under threat of closure. I needed to be useful."

When he was 26, he founded the law firm Christian Khan with Louise Christian. He went on to serve as chair of Liberty, where he played an influential role in appointing a young Shami Chakrabarti to lead the organisation in 2003.

He "walked away" from his firm in 2004 to become a prospective parliamentary candidate in Tooting, where he had been a member of the local Labour Party since the age of 15, because he wanted the opportunity to change "hundreds of thousands of people's lives" as a member of parliament. "I didn't have any mates who were already MPs or ministers when I went into the Commons. I went in there as somebody whose CV and backstory was [about] taking on the party." Khan reminds me that he voted against Tony Blair's 90-day detention-without-charge proposal as a freshman MP in November 2005; I remind him that he later voted in favour of ID cards and the renewal of control orders.

Did he feel that he had sold out his former colleagues who were still working in the field of civil liberties? He shakes his head. "Politics is about compromise. We don't have à la carte politics in this country."

In a forthcoming Fabian Society event, Khan will deliver his first major speech on the party's approach to criminal justice. Like Ed Miliband, he is dismissive of the triangulation and autho­ritarianism of the New Labour years. "I think one of the things that a Labour home secretary and a Labour lord chancellor found difficult was to get out of a Daily Mail headlock. We allowed that tail to wag the dog." Does prison "work"? "It depends what the purpose is. If prison is to punish, it does . . . It doesn't rehabilitate enough, though." On the subject of Islam, I ask whether he agrees with the Conservative Party chair, Sayeeda Warsi, who is a fellow Muslim, that Islamophobia has become acceptable in Britain.

Khan describes the Tory peer as a "mate" but says that her recent speech was "too simplistic". "My view is this. When I speak to my cousins in Pakistan, they tell me that no one from my family could dream of becoming a member of parliament there, let alone a member of the cabinet. That I could in Britain is a huge source of inspiration to them."

So, is there no Islamophobia problem in the UK? "Of course there is. I think we are now at the stage where the Afro-Caribbean community was 20 years ago and the Irish were 30 years ago." (On 5 February - just two days after our interview - Khan accused David Cameron of, in effect, "writing propaganda" for the English Defence League by denouncing both Muslim extremism and multiculturalism in a speech to a security conference in Munich. Khan's "mate", the Tory chair, accused him of "outrageous and irresponsible" smears against the Prime Minister and demanded that he apologise. He hasn't.)

Knocking Eds

Was he surprised by his friend Miliband's victory in the Labour leadership contest in September? The night before the result, Khan told Miliband to "prepare for defeat". "I learned this from Rumpole of the Bailey," he says. "Always tell your client he's going to lose because, if he loses, he's expecting it; if he wins, you're the fantastic lawyer who got the victory." However, he adds: "I had a feeling we'd done it."

How does he respond to his backbench colleagues who have been grumbling about their leader's "slow" and "shaky" start? "They need to get a sense of perspective. We're in the ninth month of a 60-month parliament. Blair had three months before his first conference speech and they knew there'd be an election by May 1997." In contrast, he says, "we've got five years to go. The important thing is that Ed continues to improve."

Is he worried about the dynamic between Miliband and Ed Balls, the new shadow chancellor? Is Balls "on probation", as one shadow minister put it to me? "As somebody who aspires to be lord chancellor, I believe in rehabilitation and giving people another opportunity," he says, laughing. "I judge a person as I find him and, on the evidence I've seen, Ed Balls is a brilliant shadow chancellor."

Khan is an astute politician. I ask him what he thinks is the main challenge facing Labour in opposition. "Many of us have friends and family [members] who, in the past, would have said that they were Labour voters but now feel uncomfortable about being Labour voters, even though they voted for us in 2005 and 2010. We need to change that. You should vote Labour with pride."

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 14 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East

Photo: Getty Images
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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.