Spend an hour with Sadiq Khan and you will leave feeling more optimistic about the future of British politics. The sharp-suited shadow justice secretary combines energy and charisma with a meticulous grasp of his brief and a gift for speaking fluently without lapsing into press-release jargon.
It is these qualities that Khan is seeking to put to use in his new role as shadow minister for London. Eleven months after he took over the post from Tessa Jowell, the MP for Tooting has edited a Fabian pamphlet entitled Our London: the Capital Beyond 2015, with contributions from Doreen Lawrence on racial diversity, Andrew Adonis on transport infrastructure, Bonnie Greer on the arts and the Green peer Jenny Jones on the environment. “It’s not a Labour booklet; I’ve deliberately sought not to be tribal,” Khan says when we meet at Portcullis House, Westminster. “Some of this stuff wouldn’t be in the Labour manifesto, let’s be frank – some of it isn’t Labour policy at the moment – but these are the sorts of discussions we should be having as people who care about London.”
He contrasts his urgency with Boris Johnson’s ill-defined vision. “My big criticism is not that he’s a part-time mayor, or that he’s distracted in his job by becoming the next leader of the Conservative Party. My biggest criticism of him is his lack of ambition for London.”
Khan’s own chapter reflects on what, echoing Tony Blair on education, he describes as the three biggest issues facing the capital: “housing, housing, housing”. Having grown up on a council estate in Earlsfield, south London, before his father, a bus driver, saved enough to buy his own home, he tells me: “I understand how important council housing is. I actually think it’s got so bad that housing is the single biggest challenge facing London politicians of my generation.”
While Ed Miliband has pledged to build at least 200,000 homes a year by 2020 if Labour is elected, Khan points out: “The number of new houses we’ll need in London is, according to councils, 800,000 . . . it’s arguable that London could take it all. We’ve got big, big questions and no one’s talking about them.”
Would he like to see the cap on council borrowing removed to allow local authorities to build more affordable housing? “That’s one of the things we’re exploring with Ed Balls. There are a number of options we have. What I’m hoping is that the lobbying pays off . . . it’s a good example of London setting the agenda.”
The mention of Balls prompts me to ask Khan for his thoughts on the shadow chancellor’s much-criticised response to George Osborne’s Autumn Statement. “The reality is, in that House of Commons chamber, when Ed Balls stood up, there was a wall of sound and it was quite clear, whatever he would have said, that the Tories had orchestrated and organised to give him a hard time, and that was going to happen. You can either plough through it, or allow yourself to be defeated by the Tories.” He ends with those words often regarded as the political kiss of death: “Ed Balls has the full confidence of the shadow cabinet, I’m sure.”
One of the policies announced by Balls and Labour – the introduction of a mansion tax to fund the return of the 10p tax band – was recently criticised by Jowell, David Lammy and Diane Abbott, all likely candidates for the 2016 Labour mayoral nomination, as a “tax on London” that would penalise the asset-rich but cash-poor. Khan does not disguise his anger at their comments. “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 [like to] 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 address the issue of making sure that we’ve got a fair tax policy.”
Lammy, Abbott and Jowell were speaking at an event hosted by Progress at which Khan was scheduled to appear but from which he pulled out. “When I was first asked to do the Progress event, 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 turned into a beauty parade,” he says. In an uncoded rebuke to those already positioning themselves to win the mayoral selection contest, he adds: “I’ve got no interest in 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 local elections in May 2014.”
When I point out that Khan’s pamphlet is likely to be seen as his own pitch for the mayoral nomination, he replies: “I think the job of a conscientious, hard-working shadow minister for London is to bring together the best ideas in the business and do this booklet. If I was running for the job of mayor of London, this would not be the time to be having long, deep discussions about the future direction of London, but I think it’s important for London’s future and for Labour’s future. I’m not interested in a beauty parade or a contest of personalities.”
But he notably refuses to deny that he has an interest in the post: “If others want to flatter me and throw me those compliments, I’m not going to reject them.”