For Sadiq Khan, the election year began with appropriate intensity. The shadow justice secretary rose at 5am to accompany Ed Miliband to Labour’s campaign launch in Salford, then returned to London to record supportive messages for the party’s candidates.
“I’m knackered,” he tells me when we meet at Labour’s war room in the capital.
But the member of parliament for Tooting speaks excitedly of how, “Only 56 months after we got the second-worst result in our history, there’s a possibility of something not done since 1931: bouncing back, and not being a one-term opposition but winning an outright majority.”
Khan, an early supporter of Ed Miliband who managed his 2010 leadership campaign, adds that “Ed has better understood the challenges our country faces and also understands the opportunities that there are”. But he concedes that Miliband’s parlous approval ratings are a point of concern. “I’m surprised they’ve not picked up yet. You can’t ignore the fact that the personal ratings haven’t been as good as we’d have liked.”
Some on Labour’s right, most notably Tony Blair, contend that Miliband’s difficulties stem from having abandoned the centre ground and lurched to the left. But Khan, one of the radicals in the shadow cabinet, rejects this analysis.
“The country in 2015 is very different from the country in 1997 . . . The reality is that what Ed has done on a number of issues is analyse things and come up with a prescription to best address them. I don’t think it’s left-wing to take on Rupert Murdoch, I don’t think it’s left-wing to take on the ‘Big Six’ energy companies. I don’t think it’s left-wing to say to President Obama: ‘I don’t want to get involved in military action in Syria.’”
Khan, 44, is the only shadow cabinet minister to have held the same portfolio since 2010; he was given additional responsibility for London in 2013. “We’ve got 12 targets, which is very ambitious,” he says of Labour’s fight in the capital. “If we win all 12 then that’s landslide territory. But actually, we’ve been working incredibly hard in the past 18 months. In May last year we got the best council and European election results in a generation. I was literally in nappies the last time that we did this well in London.”
As one of Labour’s few senior ethnic-minority politicians, Khan acknowledges that the party needs to recruit more candidates from black, Asian and other minority groups (just one of the candidates chosen to replace the 34 MPs standing down this year is non-white). He supports the use of positive discrimination.
“My personal opinion and the formulation that I have – and it’s not Labour Party policy – is a hybrid system, so you have some seats in which either half the candidates can be women and/or ethnic-minority men or women . . . The National Executive Committee needs to think about the fact that as a party we’re at our best when we look like the communities we seek to represent.”
To add to Khan’s expanding workload, he has been charged with leading an electoral unit devoted to combating the Greens, whom Labour strategists estimate could cost the party up to 17 seats by splitting the anti-Tory vote. So perhaps surprisingly, and in contrast to recent briefing by Labour sources, he suggests that Natalie Bennett’s party, as well as Ukip, should be included in any TV debates.
“I think they should happen and I think they [the Greens and Ukip] should be included. I’m relishing them: I think it’s an opportunity for the country to see Ed Miliband – to hear and see his passion, to hear and see the vision he has for the country and to hear and see that he thinks the best of the British public. I’m not sure why Cameron is so scared; I don’t understand why his advisers are bottling it. What the British public deserves to see is all the leaders – and that includes Natalie Bennett, by the way – having a debate about their vision for the country, their analysis of the last five years.”
In this fragmented landscape of six-party politics, Khan also declares himself a supporter of proportional representation (a stance not shared by Labour). “It means everyone has a stake in the outcome of the result,” he says. “Rather than people having to vote tactically, they are voting knowing that they will have an effect on who wins the election.”
Among Labour MPs, Khan is regarded as almost certain to stand for selection as the party’s London mayoral candidate this summer and I cannot resist asking him to confirm his intentions. “It’s a privilege just to be asked that question, George,” he replies, and goes on to highlight his attractive backstory.
“I can’t tell you what a buzz it gives me, as somebody born and raised here, the son of immigrants, whose dad was a bus driver, mum was a seamstress – I’ve got eight siblings – living on a council estate . . . For you to ask me that question is so flattering – and it’s a job I’d love to do one day.”
But in a rebuke to those such as David Lammy and Tessa Jowell who have already declared their candidacy, he adds: “Up until the general election’s done and dusted all our energies have to be focused on that. London is best served by a Labour government. Anybody who’s distracted by campaigning, by doing anything for themselves as an individual, is letting down London. Not letting down the Labour Party, not just letting down themselves – letting down London.”
It’s a loyal answer but the implication is clear: the general election is not the only battle that Khan will fight this year.