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28 April 2021

Sadiq Khan interview: “Brexit and Covid are a perfect storm against London”

The mayor on how the capital can recover, the threat of a third wave and whether he wants to be Labour leader. 

By George Eaton

Five years ago, Sadiq Khan was elected London mayor with the biggest personal mandate in British history. He inherited a capital that had recovered from postwar decline to become one of the world’s pre-eminent cities. 

But Khan’s fate has been to lead London in an era of permanent crisis: seven weeks after he became mayor the UK voted to leave the EU (with London the only English region to back Remain). Donald Trump’s election followed months later, and Khan’s term has ended with the worst pandemic for a century. As Karl Marx observed in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances.”

“Brexit and Covid coming at the same time is almost a perfect storm against our city,” Khan, 50, said when we spoke recently. “But the underlying strengths of our city are still here: professional services, culture, tech, creative industries, life sciences, universities. And actually if you look at the response of our city over the last 13-14 months, you’ve seen a resilience and stoicism, and a sense of camaraderie, that should give us hope.”

He added: “I’m lobbying the government so that they understand the only way to have a national recovery is to have a London recovery. If they’re anti-London even after the election they’re in danger of cutting [off] their nose to spite their face.”

Khan is chided by opponents, and some supporters, for having achieved too little in his first term (which was extended by a year owing to the pandemic). His planned pedestrianisation of Oxford Street was vetoed by the Conservative-run Westminster Council, and the opening of Crossrail, a planned high-speed rail line from west to east London, was delayed from December 2018 until 2022. How does he respond to those underwhelmed by his mayoralty? 

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“Look, what we’ve done in five years, just in one term, people are comparing that legacy to the two terms of the previous mayors: reducing toxic air by half in central London and by a third across our city; the world’s first ultra-low emission zone; freezing fares for five years, saving the average household £200. We brought in the hopper bus fare, unlimited travel for an hour, more than half a million journeys. Last year we began building more council homes than in any year since 1983; last year we began more homes for social rent than in any year since the mayor had those powers. The year before I became mayor, Johnson began three [homes]; I began 7,000 last year.”

Khan, who won a landslide victory over his Conservative opponent Zac Goldsmith in 2016, is expected to defeat the misfiring Tory candidate Shaun Bailey by a yet larger margin (four of the past five opinion polls give him a lead of more than 20 points in the first round). It is even possible that he may become the first London mayoral candidate to win more than 50 per cent of the vote in the first round. 

Does Khan agree with those commentators who say the hapless Bailey, who recently suggested that homeless people could save for £5,000 deposits, is the greatest gift he could wish for? 

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“Whether you’re a lawyer, whether you’re a sportsperson, whether you’re a politician, you deal with the opponent you have,” he diplomatically replied. “I’m really proud of the campaign we’ve been fighting. I’m concerned about some of the below-the-radar negative stuff taking place, unattributed to the Tory party from third parties; I’m concerned about some of the tactics being used this time by the Tories, trying to scare Londoners and divide communities rather than bringing them together.” 

Though Labour remains hegemonic in London, there are few other areas in which this is the case. In recent opinion polls the party has trailed the Conservatives by as much as 11 points. How worried is Khan – who was inspired by Neil Kinnock’s leadership to join Labour as a 15-year-old – by his party’s plight?

“The polls that matter are the ones that take place on election day,” he replied (Khan’s message discipline evokes memories of the New Labour era). “Polls come and go, so I’m not too obsessed by the polls. But clearly there’s a huge mountain we as a national party have to climb.”

He added, more candidly: “Let’s be frank, the success of the vaccine, which we are really proud of – brilliant work by the NHS, by the scientists, by the volunteers – will lead to, inevitably, a bounce for the incumbent party, so that’s the context of what any poll you’re following may say. But I think Keir’s doing a good job, it’s early days yet and we’ve got to be a united team to support Keir.”

The UK’s long second Covid wave has finally been tamed, but scientists and Boris Johnson have warned the country will likely endure a third. How worried is Khan by this prospect?

“I had a meeting yesterday [22 April] with my experts, including Public Health England and the NHS, and they are concerned by a third wave; the issue is when it comes. But also the issue is how many of us will have received a second dose of the vaccine and whether the government will finally now sort out Test and Trace. It’s important to have a system of support for those who are isolating because they [the government] have had 14 months and not managed to get it right – by now they should have got it right and hopefully they have.”

What did he learn about himself and London during the pandemic? “I’m somebody who thrives on people, whether it’s my team in City Hall, whether it’s going about on the Tubes or the buses, meeting people. I’ve missed that and it’s affected me in terms of how I feel, I think my mental health has suffered. But I think that reflects and mirrors our city. Our city was at a low ebb during the first lockdown and I think we’re ready to bounce back and have a rapid recovery.”

In the era of remote working and social distancing, London’s population is now forecast to fall for the first time since 1988 by more than 300,000 to 8.7 million. The spectre of decline – the city’s population fell from 8.6 million in 1939 to 6.8 million in the 1980s – has returned. 

“I’m really hoping that those who’ve temporarily left London, maybe because they’ve gone back to mum and dad, because they lost their job or they’ve returned to their country of origin if they’re EU citizens, will come back,” Khan told me. 

He described his priority for a second term as “jobs, jobs, jobs” (an echo of Tony Blair’s “education, education, education”). “Over the last year we’ve lost more than 18,000 Londoners to Covid-19 and more than 300,000 Londoners have lost their jobs. The furlough scheme ends in September, more than a million who are furloughed could become unemployed… We must avoid at all costs a return to the mass unemployment in the 1980s.”

But Khan is more aware than most that his power to shape London’s economy is limited. “I look with envy at colleagues and friends around the world: New York gets to spend 50 per cent of taxes raised there, Tokyo 70 per cent, London just 7 per cent.” 

He added: “When people voted for Brexit and voted to take back control, they didn’t mean for power to be hoarded in Whitehall by the civil service and in No 10 by the politicians, they meant to be in the cities, towns and communities across the country. The government’s got to keep the promise it made in its 2019 manifesto that Whitehall doesn’t know best, and properly devolve power and resources across the country.

“What the government’s got to do is realise that a new era of austerity is the last thing we need. They should be investing in public services, young people and turning the green challenge into a green opportunity.” 

Perhaps no current Labour politician has achieved as many firsts as Khan: he became the youngest councillor in London when he was elected at the age of 23; London’s first Muslim MP in 2005; the first Asian to attend the cabinet as transport minister in 2009; and the first Muslim mayor of a major Western city in 2016. He has won every election he has fought since standing to be a class representative at the age of 11 at Ernest Bevin College in Tooting.

By the end of his anticipated second term, Khan will be four years younger (54) than Starmer is now. Does he aspire to lead Labour one day? “No, I’ve got the best job in politics and I love my job,” he insisted. “I love being mayor of this city, giving something back to the city that I love, but also supporting Keir in relation to getting the party back into government. The prize obviously is winning the next general election.

“I’m quite clear, to paraphrase what a former American mayor said: the 19th century was all about empires; the 20th century was about nation states; in the 21st century the action is all about cities and mayors. That’s where I want to continue to be after May sixth.”