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Sadiq Khan interview: “London can’t have somebody stuck in the 1980s or 1990s”

The Labour London mayoral candidate on why he is the "modern" figure the city needs, Tessa Jowell's "control freakery", and Islamist extremism. 

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"You’ve brought the sun out!" says Sadiq Khan as he greets me on the rooftop of Boxpark in Shoreditch, east London. I quickly slake my thirst with the water provided by his aide but Khan does not. The Tooting MP and devout Muslim has begun fasting for Ramadan, abstaining from food and drink for 19 hours a day.

If Khan, who is 44, is low on energy it does not show. The former shadow justice secretary speaks fluently and passionately about his bid to become Labour’s London mayoral candidate and his vision for the capital.

He reveals his intention, if he wins, to establish the Bazalgette Award, named in honour of Joseph Bazalgette, the Victorian creator of the city's sewer network. "We know London's got huge problems in relation to infrastructure, in relation to environmental concerns, in relation to simple things like not having air conditioning on the tube ... 150 years ago London also had problems and people with foresight designed sewers, for example, fit not just for the 19th century but still working in the 21st century ...

"What it will be is an award for innovation, for solutions, so I’ll be saying to Londoners and those around the world, 'Look, here are some of our problems, if you come up with a solution not only will you get an award, not only will you get reward money, we’ll spend money to do feasibility studies, we’ll spend money to consult, we’ll spend money to make sure that your ideas bear fruit.'" 

He also vows to introduce "Skills for Londoners" - a partnership between business, the mayoralty and educational institutions, modelled on programmes such as New York mayor Bill de Blasio’s Jobs for New Yorkers and Tech Talent Pipeline. Khan promises to "train Londoners for the skills of tomorrow: tech, creative industries, low carbon, manufacturing". He notes that Tech City, where we are sitting, "now rivals the finance sector in relation to what it contributes to our country” and asks “What about the next Tech City? I’m going to be the mayor who thinks about tomorrow’s jobs."

Khan continues: "London’s a modern city and it needs a modern mayor ... What I think we can’t have as a city is somebody stuck in the 1980s or 1990s, we need somebody who’s thinking about the 2020s." His words are a coded attack on rival candidates Diane Abbott, the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington since 1987, and Tessa Jowell, who served in Tony Blair’s cabinet. "Tessa and Diane have been in politics since I was at school and I’ve got a huge amount of respect for them, it’s on their shoulders that many of us stand,” he tells me. “I don’t think [Jowell’s] got the answers for the 2020s, the future business, we’re a modern city, we’re young, we’re diverse." I ask if he is suggesting that Jowell, who is 67, is simply too old to be mayor. "For me, it’s not about age, it’s about asking the right questions, it’s about understanding tomorrow’s problems," the 44-year-old replies.

It is the former Olympics minister who is Khan’s main opponent in the Labour nomination contest. A recent YouGov poll found that he had narrowed her lead among party supporters (who will select the candidate in a primary) from 15 points to just three and several bookmakers have installed him as the favourite. But Jowell’s allies eagerly cite a survey putting her 14 points ahead of the most likely Conservative candidate, Zac Goldsmith (57-43), with Khan merely tied (50-50). "Two weeks after launching my campaign I’m neck-and-neck," he says when I reference the poll. "I’m confident that over the next few weeks and months I’ll show that I’m not only the only candidate that can win, I’m winning for a purpose."

One of Jowell’s biggest hindrances is her association with Tony Blair, who she once declared she would “jump in front of a bus to save”. Jowell recently denied making the remark only to be contradicted by a 2009 video in which she affirmed her pledge. When I mention the imbroglio to Khan he laughs and says “It’s no secret how close Tessa and Tony Blair are. It’s for Tessa to answer that question. I was surprised when I read the tweet in which she said that she hadn’t said that. It’s for Tessa to explain her local difficulty.” He goes on to accuse her of New Labour "control freakery" - "When your supporters turn up to a hustings to cheer you on, that’s just so 1990s. [In fact, Ed Miliband's supporters did the same for him at the 2010 New Statesman Labour leadership hustings.] The idea you have people turning up to a CLP [Constituency Labour Party] meeting, organising so other candidates are nominated, that’s just so 1990s. My criticism is not her age, it’s the way that sort of politics is done, I think it’s past its sell-by date." 

But what does Khan say to those who brand him "the union candidate" and "the Ed Miliband candidate"? "The fact that other people who are running to be mayor are being negative speaks volumes for them," he says. "I’m really proud that nurses, bus drivers and lollipop ladies are supporting me in my candidature to be mayor of London," he adds in reference to his trade union endorsements. "I’m also really proud, by the way, that chief executives, business owners and entrepreneurs are supporting me as well. I’m really proud that Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews and Christians are supporting me."

He says that Miliband, who appointed him as shadow London minister in 2013 and whose leadership campaign he managed, should remain an MP for the next five years.

"One of the first things I said to Ed after the results was what you cannot do is step down from parliament, you’ve got a lot to offer. He’s 45-years-old, he’s got a huge amount to offer and it’s really important that he does so." But he adds: "The important thing for me though is I’m my own man, I’m Sadiq Khan. Ed and others will offer ideas, some of them I’ll take on, some of them I won’t and I’ve got to be allowed to be my own man. What's been great about the last few weeks is I’ve been able to get people to know me."

Sadiq Khan was the first British Asian and the first Muslim to attend cabinet. He speaks with justifiable pride of his background. "As the son of a bus driver, as somebody who’s the son of immigrants, as somebody who was raised on a council estate, as somebody who slept on a bunk bed when he was 24, I get aspiration," he says in reference to the political word du jour. He criticises those in Labour who "give the impression that only those who shop in Waitrose have aspiration".

He reflects on how London has changed since his father arrived as an immigrant from Pakistan. "When my dad first came here there were signs up literally saying 'No blacks, no Irish, no dogs.' Thirty years on, my dad would have to pinch himself and my mum still does, that their son is on the cusp of being elected as mayor. And their pride isn’t in me, their pride is in London, their pride is in Tooting for electing their son MP, their pride is in London for being on the cusp of choosing their son to be the mayor of this great city."

On the day that I meet Khan, David Cameron has argued that some Muslim communities have "quietly condoned" Islamist extremism. "You’ve got to be very careful with language, you don’t want to inadvertently help others do the job for them," says Khan, adding that he believes "Cameron’s intentions are noble". His message to "anybody thinking about going to Syria or Iraq" is that "you can do far more good for the people of Syria and Iraq, getting involved in a mainstream charity, giving money to good causes, helping us try and influence foreign policy, helping us reach a resolution to the problems of the Middle East, you can do far more as an active citizen here than going to Syria and Iraq, especially if you’re a woman."

He continues: "I say this as the father of two daughters who’s worried about what goes on the internet. It is the case that in many Muslim majority countries women don’t have equality ... I say this to my daughter: you’ve got far more chance of fulfilling your potential here than in Syria and Iraq. That’s why it’s so important for someone like me to be the mayor of this great city, to send a message, to be a beacon."

Khan has announced policies including a new "London living rent", a four-year freeze on Tube and bus fares, and opposition to a third runway at Heathrow. He supports far greater devolution to the capital. "I want to be in charge of skills, I want to be in charge of back-to-work, Londoners should be much more in charge of housing. I think Londoners should be in charge of infrastructure, I think Londoners should be in charge of the NHS in London, we’re already in charge of public health. The more power London’s got over its own destiny, the better we’ll do and the better the country will do as well." 

When I mention that another rival candidate, David Lammy, has accused him of opportunism over his stance on Heathrow ("If the facts change, I change my mind," Khan tells me), he replies: "David Lammy, Diane Abbott and Tessa Jowell all may be saying beastly things about me, I take that as a badge of pride. If they’re rattled that’s for them to be rattled. I’m really not taking an interest in what they’re saying about me that’s negative. I want to have a positive campaign, I want to have an open campaign, I want to have a campaign that’s very much fraternal." 

And should he fall short, will he seek to return to the shadow cabinet? "I’m an optimist. I’m in this to win this and I’m confident that I’ll be selected as Labour’s candidate and I’m confident that I’ll be mayor of London after 5 May."

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2