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Barnie Choudhury: London mayor Sadiq Khan would be the right choice as Labour Party leader

Sadiq Khan
Sadiq Khan

by BARNIE CHOUDHURY, Former BBC journalist

BACK in 2002, I was investigating how the Metropolitan Police was dealing with a senior ethnic minority officer they had accused of corruption.

In his corner was a relatively unknown human rights lawyer and Labour councillor. Unlike other south Asians who had a taste of power, there was nothing self-important about him. He was humble, articulate and surprisingly humorous.

His humility was no act, either. I offered him a cab ride to go to the Met officer’s court appearance, but he refused, telling me that his father once drove London buses for a living, and if it was good enough for his dad, it was good enough for him. So we rode the bus to the Old Bailey. His name? Sadiq Khan.

A year later, when the officer was cleared by the courts, Khan rang me to praise my report for BBC2’s Newsnight. He knew the Metropolitan Police tried to pressure me to think that their officer was bent. He said something surprising for a politician and which I will never forget. “No matter what, always be true to your values, Barnie.”

Since that time, I have been interested in Khan’s progress. He was MP for Tooting and one of several Muslim MPs who condemned the July 7, 2005, terrorists, but he still fought Tony Blair’s 90 days detention without charge and criticised Labour’s foreign policy. Party whip, minister in a Gordon Brown government and shadow justice secretary under Ed Miliband.

Today, he is the mayor of London – and known the world around as the man who obviously keeps the US president awake at night.

How else do you explain the asinine Twitter comments moments before president Donald Trump’s UK state visit? Why on earth would the most powerful man in the world waste any mental time on someone who is not in his galaxy, never mind orbit? We can only conclude that contrary to being a “stone cold loser”, Khan is, in fact, a clear and present danger for the president.

Trump’s tweet has propelled Khan to a global statesman status. It has offered him a huge opportunity which we south Asians can only dream about. This is Khan’s Rocky moment. A relative nobody on the world stage is plucked out by an over-confident champ. This is the stuff of Hollywood dreams.

What’s great is that Khan doesn’t have to do a thing except be himself. The good news is that he is clever enough to surround himself with wise advisers. His director of communications, Patrick Hennessy, deserves some of the credit. Khan’s series of interviews post Trump’s Twitter implosion were exemplary. For example, Labour supporters will have been astounded that Jeremy Corbyn asked, and was turned down, for a meeting with the president, while publicly railing against him. Didn’t Corbyn’s team understand that no matter the truth, their man looks like a befuddled hypocrite?

Contrast that with Khan’s response to Sky News. “I’ve offered to meet with Donald Trump to take him round our wonderful city and show him the strengths of diversity,” he said.

The difference? Tone and positioning. He didn’t appear desperate to join the grown-ups’ table, played the statesman by extending an olive branch and showed he could punch at the president’s level.

We have seen how Trump backs down when leaders stand up to him. But unlike the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, Khan has humbled Trump without name calling. His media appearances are handled with clarity, conviction and always with a twinkle in his eye.

When asked by Channel 4 News why the president didn’t invite Sajid Javid, the only Muslim cabinet member, to the state banquet, Khan quipped: “We’re both the sons of bus drivers. The president’s got a problem with people whose dads drove buses.” Nicely done.

But before we go over the top, we need to examine Khan’s record as London mayor. A feminist, he backed the first woman Met commissioner. A champion of equal rights, Khan supported same-sex marriage laws despite death threats. A man who understands pressures on families, he has frozen bus and Tube fares for the past four years. Khan has challenges, such as knife crime, but he is working to deal with gang violence, putting £45 million to try to persuade young people away from a life of crime.

So, is it too much to hope that Labour will elect Khan as its next leader? While the Tories have already had two women leaders, Labour has always chosen white men. The problem for Khan is that he is brown, he is Muslim and is up against a party machine which has consistently committed electoral suicide by choosing the wrong leader. But perhaps common sense will prevail. We can but hope.