FAMOUSLY he grew up on a south London estate, his father drove a bus for a living and he would first become a successful lawyer, then a politician and cabinet minister.
Now Sadiq Khan is the (Labour) mayor of London, and the most powerful single individual in one of the world’s best and most celebrated capital cities.
When the GG2 Power List spoke to him in late September, Khan was both charming, combative and reflective. It is clear he is still high on leading a city that never sleeps or, rarely these days, and is not interested in where you have come from, only where you are going…
If you think his popularity and influence have waned over the last year, most people would hear you out – but don’t think Khan isn’t aware, complacent or arrogant enough not to know that he has a job on his hands.
One of his brothers is a boxing trainer and he will need a pugilist’s wiles and defences to come through what will be a difficult and testing time – knife crime, housing, transport, pollution and Brexit and its attendant culture war all loom, both now and the near future.
On the first and really serious problem of knife crime and murder, Khan is tackling the scourge through a new multi-agency approach and one that isn’t just about policing or police numbers (as the argument goes), but treating it like the way you would an infection.
“Over the last four years, violent crime has been going up across the country,” he tells the GG2 Power List. “The causes of violent crime are very complex – we are talking about poverty, social alienation, a lack of opportunity.
“We need to treat serious crime like a serious infection. We have got a new violent crime task force (the City Hall funded Metropolitan Police Violent Crime Taskforce), made up of specialist officers, and separately, we are going to stop the infection spreading through investing in new facilities. I’ve got a new mayor anti-gang fund (an extension of the £1.5 million service known as the London Gang Exit) and we need to give people constructive things to do.”
This multi-agency approach has had a significant impact in Glasgow, where plagued with a similar issue, a number of different public agencies, as well as the police, worked hard to change behaviour.
It took time and worked but the mayor’s press releases on his new approach are cautionary. Glasgow is a lot smaller than London and the violence in the Scottish city was confined to a relatively small area; in the capital, the problem is more widespread.
The mayor’s team has also studied what has happened in Chicago – another city where murder and violent crime have spiralled over the years. They, too, have a very distinct approach: treat the violence like an infection, treat it, cauterise it, put it in abeyance and at the same time, understand that prevention affords the best protection against it.
The government has also pledged to treat serious violence and knife crime in a similar fashion and it essentially means that at one level, both the mayor and his central government colleagues are on the same page, for a change.
Khan believes part of the spike in violence has come about because of the reduction in police numbers.
“When I talk to young people about this, they tell me that because of the cuts, people are less likely to feel they will be called out and that creates the feeling, ‘I can get away it’,” he admits.
He says he will be both “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime” (a mantra former prime minister Tony Blair was fond of asserting to the idea that the left was weak on the issue).
Khan knows that in the 18 months or so before he has to go to the polls again, his tenure may well rest on how much progress has been made on this issue – or seen to make.
“There is no overnight panacea. In Glasgow it took 10 years, it’s going to be very hard.
“We want to stop people getting involved in violent crime in the first place and the Violence Reduction Unit is going to do this.
“We have looked at what happened in Glasgow and Chicago, and what we need is City Hall, police officers, councils, the NHS, social services and civil society working together to stop being people being involved in violent crime in the first place. Actually, the good thing is by using data from elsewhere, it is possible to identify individuals who may get involved in crime in the future and stop them doing so.”
On housing, he asserts he has done more than any other mayor to address the issue. He told the GG2 Power List that in the financial year 2017-18, he backed plans to build 12,500 starter homes.
A September press release on the earmarking of half of the Olympic legacy sites for affordable housing stated that nearly 3,000 of the 12,555 homes will be based on social rent levels, making them available GG2 Power List to lower-paid workers. The press release said: “This is more than double the number of homes for social rent that the government started in the rest of England combined.”
Talking to the GG2 Power List, Khan declares: “What we are doing is turning around the chaos left by the previous guy (Boris Johnson, ex-foreign secretary and at the time of going to press, a backbencher). There is a very good reason why they (Conservatives) criticise me – it is because we are making very good progress.”
He insists that this was no more apparent than on the issue of rough sleeping and contrasted it with the promises Johnson made when he was in power. “He pledged to reduce it, but it doubled. Since I became mayor, it reached a plateau of 8,000 and has fallen now, and notwithstanding the issues of Brexit, I am really proud of the record.”
Official figures published in June showed that the number of people sleeping rough in the capital has declined from the first time in a decade. Last year (2017-18), 7,484 people were seen by outreach workers compared to 8,108 in 2016-17, a decrease of eight per cent.
On Brexit, it is clear he had little confidence in the process and remains opposed to it. Though he doesn’t explicitly express it to the GG2 Power List, he backs a People’s Vote.
“I’ve been to Brussels to try and get a good deal with the European Union (EU), but in reality, the options are a bad deal or no deal. In the circumstances, I think the public should have a say in whether we stay in the EU. I think the public believe the politicians have failed and we have lost control (of the process).”
Towards the end of September, the Conservatives chose Shaun Bailey, a self-made politician of African-Caribbean origin who comes from a similarly unprivileged background, to contest the mayoral election in 2020.
Bailey was embroiled in controversy within days of being selected. A race row broke out over a tweet, and criticism he had made in the past of schools celebrating Hindu and Muslim festivals in Brent flooded across mass media. It looked like Bailey was a willing warrior in a culture war which pits communities against each other.
It also suggested the Tories could return to tactics deployed in the previous mayoral race when candidate Zac Goldsmith emphasised Khan’s religion and attempted to link it with unsavoury elements – and also appealed to voters not so much on policies, but their ethnic and religious affiliations. Even some Conservatives baulked – Baroness Sayeeda Warsi (see No 85), the first Muslim female cabinet member as well as Goldsmith’s own sister Jemima – once married to Imran Khan, now Pakistan’s prime minister – condemned the strategy: not only did it not work, it also reflected a sinister turn, they argued.
“It was the most nasty and divisive campaign I’ve ever been involved with. What I hope this time is a campaign that has ideas and positivity. I think Londoners are really intelligent and can see through someone who is trying to divide our communities,” Khan says.
Bailey has vocal supporters, not least the editor of the Evening Standard, George Osborne, who was once prime minister David Cameron’s chancellor – and some of the sharpest attacks on Khan have appeared in the paper.
Khan brings up the subject of Osborne, saying he and Cameron have led the British public to the Brexit shambles and were the primary architects of austerity.
“He might try to rewrite history and expect Londoners to have amnesia, but we can see what is going on there,” Khan says.
There is an argument in some quarters that the vitriol and abuse thrown at elected officials is putting many worthy candidates off.
Khan appreciates the sentiment but is keen to counter it too. “In that 2016 campaign, I spoke to many, many Asian parents and grandparents and they said to me: ‘You know what, I was previously encouraging my son or daughter or grandson or granddaughter to go into politics, but the way you have been treated is appalling and what can we do about it?’”
He responds by urging those same folks to vote for him, adding that people need to see the issue in a wider perspective.
“Actually, unity will trump division, hope will trump hate. What we have shown is what a great city we are and what I say to young people is that serving the public is a huge honour. You can do far more good in this job than many others and those who are being horrible are a small, small minority.
“The vast majority of people are decent and even though they disagree with you, they respect what you are doing.”
He says he has good friend across the parties and is proud of political opponents who, like him, come from a minority ethnic background.
“I am proud of Sajid Javid, Priti Patel and Sayeeda Warsi and that’s how it should be.” All three are on the GG2 Power List.
“The great thing about the GG2 Power List is not only is it about the best and most talented Asians in the country, it is also about the best and most talented in the country. So, when you look at that list, whether you are a politician, or a peer, or a campaigner, a TV presenter, or a Nobel prize winner, you’re one of the country’s leading lights who just happens to be Asian. You are a role model not just for this country but around the world. It is the best advocate for pluralism and diversity we can ever have.”
What perhaps is lost on the wider public and some UK politicians and political commentators is what Khan’s election as London mayor meant to the rest of the world.
He remains the only politician from a Muslim background to be in charge of a Western capital city (on a scale of comparable world cities), and while many may see his victory as just one of Labour against the Conservatives, there is a deeper message at play. Khan reminds people of it when he talks about what sort of issues he wants to contest the next mayoral election on.
“A number of things,” he responds when asked what successes would he want to point to in the May 2020 campaign. The first thing is this: “I want to show that as a city, we still stand for pluralism and diversity at a time when there are narrow, populist, nativist movements around the world. We want to show that we are still a beacon for the rest of the world and that London is open.
“By 2020, I want to have managed to freeze transport fares (for four years) and have an affordable and viable transport service; to have started to make progress in fixing the housing crisis and creating new starter homes; to make progress in tackling crime in London, but I suspect in the country we will not have made much progress; and to fix air quality issues – there are thousands of premature deaths in London. Another big thing is Brexit – by 2020, we potentially could be suffering adverse consequences, so I hope we will still be a successful city, creating jobs, wealth and prosperity.”