Lots to learn from the way Sadiq Khan fought and beat the Tories
Posted on 8 May 2016 | 1:05pm
Given Sadiq Khan is in man-of-the-moment territory, I thought I would repost the transcript of the interview I did with him a few weeks back for GQ. What was clear to me then, and became clearer as the London Mayoral campaign went on, was that Sadiq had done a lot of strategic heavy-lifting – worked out the big themes and messages he wanted to put across, and thought well about how to deal with those areas where he had worked out he was vulnerable to attack. (The bits in bold, as before, are the bits that were not used in the published interview on space grounds, but which I do think say something interesting about him nonetheless).
He has got off to a good start, because of the nature of the campaign, and the size of the mandate. I also think he was absolutely right to pitch in today by emphasising the lessons to be learned from the nature of the campaign that led to his win. As I said on Robert Peston’s new ITV show this morning, he won in part by being explicit about the desire to win support from all sections of the community, including people who would not normally consider Labour. He was pro-business but also had ideas for dealing with inequality. He was not talking only to the converted, and he was always determined not to get trapped inside the political bubble. Too many people in the Labour Party today are talking to themselves about themselves, in a language many do not hear let alone understand.
I hope too that he will use his new found authority and name recognition to get right into the EU referendum. He is well placed to make the Labour case for IN, the London case for IN, and to show that positive campaigning can enthuse and motivate others to get involved. It is damaging to the campaign for IN if it is seen as being all about a Tory internal war to succeed David Cameron, Boris v George, Teresa v Michael and so on. There is a progressive case for EU membership and we need to hear a lot more of it. Sadiq can be a big part of that.
Now here is the GQ chat again.
AC: Why should London vote for a Mayor who supports Liverpool?
SK: Because I am an authentic football fan who doesn’t change teams to win votes.
AC: Why Liverpool?
SK: My two brothers went to Chelsea and got chased away being called “the P word,” [Paki] and never went back. I supported Wimbledon, went to Plough Lane for a Cup game against Spurs, and the Wimbledon fans – my team – were calling me the “Y-word” [Yid]. I never went back. So the only opportunity to watch was Match of the Day, Big Match, Football Focus, Saint and Greavsie. Liverpool were on all the time, playing beautiful football, the Dalglish-Rush-Souness-Hansen era, I became a Liverpool fan at eight or nine.
AC: Do you go?
SK: Last year once, this year not yet.
AC: Do you regret nominating Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership?
SK: No I don’t. We lost two elections in a row, big defeats, won just 29percent, 30percent. In those circumstances, for the Westminster elite not to let someone on the ballot paper who had support in parts of the party would have been wrong. You remember when we stitched it up to stop Ken Livingstone running for Mayor. We ended up coming third. Also, David Miliband nominated Diane Abbott in 2010, but she came fifth because there were better candidates.
AC: Did you think Corbyn could win?
SK: No, I was clear I was not supporting him, and I was as astonished as anyone by Corbynmania. I have spoken to mates of yours whose kids voted for him, because he said what he believed and believed what he said, and the other three candidates had such flat campaigns, it was not clear what they stood for. Also it is not true that his voters were all – quotes – “headbangers”, or signed up for three quid. He won among members, supporters, trade unions.
AC: How is he doing?
SK: Early days. He has made mistakes. If you have done 32 years as a backbencher, no experience of the frontbench, let alone leadership, it is a difficult transition. But simple things: as Leader of the Opposition you’re applying for the job of Prime Minister, so when there is an event to commemorate the Battle of Britain, I don’t care what your views are, you sing the national anthem. That was a mistake.
AC: Do you have a sense of what his general approach to policy and strategy is?
SK: It is not for me to answer for him, but I think he is getting to grips with the levers. Politics is a team sport, the big tent matters, and if they are honest I’m not sure they have been good at building a team.
AC: How much do you want him in your campaign?
SK: This is my campaign, and I have a similar mandate, 60 percent. A city chooses as Mayor a champion for that city, with ideas, a vision; what they do not want is a patsy for their party. That means working with a Conservative government if it is in the interests of the city. George Osborne is right to go overseas and find investment for London. And if Jeremy Corbyn says things not in London’s interests, I will say so.
AC: Why did you change your mind on Heathrow?
SK: I’ve accepted there is a case for more capacity, unlike my opponent. But last year almost ten thousand Londoners died because of poor air quality, kids are growing up with under developed lungs, the Supreme Court says we are in breach of air pollution rules. At 45, I have just been diagnosed with adult onset asthma. The idea of another runway at Heathrow is a joke. It will take decades to get legal obstacles out of the way, it certainly won’t help pollution. Gatwick is the solution. You get the jobs, you get the capacity, you get the growth …
AC: And the local residents don’t have a vote in the Mayoral election.
SK: It’s not that. It’s the practicality, and the pollution. A better Gatwick also means more competition for Heathrow who can hopefully raise their game.
AC: Why not take it right out of London, to the Midlands?
SK: I would revisit City airport and yes, better regional airports. If HS2 was linking Birmingham to London, there could be a new runway there, that is what Birmingham MPs argue for. That is an argument against Heathrow.
AC: Where are you on HS2?
SK: Great idea. We need to do infrastructure better. It costs so much more here. Since Crossrail, Paris has done five [equivalents]. One worry I have is that Euston doesn’t work as a station for HS2 because there are no links with Crossrail and other systems. So yes to HS2, no to current plans for Euston.
AC: How active will Jeremy be in your campaign?
SK: Jeremy gets the housing crisis in London, he is passionate about inequality, of course he will help. But it is about me, my campaign for London, not Jeremy.
AC: But if Scotland and the local elections are bad, and you win here, you are his get out of jail card.
SK: Alastair, you know this, you cannot choose which elections to fight and win. This is not about me …
AC: You just said it was …
SK: … it is about London. It is about housing, and whether people, graduates as well as non graduates, not just bus drivers and teachers, but there are people in Morgan Stanley, Deloittes, the tech companies, can they afford to live in London? It is about building a modern transport system. It is about helping people to do a hard day’s work and get decent pay. I am vain, and I love the party, but it is not about me or Jeremy, it is about London and Londoners. So I say to people “do not be too clever by half,” working out if this helps Jeremy Corbyn or harms him, it is about London.
AC: Are you finding people less willing to come out and campaign though, in case it helps him?
SK: On the contrary. I am getting lots of help. Hilary Benn the other day, peers coming to the phone bank yesterday, Margaret Hodge and Oona King backing me then on the other wing if you like, Ken Livingstone. I have Tories, Lib Dems, Greens, Kippers, all coming over. Sure, I could win on a core vote strategy, we have 45 out of 72 MPs in London, that is not the Mayor I want to be. I want to be Mayor for all Londoners.
AC: But Zac’s campaign is basically portraying you as “Corbyn’s candidate.”
SK: The Tory campaign is not rocket science. It will be a negative campaign about links to Corbyn, and then coded language about my background. [Goldsmith leaflets call Khan “radical and divisive]
AC: Is that really the case? Aren’t you proud to be radical?
SK: It is about context, Alastair. “Radical and divisive” – it says that with my photo, my name, in the context of the attacks in Paris, “radical and divisive.” I am not going to get sucked into their negative campaign. I have a positive vision for London, and my experience is more relevant. Only two people can be Mayor, me or Goldsmith, and I am asking people of all backgrounds, all parties, to lend me their vote.
AC: Have you been surprised at Zac’s campaign?
SK: Pleasantly surprised. He is not Boris Johnson, is he? Boris is a force of nature. He is personable, funny. I like Boris.
AC: Isn’t he just a right wing twat?
SK: You can like people with dodgy politics, dodgy ideas and ruthless ambition. Zac has none of the vision or charisma. Being the Mayor of a leading global centre, you should have done something, have ideas, know why you’re doing it. I am unclear why he is doing it. I am clear why I am doing this. London gave me all my chances to fulfill my potential. My parents were immigrants, my Dad passed away in 2003, he had been a bus driver for 25 years, my Mum sewed clothes, raised eight children, but we had security on housing, it was affordable, they could put money aside to get our own home; we went to good local schools and our parents said “listen to the teachers.” They pushed us. All of us who wanted to go to university, we did. I came back home after law school, slept in the same top bunk, saving for a deposit, then my wife and I got a property in our mid 20s; I was a lawyer, ran a business, MP, then sat at the Cabinet table …that is the London story. Too many people miss out on those chances now.
AC: What are you going to do about housing?
SK: I have a real plan, Homes for Londoners, I’ll be in charge, it will do what it says on the tin. In the London Plan, my expectation in development is that half of new homes must be genuinely affordable. I will define that. Social rents linked to salary …
AC: So you have to intervene in the market?
SK: The market isn’t working. I want half to be genuinely affordable. Developers and local authorities have to know what that means. I am also saying, no more selling off first to Asia and the Middle East.
AC: How do you stop them?
SK: The quid pro quo for permission to develop is first dibs to Londoners.
AC: But how do you stop them selling to foreigners?
SK: For six months they go first to Londoners. One of the top five estate agents, they advertised seven hundred properties overseas before here. Another one, they had fifty cocktail parties in Singapore and Malaysia on properties not yet built. So there are going to be conditions for development – first try sell here, and they have to be affordable.
AC: But do you have power there, or only influence?
SK: The Plan for London gives me that power. I am also going to set up a London wide not for profit letting agent to stop some of the worst rip offs, provide cheaper alternatives. We need a Mayor who understands the powers and how to use them.
AC: Do you want more powers?
SK: Absolutely. Of all public money spent in London, seven percent is by the Mayor. In New York, it is 50, in Tokyo 70 percent. This is the most centralized democracy in the world. We have police, fire, planning, tube, DLR, parts of the overground. We should have skills too. Now, the London Plan is the Bible…
AC: Not the Koran?
SK: … I do do God, Alastair, but if I said Koran not Bible I might provoke another “radical and divisive” Zac leaflet. So the London Plan is the Bible and the next things the Mayor and local authorities should have are skills, further education, planning of education places, commuter trains to London, more powers on housing, the ability to borrow to build, issue bonds.
AC: Why has London not really been part of the debate about next steps for devolution?
SK: Because nobody is batting for London. Boris is disinterested. All he wanted was to prove he could be a winner. There is one school of thought that says Mayors should cut ribbons, be funny and be a buffoon. The other school of thought is that we can do more. Scotland is getting more powers. Wales is getting more powers. Greater Manchester. London needs more powers.
SK: Like powers on skills. [New York Mayor] Bill de Blasio realized New York was a world leader on tech. He set up a tech talent pipeline, to train up New Yorkers for the skills of tomorrow. I want to do it for London, for tech, fashion, the creative industries, say to business, come to Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Harrow, Croyon, speak to our young people, inspire them, help me train them up.
AC: Are you looking forward to getting out of Parliament?
SK: I look forward to being Mayor. Being in Opposition is a grind, winning arguments and losing votes. I am loving this. The only thing I would love more is being Mayor because I can do stuff, fix the housing crisis, get employers to skill up, pay a living wage, freeze fares for four years, sort transport. If the Mayor says to top companies to come together to discuss skills, they’ll come. I can persuade people.
AC: I am surprised you are so intensely relaxed about billionaires getting filthy rich.
SK: To be fair to Peter Mandelson who said that, he also said “provided they pay their taxes.” Now we are city with 140 billionaires, over 400,000 millionaires. There are some who use us to launder money – unacceptable.
AC: So you’ll go for the Russians?
SK: Absolutely, if London is being used for money laundering, yes. There should be more transparency on property. In New York you cannot hide behind offshore. But most employers I speak to, they want to create jobs and give decent salaries. Some small and medium companies say to me they cannot afford to pay the living wage. I say “what about if I gave you a business rate cut?” and they say, yes, ok. We want companies which are skilled up, generating more profit, more corporation tax – we should not be embarrassed at success, as long as they pay their taxes. London has always been open to trade, people, ideas. We have to keep that. I want to compete not just with New York, Paris, Berlin … the ten fastest growing cities in the world are in China. How do we compete with them? We have to attract investment and we have to compete on skills.
AC: But the immigrants nobody ever seems to challenge are the tax-dodging superwealthy, the very ones helping create the housing crisis for Londoners.
SK: Sure. But the way to avoid tax avoidance is to close loopholes.
AC: We have said that forever. So you are sending a message to the superwealthy they are more than welcome here?
SK: Anyone who comes to do good things for London is welcome, wealthy or middle class. This is a place to fulfil potential, not take the piss. Some take the piss and we have to clamp down on that, but we mustn’t scare off Indian entrepreneurs, Chinese students.
AC: So you want the government to change the visa regime for students?
SK: Without a doubt. Why do Bill Clinton, Benazir Bhutto, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, have such fondness for Britain? They studied here. How great is it when students from the East go back home and say “it is not true the West hates us”?
AC: Do you not feel that London is becoming almost like a separate country from the rest of the UK?
SK: London had always been different. There is the old saying that Britain is ten years behind America, and the country as a whole is ten years behind London.
AC: But many parts of the country really feel left behind.
SK: Yes but we should not cut the cake to make it smaller. If London is more successful it makes the cake bigger for everyone. If you have a Mayor of London working for jobs and growth and strong businesses, that is going to create opportunities for businesses and people in Burnley or Hull and places all over the UK. Sure, the media are here, the creative arts are here, and I am sure lots of people have an impression of London and say “they have everything already,” but I really believe if London does better the country does better.
AC: Can you ever envisage a population limit?
SK: No. The problem is not population, it is lack of planning. We must have better planning on housing, on transport, not just Crossrail, but trams, electric buses, better cycle lanes…
AC: They are causing chaos right now.
SK: Short-term pain, long-term gain. The problem is Boris has not been on top of the project. So more planning on homes and skills. We cannot compete with China or Taiwan on price; we compete on skills, on arts and culture. On arts this is the world’s leader. Adele. James Bond. JK Rowling. Royal Opera House. Barbican. O2. Four out of five people who come here say they come for our cultural arts.
AC: How are you going to get more kids from poorer backgrounds into that?
SK: You know the European city of culture? London will have a borough of culture. Could be Redbridge, Havering, Croydon. The Royal Opera House will go to them. Imagine great art and sculpture in squares in Brixton or Tooting. Then we get the kids into the theatres and the concerts. In Newham, already, every child gets to play an instrument. Let’s spread that. London has lost thirty percent of live music venues since 2007. Never mind mourning David Bowie, some of the halls he first played in have closed down. Developers put up buildings, then complain about the noise and the venues can’t afford soundproofing. I say flip it around so the developers have to do the soundproofing on the new developments. The Mayor has the power to do that.
AC: What are you going to do about the growing numbers of people sleeping on the streets?
SK: It’s heartbreaking. You know what makes me angry – people saying you won’t get rid of it. Short memories. You guys [New Labour] got rid of it. I remember being scared going to Waterloo, cardboard city, remember? Now it is all coming back and I tell my daughters, you guys got rid of it. It took hard graft, investment, hostels, mental health interventions, alcohol dependency units.
AC: So what can you do?
SK: I was out with St Mungo’s Broadway and Crisis at Christmas and what is needed is faster intervention. A simple thing like duty solicitors at court when people are being made homeless. Making sure local authorities are better connected with data, so that when someone from one area is homeless in another one, nobody is able to say “nothing to do with us.” More alcohol dependency centres. Fewer silos. More joined up interventions – the Mayor can do that, bring together housing, education, children’s centres, prisons. St Mungo’s do this great thing – and fair dues, Boris played a part in this – “no second night out.” If you are out for the second night, they find emergency digs. But then the problem is lack of continuity of care. Hardly surprising when local authorities have lost 60percent of funding. But you cannot live in the best city in the world and have people living on the streets.
AC: You said you do do God. How much?
SK: We all have multiple identities. I am a Dad, a husband, Londoner, Asian, British, Muslim. I never run away from my faith but I don’t proselytise (spell ??)
AC: Do you pray five times a day?
SK: I try to. During Ramadan I fast. This Ramadan I opened fast twice in a synagogue. Where else in the world would someone of Islamic faith be welcome to do that? That is the magic of London. The faiths don’t just tolerate each other, but show respect.
AC: When was the last time you were racially abused?
SK: To my face, not recently. Growing up, a lot.
AC: What about your daughters?
SK: They have not had it to their face. That shows progress. My Dad used to tell the story of a sign up in Earl’s Court – “no Irish, no blacks, no dogs.” The Labour government brought in the Race Relations Act to make that kind of thing unlawful. This is my point about the power of politics. I had experiences which my daughters have never had to suffer. Think about it – we are at the cusp of London choosing a Londoner, son of immigrants, ethnic minority, Muslim. Not being too pompous about it, but think about the signal that is going to send around the world. Or think back to the Olympics, I was at home with twelve people, there were 80,000 in the stadium, tens of millions watching TV, cheering on an African, an asylum seeker, a Muslim, a black guy, a refugee, Mo, Mohammed, Farah. That was the best ever. And the Mo Farah story is this: he goes to his local state school, a PE teacher spots his talent, he goes to the track, he starts to get noticed, then Paula Radcliffe pays for his driving lessons so he can pass his test to drive elsewhere to train and compete and and fulfil his potential. He got a helping hand. Too many in London today, who could make it in sport, arts, media, the law, they are missing out, can’t get decent homes, not enough apprenticeships, not enough access to the best unis and colleges.
AC: Why are we so low on talent in politics?
SK: There are talented people. It’s all relative. Part of it is that a generation of Labour politicians became MPs in the time of a Labour government. The ability to be themselves and develop was inhibited by control freakery at the centre …
AC: We call it “necessary discipline.”
SK: I am not criticizing you. It was necessary. We won elections, did amazing things. But all that Blair-Brown camp stuff, or express an opinion and it makes you a rebel… The generation elected in Opposition spent a lot of time thinking, planning. Tony and Gordon went off to America to look for ideas. But was there enough succession planning? Did the generation elected when we were in government think ahead enough? No, so 2010 and 2015 were not so exciting.
AC: You ran Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign. Do you still think he was the right guy?
SK: Yes. He won fair and square in 2010.
AC: But the public never saw him as a PM. That was a real problem.
SK: Hindsight tells us that.
AC: You don’t think it was clear at the time?
SK: It was far better for him to have stood, rather than have a re-run of 1994 and all it led to, the TBGBs.
AC: But we did win three elections despite it all.
SK: Ok. But if Ed thought he should be leader, then he was right to go for it. Don’t keep your hands in your pockets, go for it. There are lots of things to say in hindsight, because we lost the election.
AC: What compromises are you having to make?
SK: I will try to let people know who I am. On the frontbench collective responsibility is like a straitjacket, message discipline binds you in. I can now say what I really think, on business say, or immigration.
AC: Yeah, but is that compromise? It all fits the strategy. Pro-business because Corbyn is seen as anti. Positive message on immigration because the backstory fits. It is all very nicely packaged.
SK: Thank you! (laughs) I am not sure I am that clever. I have to be myself.
AC: But you don’t really love these business guys, do you?
SK: The difference between me and Goldsmith is that I have run a business. I have had sleepless nights about the overdraft, bills, rent. I have lived through all that.
AC: But these big business investment bank people are not your people.
SK: A famous politician [Blair] said we must get away from “our people/their people.”
AC: But you wouldn’t go on holiday with them.
SK: I feel as comfortable in a boardroom as I do in Tooting High Street. I understand why they are important to London’s prosperity. And for every investment banker sixty other jobs depend on them.
AC: But life for the people in Tooting High Street has been made tougher by bankers’ greed and most of them got away with it.
SK: Some have taken the piss, yes, and not been stood up to.
AC: Your message is they are ok.
SK: No, what I said is London is not, and cannot be, closed for business.
AC: What about the cops? By and large good?
SK: By and large yes.
AC: Any lingering racism?
SK: I am sure there is. But it is so much better. When I grew up you crossed the road to avoid them, because of stop and search. For most of us that was our first contact with the police. Now it will be neighbourhood policing, or school visits. My kids would approach the police in a way that I would never have done when I was younger. But also remember a lot of the cases I did, which I won and became a successful lawyer, were police misconduct cases, wrongful arrest, malicious prosecution, or helping black police officers subject to racism.
AC: Are you a Monarchist?
SK: I like the Queen.
AC: I didn’t ask that. I asked if you are a Monarchist.
SK: I could paraphrase the Churchill quote about democracy being the worst system apart from all the others …
AC: The Monarchy is not democratic.
SK: She is doing a good job. If it ain’t broke …
AC: Do you think Boris could be PM?
SK: The jury is out. Nothing so far persuades me he can. But underestimate him at your peril.
AC: Could Osborne be PM?
SK: By his lights, yes. He has also been lucky.
AC: Lucky that Labour didn’t challenge him enough and let him get away with “the mess we inherited.”
SK: We never bounce back in one term. We have to learn lessons. But you have to be either commentator or participant, and ask, “am I doing this to feel better or influence the outcome?”
AC: Your job is also to be a leadership figure and we need those in the party now, saying different things.
SK: Yes, and I will deliver. It is going to be me, not Corbyn, on the ballot paper. I hope to show how we win elections. We have not won the Mayoral election since ’04; ’05 was our last general election. We’ve got to get the winning habit back. There are additional benefits for Labour if I win. The rest of the country can see a template.
AC: Can you see Corbyn as PM?
SK: He has to prove he can be.
AC: So the jury is out on Boris and very out on Jeremy?
SK: He has to prove he can do it.
AC: Do you worry the people have already decided?
SK: The downside of the five year Parliament is a very different rhythm. It is really important Jeremy gets to grips with it, because his only task is to win the next election.
AC: You sound even less confident than I am.
SK: If a week is a long time in politics, four years is an infinity.
AC: Could you be PM? If this goes well, and you serve two terms, you could be well placed to be leader.
SK: No. I am not interested. I want to be Mayor of London.
AC: You do stand up comedy. Tell me a joke, make me laugh.
SK: (long pause) Ok. So I went to St George’s my local hospital, and I asked three surgeons, “who are the easiest people to operate on?” The first surgeon said librarians, “because you slice them open, and all the parts are perfectly ordered.” The second one said “no, accountants are the easiest, because you slice them open and all their parts are numbered.” But the third one said “no, it’s politicians. We had Jeremy Hunt in here last year. I sliced him open and he was gutless, spineless, and his head and arse were totally interchangeable.”
AC: Not bad. Where did you hear it?
SK: I wrote it myself.
AC: This is GQ, and you once said you were cool. Define cool.
SK: My kids said I was cool. I was GQ Man of the Month once, photographed by David Bailey.
AC: He’s done me three times, that’s nothing. Define cool.
SK: Somebody who doesn’t embarrass his children too much. Who is just at ease at a Kooks concert or taking his kids to see the Nutcracker. Oh, and Jon Boyega knows who I am.
AC: Who’s he?
SK: Who is Jon Boyega? Finn in Star Wars.
AC: I’m not interested in Star Wars.
SK: Well, I am and he knew who I was.
AC: It’s hardly on a par with playing football with Maradona.
SK: I played in a match against you. You were good, but very dirty.
AC: Which politician in the world do you most admire?
SK: Barack Obama.
AC: Do you think he’s been that good?
SK: You said “admire.” What he did to get there was incredible. I’ll tell you what broke my heart though, when the New Yorker called him a Muslim. I wish he had said “no I’m not but so what if I was?” He just said “I am a Christian.” It took Colin Powell to say “go to Arlington Cemetery and see the graves of Muslim soldiers.”
AC: Are you looking forward to hustings with [George] Galloway?
SK: He is a hateful, horrible man, always seeks to divide. Some of the stuff he did campaigning in Bradford was truly horrible. And in Tower Hamlets. A horrible man.
AC: The best Prime Minister of your lifetime?
SK: Blair without a doubt.
AC: Boris in a word.
AC: Zac in a word.
AC: Tony in a word?
AC: Gordon in a word?
AC: Cameron in a word?
AC: Osborne in a word?
AC: Sadiq in a word?
AC: Message discipline. You’ve been well trained, I’d say.