“You know the history of this city. This is going to be a two-horse race between me and the Conservative candidate. I’m saying to those who voted Lib Dem, Green and Tory at the general election — lend me your vote if you want someone to stand up for London.”
If that phrase sounds familiar, it’s because the Prime Minister used it right after he won a landslide victory in December, in reference to the record numbers of Labour voters who switched to the Conservatives.
Khan’s analysis of why Labour lost so badly comes down to a lack of leadership, empathy and trust. But there was more. “You can’t equivocate on some of the most important issues of the day like Brexit and sit on the fence. You end up pleasing nobody.”
Khan’s term as London Mayor hasn’t been easy. He has presided over the capital at a difficult time, seeing a rise in terror attacks — notably two incidents on London Bridge, and the Finsbury Park mosque attack — as well as a knife crime epidemic.
The capital remains in a housing crisis — with many young people unable to get on the ladder, and with a shortage of homes available. Khan’s critics have been quick to say that he’s not done enough to tackle these big issues.
Still, he thinks Labour could learn from him when it comes to winning elections. “There was a route to winning the election where I could just rely upon those who’ve always voted Labour to win. That’s not the sort of mayor I wanted to be. I hope I’ve shown I am a mayor for all boroughs. The same goes for national politics.”
He says his style of leadership is down to communication with those across the political spectrum. “Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to chief executives, investors, innovators but also … to people who work in retail, hospitality and bus depots.”
Khan hasn’t decided who to back for Labour leader, but it would “take a lot” for Rebecca Long-Bailey to get his vote. “We’re going to have to learn the lessons of the past and choose somebody who’s going to get back into the habit of winning again.”
He also rejects the anti-London sentiment that has dominated the Labour leadership contest. “Don’t presume that the reason why Labour has worked in London is because of something inherent in London. Ten years ago, people said Scotland is a Labour country, so we must never be complacent. The reason we did well in London was because of damn hard work and leadership.”
He is, however, alive to the bigger arguments about how well the capital does compared to the rest of the country. “It’s not London versus the rest. It’s London and the rest.”
One person he feels “gets this argument” is ex-Chancellor Sajid Javid, whom he counts as a friend. They have been texting although he won’t reveal the details.
He goes on to say how proud he is of Javid. “What people don’t realise is your political opponent doesn’t need to be your enemy. Sure, we’ve got different politics and I want his team to lose every time.”
He makes an interesting observation about Javid. “When people say that Rishi [the new Chancellor Rishi Sunak] makes a point far more quickly and pithily than Saj does in Cabinet, well you know that’s a form of prejudice.” Sunak was educated at Winchester and read PPE at Oxford. Javid attended a state comprehensive near Bristol.
Javid and Khan share a similar backstory. Both had fathers who were bus drivers — a far cry from the comfort many of their political colleagues enjoyed. Khan was middle son in a family of 10 squeezed into a council house on the Henry Prince Estate in Tooting.
He shared bunks in one bedroom with three of his six brothers, while two younger brothers slept in his parents’ room. “We’ve got fond memories, but it was tough. We had one heater in the front room, where, when we had a bath, we would all have to dry off.”
He recalls how he and his siblings would help his mother, who was a seamstress and would get 25p for every dress she sewed up. They all had to pitch in as his parents were so busy working. “My older brothers would do fish fingers and chips on the grill on a Friday, or a fried egg. We all learned to cook. I looked after the younger kids.”
He owes his parents a lot, and is very “angry and unhappy” with the announcement of new immigration rules by Priti Patel this week. The Home Secretary has announced a crackdown on non-skilled workers and Khan doesn’t think his mum or dad would have been allowed to come to the UK under the new rules.
“There are more than 300,000 Londoners from the EU who wouldn’t be eligible to get a visa under this scheme. I can’t see how theatres, restaurants, hotels, construction, social work and social care are going to progress."
Is he disappointed that Patel — a child of immigrants herself — is leading the charge on this policy? “There’s been pressure upon me to be a salesperson for things I don’t agree with because of the colour of my skin, or the faith I belong to. I’m very resistant to being used that way — and I’d hope others would also be resistant to being used that way. I hope that’s not the case. I hope that the people who wrote this policy didn’t think, ‘You know, the best person to sell this is a person of colour, who is the daughter of immigrants’.”
He adds: “If you closed your eyes and listened to what our Home Secretary is saying, then opened your eyes and discovered she was a person of colour whose parents were immigrants, it would be heartbreaking, because she’s not using the benefit of life experiences to improve a policy.” He hopes he can persuade Patel to relax the policy.
Many people of colour look to him for leadership on race issues. He “understood completely” when rap artist Dave branded Boris Johnson racist at the Brit Awards this week.
“He’s articulating the experiences and feelings of many Londoners I speak to. He’s our Prime Minister but some of the things he has said would in any other walk of life have led to summary dismissal, let alone been rewarded. So, you know, I understand completely.”
Did he think the Prime Minister was racist? “I’m not sure if he’s a racist. I think it’s possible to say things that are racist without being a racist.”
Still, he wishes the Prime Minister would “wake up” and realise how millions of black and minority ethnic Britons feel offended by Johnson’s remarks, such as when he said Muslim women who wear the niqab resemble “bank robbers” or “letter boxes”, and make amends.
“My advice to Boris Johnson is that he has to accept that, fairly or unfairly, there are people who think he’s racist,” he says. “Fairly or unfairly, there are people who think he is Islamophobic. What I would do if I were him is try to understand why people are saying this, and address those concerns. It would be a good way to heal our country, but also, you never know, it might mean him winning more votes next time. What has he got to lose? The fact that he’s not doing so and he appears to have a blind spot is the reason why people like Dave said what he said.”
Khan has a long history of campaigning against discrimination as a human rights lawyer and politician, and he has publicly expressed his support for the trans community. What does he make of the row which has engulfed the Labour Party in recent weeks?
“The challenge that we’ve got for those who believe in equality in 2020, is to accept that the trans community needs protecting, not demonising.”
It’s a topic close to home. His solicitor wife Saadiya volunteers for the Samaritans and it “breaks his heart” that so many young trans people try to take their own life.
So, are women who worry about single sex spaces transphobic? He shakes his head. “As someone who has given record sums from City Hall to refuges to help women who have suffered domestic abuse, I understand the anxieties that some may have”, although he goes on to say “rape does exist in women’s prisons” and worries “that without knowing the full facts, we use individual cases in a wrong way to prove a point”.
He says what the Labour Party needs is “generosity and kindness to try to listen to other people’s points of view and understand where they are coming from. It cannot be beyond the wit of us”.
He’s currently the frontrunner for a second term as Mayor and tells us he needs to win on May 7 — not just to carry on his work in London but to show the world “it’s possible to have Labour administrations that can be pro-business and pro-social justice.”
Are his sights set on a comeback to the Commons after a second term, like his predecessor? He won’t be drawn on it, but he’s young, smart, and ambitious. He’s London’s first Muslim Mayor. Could he one day become Britain’s first Muslim Prime Minister?