Sadiq Khan’s herculean challenge is to unite a capital riven apart by bigotry
By Sunny Hundal
For a site that has served as a historical symbol of christian influence for over a thousand years,
Southwark Cathedral in central London took on a new meaning this week. Standing next to a large table where Bishops offer sermons and couples sometimes exchange their marriage vows, a slight 5-foot 4-inch tall Asian man began a different kind of a speech.
“My name is Sadiq Khan and I’m the Mayor of London,” he opened, to an instant roar of approval and applause. A new mayor usually does their signing-in ceremony at City Hall, less than a mile away, but Khan understood the gravity of what had just happened. He is arguably now the most powerful Labour politician in the country, with executive power and a huge budget, representing one of the most multicultural cities in the world.
But the first Muslim mayor of a major western city wanted to be sworn in at a Church of England cathedral. He was introduced by Baroness Doreen Lawrence on one side, the tireless campaigner against injustice whose son, Stephen Lawrence, was murdered by racists. On the other side sat Sarah Joseph, the soft-spoken CEO of Emel magazine who wears a hijab. “Sadiq knows how important visuals are in getting his message across,” one of his key campaigners told me. “He wanted it to be done in as public a place with as much historic resonance as possible.”
While his Labour predecessor Ken Livingstone was continually tainted with accusations of anti-semitism, Khan announced that his first official engagement as Mayor of London would be to attend Holocaust Memorial Day. It doesn’t get more symbolic than this.
More Britons voted for Khan directly than any politician in British history. In winning the mayoralty, he has swiftly become the poster-boy of a new generation of British youth—the sons and daughters of a generation of beleaguered Asian immigrants, giving hope to a disenchanted minority that many say had become apathetic to the political process. Islamophobia faced a fight in the trenches, from one of the most progressive and inclusive voices to ever have emerged out of British Muslim hinterlands. Khan’s Pakistani roots reverberated across the continents, with Asian papers loudly proclaiming that one of their own had come through. The era of Trumpism, Khan’s election appeared to herald, would not find sanctuary on British shores. “By electing Sadiq Khan, London has sent a message to the world about what kind of city it is. A place that embraces its diversity and one that rejected a campaign of fear and division,” former Labour leader, Ed Miliband told Newsweek Middle East.
In 2008, when then Mayor Boris Johnson won with 1.1 million votes, he said it was the “largest personal mandate in British political history.” Khan easily beat that with 1.3 million votes.
But just last week, hardly anyone was expecting a victory of this scale. The opinion polls were predicting it but, as Khan himself kept reminding his team, they had been badly wrong last year in predicting the General Election in Britain. There was no room to be complacent. Uma Kumaran, a senior advisor who worked on his campaign, says: “He wouldn’t pass a single person without asking them or reminding them to vote. Literally, every single person.”
Some credit Sadiq Khan as a campaigner with an almost superhuman work-ethic. Marcus Roberts ran his campaign to be the Labour party’s candidate for Mayor and now works at YouGov. He says Khan’s adherence to Ramadan last year, when he worked relentlessly while fasting, was indicative of this attitude. “He was very strictly observing it, even to the point of no water, during hot summer London days, going from door to door, even going to hustings [debates]. He would then turn up to a phone-bank and make calls [to voters], in a hot room, for three hours,” he tells me. “Those days represented not just why he won, but why he deserved to win.”
When he started this journey almost two years ago, Khan spent a year just sounding out other people’s opinions and putting together a team. He knew he would be the underdog; everyone expected Labour members to choose Baroness Tessa Jowell to be the party’s candidate for Mayor, given she was widely credited for bringing the 2012 Olympics to London. Khan was perceived as more left-wing than Jowell and there was a worry that after humiliating defeat of May 2015, party members would pick someone more centrist and better known. “We didn’t know which way the membership was going to jump,” says Marcus Roberts.
No one had predicted what happened next. The Labour party’s search for a new leader prompted thousands of new members to support Jeremy Corbyn (now the leader), and vote for Khan as the electable but more left-wing candidate. Khan beat Jowell by a landslide.
It has now become a cliche to refer to Khan’s humble origins as the fifth son among eight children, growing up in a poor council estate in south London, because the candidate himself did so, repeatedly.
That decision was deliberate. His team decided early on to use his background to define their candidate as the ‘son of a bus driver’ who would stand up for ordinary Londoners, contrasting him with Zac Goldsmith’s life as the ‘posh-boy from Eton’ without referring to their rival’s origins. It worked perfectly. It became a source of strength without ever looking like he was using it to score political points.
By the end, even commentators hostile to Khan from the Spectator magazine were lamenting Goldsmith’s ‘Old Etonian’ roots and his failure to define himself better. Even senior Conservative Muslim politicians had absorbed the message; cabinet minister Sajid Javid wrote: “From one son of a bus driver to another, congratulations,” while Baroness Sayeeda Warsi also mentioned her father being a bus driver.
His parents, Amanullah and Sehrun Khan, came to Britain from Pakistan just before he was born, in 1970. For years, the 10 of them lived in a cramped three-bedroom house in south-west London. Khan shared a bunk-bed with his brothers until he left home in his 20s. It was at school that he joined the Labour party, eager to make a difference and persuaded by his headteacher Naz Bokhari that racism wasn’t always a barrier in getting ahead in Britain.
He frequently cites his parents as a big political influence. “My father was in a [bus drivers] union and got decent pay and conditions, my mum wasn’t, and didn’t,” he said in an interview published in media outlets. He also joked: “Most people feel nagged by their parents from time to time, but very rarely is it about the future of bus regulation.”
He studied to become a dentist but was persuaded to become a lawyer after being told he was “always arguing.” Soon, he was a trainee solicitor and met another trainee solicitor whose father was also a bus driver. The same year they met, Khan married Saadiya Ahmed (they now have two girls, Anisah and Ammarah). The law firm was renamed Christian Khan after he became a partner.
Three big events took place in 2005 that changed Khan’s life forever. He ran as the Labour party’s candidate for the constituency of Tooting, South London, and won. Then, two months after he became a Member of Parliament, London faced the terrorist attacks of July 7, 2005. As one of just four Muslim MPs in Parliament (there are now 13), Khan wanted to speak out.
He said in a speech to MPs: “Today Londoners and the rest of the U.K. have even more reason to be proud of Londoners—proud of the way heroic Londoners of all faiths, races and backgrounds, victims, survivors and passersby, acted on Thursday; proud of the way ordinary courageous Londoners carried on with their business and stopped the criminals disrupting our life.”
It was a defining moment. He wanted to be outspoken against religious terrorism, a stance that continued recently when he spoke about his worries that his daughters could be tempted by Daesh. It made him a key part of Britain’s debate on extremism since, and also made it difficult for his London Mayor rival Zac Goldsmith to tie him to extremism.
“I couldn’t hide—and I don’t mean this in an arrogant way, but there were so few articulate voices of reason from the British Muslim community,” he said in an interview a few years ago. “There were angry men with beards, but nobody saying, ‘Actually, I’m very comfortable being a Brit, being a Muslim, being a Londoner.’”
That year, he was awarded Newcomer of the Year Award “for the tough-mindedness and clarity with which he has spoken about the very difficult issues of Islamic terror” by Spectator magazine.
But Khan wasn’t planning to merely be a voice of the establishment. Ahmed Versi, editor of the long-established publication Muslim News, says he approached the MP to host debates between young Muslims and senior government figures. “What was unique working with him is that he did not interfere in what topics to be discussed or what questions to ask Cabinet ministers,” Versi says. “I have experience of other MPs of other parties who would not have given me a free hand as they generally do not like their senior politicians to be challenged. I believe Sadiq really believes in real democracy and listen to the communities.”
The third development was his clashes with the then Prime Minister Tony Blair, who wanted stronger anti-terrorism laws, including the power to lock up terror suspects for 90 days without trial. With his background as a human rights lawyer, Khan was adamantly opposed to many of the laws being proposed and the justifications made for them. In August 2006, he signed an open letter to Blair criticizing British foreign policy in the Middle East. It killed any chance of promotion under the party leader, but brought him credibility among human rights campaigners.
In fact it worked out to his advantage. Blair was gone after a year and his successor, Gordon Brown, was quick to bring Khan into his fold. In 2009 he became Britain’s first Muslim MP to attend government cabinet meetings.
That could have been the peak of his career, as with many other Labour MPs, but fate offered another twist. The Labour party lost the 2010 election and was thrown out of power after 13 years, sparking an internal leadership contest. Khan immediately backed his old friend Ed Miliband for leader and ran his campaign.
Against all the odds, they narrowly won. Within five years of entering Parliament, he had become part of the inner circle of the party leader. It was an astonishing feat.
Lord Stewart Wood, a friend and close confidant of Ed Miliband, tells Newsweek Middle East Khan was an important friend, ally and close adviser who “gave Ed confidence at a time when Ed was an outsider,” and helped him be himself. “He was always frank in private during Ed’s years as leader.”
He adds: “Looking at Sadiq’s campaign over the last few weeks, I got the feeling he learnt from some of our mistakes while trying to build on some of what we tried to do. He is one of the most relaxed front-line politicians I know. Calm but thoughtful and very focused.”
That calm was severely tested over the course of the campaign. His rival Goldsmith was initially the favorite to be Mayor—armed with positive press, a reputation as an independent-minded politician (which would serve well in an increasingly Labour voting city), and the support of the popular incumbent Mayor Boris Johnson. But it soon became apparent that Khan was doing a better job at reaching Londoners on key issues such as housing and transport, and opinion polls started showing him leading Goldsmith.
Khan’s main rival started panicking. With just eight weeks to go, the Goldsmith campaign started to focus on turning London’s British Indians against British Pakistanis, hoping the decades-old rivalry would work for them. Targeted leaflets were sent to households with Sikh and Hindu sounding names, with crude pledges to protect their family jewelry from Khan’s clutches. Conservatives of Indian origin were disgusted, one writing that the strategy was “patronizing.”
But Goldsmith was desperate to win at any cost. Newspaper articles suddenly started appearing in the press, accusing Khan of “giving cover to extremists.” His rival hoped that tying Khan to Muslim extremists would win over London’s Sikhs and Hindus. Criticism from white liberals could be tolerated because they were unlikely to vote for him anyway.
Meanwhile, Khan remained calm and cheery. Jasvir Singh, a prominent prospective candidate who is running in Tooting after Khan resigns, says: “Sadiq was humble throughout the campaign, and he was a great laugh. He came down to Tooting at the end of polling day to thank all of us, and said, ‘We’re about to make history… If I win tomorrow, I’ll be London’s shortest ever Mayor. I’m only 5’4!”
At other times, Khan joked to his staff about being mistaken for George Clooney, and having to tell his admirers to check their vision again. Volunteers usually rolled their eyes.
Khan’s strong statements against terrorism allowed him to shrug off accusations of extremism, which they knew would be deployed eventually. The campaign’s response that Goldsmith was becoming “desperate” struck the right note—even many in the media weren’t convinced by it. He nevertheless felt he had to apologize for “giving the impression” that he was too close to extremists, and for using the phrase “Uncle Toms” to describe other moderate Muslims. But the central charge by Goldsmith never managed to stick; and Labour-voting Londoners saw it as Khan portrayed it: an act of desperation.
From here on, things don’t get any easier for London’s new mayor. After the honeymoon period is over, the right-wing press will likely be back with a vengeance to undermine him. He will also have to fight the Conservative government all the way not just for funding, but to avoid them taking credit for his work.
But if there’s one thing you don’t want to do, it is to bet against Khan. As his former campaign manager Roberts told me: “He never believes that victory is inevitable—because it doesn’t help you.”
Nevertheless, a huge glass ceiling has now been shattered. David Lammy, a black MP who also ran to be Labour’s candidate, told the BBC: “If we ever see a black or Asian prime minister in this country I have no doubt they will owe an enormous debt to Sadiq Khan.”
A recent story doing the rounds illustrates this perfectly. When he was appointed to the Privy Council in 2009, Buckingham Palace called: “You’re going to be sworn in before the Queen, what sort of Bible would you like?’ Khan is reported to have said: “I swear on the Quran, I’m a Muslim.” The reply came back: “We haven’t got a Quran, can you bring your own?” So he did. They offered to return it afterwards but he replied: “No, can I leave it here for the next person?”