POLITICS

Sadiq Khan Interview: Labour Would Win The Election 'Easily' If We Weren't Losing Scotland To The SNP

21/04/2015 00:12 BST | Updated 21/04/2015 09:59 BST

sarah wollaston

Shadow cabinet minister Sadiq Khan speaks to The Huffington Post about how Ed Miliband's found his "mojo", the collapse of Labour's support in Scotland, the threat from Ukip, immigration mugs, why the party needs to "amplify the noise", whether he wants to be London mayor and why one of the TV debate moderators should have been non-white.

"I'm foreign," one of Sadiq Khan's constituents tells him with a smile. "I'm Scottish." It is perhaps said only half in jest.

The shadow justice secretary has just had dental surgery. But with only 17 days to go until the election, he is hopping up the stairs in south London council blocs hunting for potential voters.

Nationally the Conservatives and Labour are neck-and-neck. A second hung parliament looms. But just like his constituent, the Tooting MP's mind wanders far from the south of England when contemplating the political landscape.

"The issue for us is the seats we are going to lose in Scotland," he says frankly. "But for the possibility of losing seats in Scotland I think we would easily win the general election."

"The issue is, bearing in mind where we are in Scotland, what can we do between now and May 7 to close gap. That’s what we are working towards."

In an interview with The Huffington Post in a café in his constituency on a day of local campaigning, Khan has a message for his Labour colleagues about how to make up the ground. "Firstly, we need to amplify the noise. Not enough people know our policies," he says.

"Not enough people know about our policies to reduce inequality, to increase the minimum wage, end zero hour contacts. Not enough people know about our plan to transform the NHS. We need to amplify the noise. Not enough people know our plans on tuition fees or on housing."

Part of the problem, Khan argues, is a press that wants David Cameron back in Downing Street. "For most people, the medium by which they rely upon for their news is the newspapers and TV. It’s a fact that 85% of the press is hostile towards Labour. They are not doing us any favours. And very often newspapers set the broadcast narrative. Compare and contrast with the Tory party, the newspapers are putting out their policies for them, we haven't got that."

Despite his admission that Labour is in serious trouble in Scotland, Khan is confident the man whose 2010 Labour leadership campaign he ran, Ed Miliband, is on a "cusp of a remarkable general election victory".

"I think he has grown," The Tooting MP says of Miliband. "When you become leader you either grow or you shrink. And he has grown."

"The last three weeks of the campaign, he has been relishing it. The public has seen the real Ed. I have always said the more the public see of Ed the more he will win them over. He is a thoroughly decent man. He very ambitious for the country but also he is driven and strong and resilient."

"He has got his mojo. He is in the zone. He is loving the campaign, he is loving meeting people. He has always felt much more comfortable outside of the confines of parliament. In town hall meetings and in factories, he is loving it."

Khan may have a point. Over the weekend the Labour leader and his battle bus had a run-in with a hen party. In tougher times it could have been a PR disaster. But Miliband, this time, somehow made it work.

Khan also ticks off a list of tough decisions Miliband has made: phone hacking, torpedoing Western military intervention in Syria and challenging big energy companies. "Does he do what previous Labour leaders have done and not take on Rupert Murdoch and be sycophantic, or does he take him on?" Khan asks rhetorically. "A brave thing to do."

sadiq khan

Shortly before the interview and as Khan is having a filling replaced in the dentist's chair, Nicola Sturgeon presented the SNP's manifesto. The Scottish first minister has repeatedly asked Miliband to do a deal with her after the election to lock Cameron out of Downing Street. Khan is unimpressed.

"The reason why it is so close is because Labour voters are voting SNP. The risk the SNP are taking, the risk people flirting with the SNP are taking, is inadvertently they may allow Cameron to stay in Number 10. Rather than voting Labour-lite, SNP, they should vote for the real thing," he says.

"The best way to judge the future is to look at the past. We were out of government for 18 years. During those 18 years millions of people suffered."

Khan is keen to remind people that Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 in part because of the role played by the SNP in bringing down the then Labour government. "It took a generation of Scottish voters before they forgave the SNP for that betrayal," he says. "There is no guarantee the SNP will work with Labour to keep out the Tories. There is no guarantee they will be a progressive party."

But, will Labour do a deal with the SNP? "I feel quite uncomfortable with sordid backroom deals," Khan replies. "What I would rather do is for voters to judge each party on the manifesto, our track record, then vote how they genuinely want to vote."

It would be "quite patronising" towards voters, he says, for Labour to start setting out what it would do in the event of a hung parliament before votes have even been cast. "Politicians have got to be be very careful of is giving the impression they know better than the voters."

"They will vote for who the best person to represent their community in parliament is and according to parliamentary democracy, we will see which way the chips fall."

nicola sturgeon

Labour may be suffering in Scotland. But it is a different picture in London where polls suggest the party a healthy lead. A recent Lord Ashcroft survey also showed Labour was narrowly, but symbolically, ahead in Margaret Thatcher's old seat of Finchley and Golders Green. What is the secret of London Labour's success? " It's the guy organizing it," Khan says with a grin. The guy organizing it is him.

"The great thing about the party now is the control-freakery is gone," Khan, who also serves as shadow London minister, reveals. "Within each region there is a lot of autonomy to prioritize what is important to your patch."

Khan was born to Pakistani immigrant parents in what is now his Tooting constituency in 1970. The former lawyer is likely to become justice secretary should Miliband form a government. But he is also seen as a leading contender to take more formal control of his patch, London, as the city's mayor.

Would he like to take Boris Johnson's place in City Hall? "I want to make sure we have Labour government on May 7," he replies quickly. He is used to answering the question. "All my energies, aside from getting dental treatment, have been spent on campaigning in and around London and around the country.

"I'm working flat out to get a Labour government returned. It's not because I want a good guy like Ed in Number 10, although I do, it's not because I want to see good decent Labour candidates elected to parliament, because I do, it's because if we don't win the general election, literally millions and millions of people will have to endure another five years of a Tory government."

It would be a "fools game", Khan insists, to "start thinking about the election after the next one."

"Look at all the great footballers, boxers, lawyers and politicians. The most important contest is the next one, not the one after that. My energies are completely focused towards May 7."

Khan may effortlessly dodge the question. But there is a fierce fight to become Labour's candidate for mayor. And his comment is easy to interpret as a gentle pop at the other declared or potential candidates.

Tottenham MP David Lammy has already thrown his hat into the ring. Former cabinet minister Tessa Jowell and leadership candidate Diane Abbott are also expected to run.

Khan says Labour's mayoral candidates need to be "very careful putting your personal ambition in front of the team". He adds: "The team is Labour."

Edinburgh's relationship with Westminster has also muscled its way into the nascent mayors race. Labour's Scottish leader, Jim Murphy, had a very public spat with Abbott over Miliband's plan for a mansion tax.

Murphy has said he will use the money, much of which will be raised in London, to pay for new nurses in Scotland. Abbott accused Murphy of behaving in an "unscrupulous way". Jowell and Lammy, perhaps aware of how the policy could play in some parts of London, have also attacked the plan.

Khan defends the policy, which would see a levy placed on homes worth over £2m. He also backs Murphy's right to expect some of the money to head north.

He says: "We believe, in the UK, of pooling our resources. That’s what that referendum was all about. It's not rocket science that some of the money raised in London goes to other parts of the country.

"You've got to be very careful forgetting the basic principles of what our party was formed on and what we are about. Jim is not unreasonably saying some of the money raised from the mansion tax will come to Scotland. That’s not rocket science, there's nothing new there."

He adds: "I think its for the mayoral candidates for speak for themselves. I am not going to speak for them. If you believe in redistribution and you believe in the UK then you've got to bear in mind that we must explain how every single policy is going to be paid for and we have a robust way of doing that.

"Rather than courting the editors of certain papers, think about what the policy is about. The policy is a progressive policy. We believe those with the broadest shoulders carry the greatest burden. We also believe we need to have economic credibility. If you are going to save and transform the NHS and spend £2.5bn you've got to explain where the money is coming from."

Khan adds with a laugh: "One of the good things about our party is we have a good healthy discussion. It's good."

sadiq khan

Another point of disagreement in the party recently was a superficially trivial argument about a mug.

Labour has made five key pledges to voters in the campaign. Pledge number four was boiled down to a simple "controls on immigration" slogan and slapped on a red cup – available to buy for £5.

Ed Balls said he would "toast" Labour's election victory with one. But there is little sign of the red cup in Labour's Tooting HQ. Khan says the party should be cautious about creating a "misleading impression" about its stance on immigration simply in the interests of brevity. "That was my concern about the mug," he says.

"Our immigration policy is a good, sound policy," he says. "The problem is when you try and reduce a good sound policy that is quite complicated to sound-bites, to five words, because if you are not careful it can inadvertently give a wrong impression about what the policy is.

"I have always talked about the benefits of immigration. The name with the most number of doctors in the NHS is Khan. The second most popular doctors name is Patel."

Immigration has been forced onto the agenda largely by the rise of Nigel Farage and Ukip. While the eurosceptic insurgents are an immediate threat to Cameron's hopes of winning in May, Khan agrees the party also represents a long term challenge for Labour.

"There is a school of thought that says it's inevitable. These voters are racist. And write them off," he explains. That, he says, would be a mistake.

"What you need to do is ask yourself the question, 'why are people thinking of voting Ukip, what are their concerns?' And try and address their concerns." He adds: "Ukip are polling well, we still have 17 days to persuade people not to vote Ukip."

There is a real possibility that many northern Labour MPs will wake up on the morning of May 8 to find Ukip, not the Conservatives, in second place. "There are some parts of the country where Labour councils, Labour MPs, because they were 'safe' Labour seats, we have not served the communities as well as we should," Khan concedes.

"We have become complacent. That creates a space for other parties to come into whether it is Ukip or SNP or whatever. We can't forget why we stand to be a councillor, a MP, a MEP, we have to remember that."

He adds: "This maybe the kick up the backside we needed as a party."

In 2010, Khan survived a Lord Ashcroft funded local Tory campaign that flooded the seat with glossy leaflets and billboard signs. His victory, greeted with Obama-style chants of "yes we Khan", foreshadowed a disappointing night for Cameron. The Conservatives needed to oust the then transport secretary to secure a majority.

This time around, rather than defending territory, London Labour hopes to expand its control of the capital with a "landslide" win of 12 more seats. And Ashcroft is back, not this time funding the enemy, but providing useful and detailed constituency polling.

"If you look at the polling of the target seats, in most of them we are ahead of the Tories," Khan says of the London campaign. "I know all the London candidates very well. They are brilliant. They are representative of the community. In London's 12 target seats 70% are women, 40% are BME, they look like the city they want to represent. The average age of Londoners is 34, the average age of candidates in target seats is 34."

If Khan is proud of the ethnic mix of his Labour candidates in London. The racial make-up of the national debate is less impressive. Last year he called for the broadcasters to use at least one moderator from an ethnic minority for the televised election debates. In the event, all the presenters were white. "It’s a shame. It's a trick missed," he says.

Khan praises ITV's Julie Etchingham for how she handled her channel's programme. "I thought Julie did a great job. It's really important we have women moderators," he says. But one of the men, he sighs, could have been swapped. "How do you think it feels if you are black or Asian or another ethnic minority watching these debates and there is no one on the screen who looks like you or your family or your neighbours or your friends? It's hardly surprising then that fewer BME people are registered to vote and fewer will vote. It's worth thinking about."

miliband tv debate

With national shadow cabinet responsibilities, a hand on the London-wide campaign and one eye on Scotland, Khan cannot afford to let his slender 2,524-majority slip away by mistake.

Out canvassing, he receives largely the pro-Labour responses he needs. He has been the MP here since 2005 and even those not planning to vote for him are warm.

One man, who describes himself as more Lib-Con than Lib-Lab, politely rejects the invitation to vote Labour, but says: "I think you're a good MP. But I'm not voting for you."

But another constituent says she might vote Ukip out of protest. "I can't make head-nor-tail of it anymore," she says of politics. The Tories, she observes, are "throwing money at people who've got money" but is unimpressed with Labour's leader. "I'm not sure Miliband is a good head of the party," she tells Khan.

Having earlier argued Labour candidates must "argue the toss with the punters" rather than walk away. Khan gets involved.

"Gravitas," Khan counters. "Comes from the position you have." Miliband, the argument goes, will look like a prime minister once he is prime minister.

She apologetically replies: "I'm looking for something. You've got to have something there in the first place. He just doesn't have it, sorry."

Khan, noting his personally tight majority and sensing her dislike for the Tories, has a matter of fact answer for a closely fought campaign: "I need your vote, simple as that."