Sadiq Khan Interview: 'The Public Just Don't Believe What We Say'

Sadiq Khan, Labour MP for Tooting and Minister of State for Transport, Balham, London, 15th March 2010. (Photo by Kevin Cummins/Getty Images)
Sadiq Khan, Labour MP for Tooting and Minister of State for Transport, Balham, London, 15th March 2010. (Photo by Kevin Cummins/Getty Images)
Kevin Cummins via Getty Images

It is difficult to believe Sadiq Khan was once, in his own words, "an angry young man". The MP for Tooting and shadow justice secretary joined the Labour Party in 1986, aged 15, in the the wake of Neil Kinnock's 'Militant' speech and the defeat of the miners at the hands of Margaret Thatcher. It was a traumatic period for the left, in general, and Labour, in particular.

Two decades on, and aged 43, he sits across the table from me, in his Norman Shaw South parliamentary office in Westminster, relaxed, calm, soft-spoken.

If the opinion polls are to be believed, Khan is on course to become Britain's first-ever Muslim Lord Chancellor in less than 11 months time; a remarkable achievement for the son of a bus driver from Pakistan who grew up on a council estate in south London and didn't go on holiday abroad until he was 23.

It is a sunny afternoon and the Labour frontbencher and close ally of Ed Miliband is in an upbeat mood, all smiles and jokes. He has been leading the charge for Labour on a variety of legal and constitutional issues - from secret trials to the recall bill to the registration of young voters. Above all else, in his other role as shadow minister of London, he masterminded Labour's local and European election campaign in the capital in May, which saw the party gain 203 councillors, five councils and four new MEPs.

I begin our interview by asking about Labour's "very good" results in London but before I can finish my sentence he interrupts me. "To be fair, an excellent result, the best since 1971," says Khan, grinning as he leans back in his chair.

Why weren't Labour's successes in London replicated on a national level, where the party struggled to secure 31% of the vote in the local elections and came second, behind Ukip, in the Euro elections?

He offers a diplomatic answer: "I can only talk about London. That's the campaign I was in charge of." The word 'I' hangs in the air.

Okay, why was it so successful in London? "We put genuinely bold and radical policies - on making rent more affordable and secure, raising the minimum wage and tackling zero-hour contracts - front and centre of our campaign. We explicitly ran against the rising inequality in London."

It was also the result of a well-organised ground campaign and team effort, he adds, that "was deliberately designed to involve as many volunteers, activists and supporters as we could."

Was there a lack of a team effort at a national level, I wonder? Inside party HQ at One Brewer's Green? There have been plenty of media reports suggesting a split between campaign coordinators Douglas Alexander and Michael Dugher.

Khan shakes his head. "I've seen Michael and Douglas at close hand and they're working closely together making sure we get the best result. They're both premier league at what they do."


Did shadow cabinet ministers pull their weight? Some have complained that the recent election campaign was too 'Ed-centric'.

Khan doesn't hide his disdain for the off-the-record briefers. "I had lots of shadow cabinet members campaigning round London."

"What's frustrating," he continues, "is if you're correct in what you're saying, people who are part of the team are complaining that they're not being asked to pull their weight. If you feel you're not being asked to pull your weight, don't wait to be asked. Just pull your weight."

Politics, he explains, is a "team sport". Despite the presidential nature of British politics in recent years, "no one person is going to win it for us in 2015. You've got to play your role. Its a sport we should all get involved in."

Is he as embarrassed by the party's election campaign ad, 'The Un-credible Shrinking Man', featuring a Nick Clegg character being chased by a cat, as fellow shadow cabinet minister Chuka Umunna seems to be? Asked about the ad at a recent Progress conference in London, the shadow business secretary replied: "You live and learn".

Khan nods. "I'm a firm believer in always learning lessons." Does he regret the video? It turns out that the head of Labour's campaign in London is keen to distance himself from the national campaign video: "I saw it the same time as you did, I'm sure."

Khan was one of the first Labour MPs to back the younger Miliband for leader in 2010

Khan is one of the Labour leader's closest allies on the frontbench and one of only four shadow cabinet ministers who backed the younger Miliband's leadership bid in 2010. Four years on, does he recognise that Miliband has an image problem? What, for example, is his response to the recent YouGov poll which revealed that the Leader of the Opposition is considered to be the 'weirdest' of the party leaders?

Unsurprisingly, as with most Miliband loyalists, he doesn't really want to engage on the 'image' stuff. "If the function of the leader is just to be a pretty face then I'm not sure thats the sort of politics I'm involved in. I want a leader who is the architect of our policies, who has the vision for what he wants our country to be."

But does he at least admit that Miliband comes across to ordinary members of the public as a bit odd, a bit weird? Not very prime ministerial?

"I don't accept that. One of the things we've got to do over the next 12 months is to make the point better that we have in the past, that the reason why why we're competitive again, the reason why the big six energy companies are being taken on or why Rupert Murdoch was taken on, or why we didn't rush headlong into a war in Syria..is because of the stance that Ed has taken."

Citing the example of Margaret Thatcher, he continues: "It is very difficult to look prime ministerial before you're the prime minister.

Does he really believe Miliband has no presentational issues to worry about? Nothing to improve?

He shrugs. "There's always something to improve. All of us can improve.."

I interrupt. What should Ed Miliband try and improve on?

The Labour leader struggled with a bacon sandwich during the local election campaign

"It's for him to decide what he needs to improve on," the shadow justice secretary counters, before adding: "Can we improve getting our message across better? Yes. Do I think the criteria for 'who's the best prime minister' is 'who can best eat a bacon sandwich'? No." He can't resist a gag: "As a Muslim, I'd always recommend against eating a bacon sandwich."

Khan waxes lyrical about the number of policies Labour has developed and promoted - "We've got more policies 11 months before a general election than any opposition party that's gone on to win a general election had" - but the policies don't seem to be helping the party increase its lead in the polls - or win the public's trust on the all-important issue of the economy.

"One of the great things about pre 1997 was the simplicity of the message," he says, reminding me of Blair's famous - and famously brief - 'pledge card'.

The lack of simplicity this time round, and the preference for wonkish and 'Ivory Tower' politics and policies, has been blamed by some in the party on the campaign chief, Douglas Alexander. Is the shadow foreign secretary, who ran Labour's general-election-losing campaign in May 2010, the right man to be running Labour's May 2015 general election campaign?

Khan doesn't blink. "Yes. Douglas is definitely is the right man to be running the election campaign."

It is a clear endorsement of Alexander from Khan. The two men haven't always seen eye to eye - with the shadow justice secretary having run Ed Miliband's leadership campaign in 2010, while the shadow foreign secretary ran David Miliband's (losing) campaign.

Are there any tips Khan wants to offer Alexander? He doesn't take the bait. "I'll give that advice to friends and colleagues around the table." Sounding like a Premier League football club chairman, Khan adds: "The point is that Douglas has the confidence not just of myself and Ed but the shadow cabinet..."

How long does Khan himself plan to serve on Labour's front bench? It has been reported that the shadow minister for London plans to seek Labour's candidacy for London mayor ahead of the next mayoral election in the capital, scheduled for 2016. Speaking off the record, one of Khan's putative rivals for the mayoral nomination - a group which includes, among others, senior Labour backbenchers David Lammy and Diane Abbott and former Labour cabinet ministers Tessa Jowell and Andrew Adonis - recently told me that they believed Khan would not run for mayor "because he'd much prefer to be Lord Chancellor in a Labour government". Is that true? Would he prefer the Lord Chancellorship to the London mayoralty?

"I have four important jobs to do that I love - winning Tooting [as an MP], winning.. target seats in London, preparing to rebuild the fragmented justice system and working on constitutional and political reform. Being mayor of the city that I love would be a huge privilege and I have lots of ideas, but one thing at a time!"

So which job does he want most? "I want [Justice Secretary] Chris Grayling's job." But he's not ruling out, at some unspecified stage, a bid for mayor of London? "I'm not ruling it out. Of course not."


In May, Khan became the first major politician to give a speech specifically geared towards the challenge of racial inequality in modern Britain - and outlining some of his plans to tackle racial division if he becomes justice secretary next year.

Does he think the UK has become more racist in recent years? "I definitely think we're not as overtly racist when I was growing up or when my parents first came here [from Pakistan]," he replies. "When my dad first arrived, there were signs saying 'No dogs, no Irish, no blacks'. It was not deemed politically incorrect to use the N-word or the P-word or the Y-word. I was racially abused as a kid, I was spat at and all the rest of it. That doesn't happen to my daughters today. It just doesn't happen. Part of that is because Labour governments from the 1960s [onwards] passed legislation to outlaw that behaviour."

For Khan, a former human rights lawyer, legislation matters. "It was Martin Luther King who said when you legislate you can't change the way people think but you can change the way they act [and], over a period of time, changing the way they act changes the way they think."

Nonetheless, while Khan believes "overt" racism has been reduced in recent decades, he maintains that "racial inequality has increased". In his own area, the justice system, he points out, "we're going backwards in relation to the number of judges and magistrates who are from diverse backgrounds".

Would he consider all-ethnic minority shortlists to match Labour's all-women shortlists, as a means of boosting the number of non-white politicians in parliament?

"I'm definitely in favour of exploring that," he says, before proudly reminding me that in Labour's top 13 target seats in London, 70% of the candidates are female and 40% are of black-or-ethnic minority (BME) origin.

Does it bother him that, in 2014, the Lib Dems are an all-white parliamentary party? It is not simply the job of the Labour Party to tackle ethnic minority representation, he argues. "It does bother me that a party of government doesn't seem to understand the importance of diversity."

He says overt racism is in decline in Britain but does he agree with those who say the rise of the UK Independence Party (Ukip) has legitimised and normalised not just old-fashioned xenophobia but out-and-out racist bigotry?

He doesn't. "If your thesis was right, you'd assume they'd not be so keen to avoid the racist tag. Ukip is the party of the right [and] the reality that they were so quick not to be tarnished as racist, so quick to discipline those who used racist language on Twitter, shows how much progress we've made."

Has Ukip used racist language? He chooses his words carefully. "Some of their members and councillors and candidates have, yes."

Not their leader? "Up until that comment on Romanians, nothing he had said had given me any reason to think he was racist. I still wouldn't call him racist but what he said though was clearly racist." Why doesn't the use of racist language make you a racist? "I'm not going to call Farage a racist."

The shadow justice secretary, like his leader, won't call Nigel Farage a racist

In fact, the shadow justice secretary penned an open letter to Ukip voters in the Express on 25 May, in which he apologised for the party's previous stance on immigration and urged them to "keep an open mind" about Labour.

Is he guilty of pandering to racists and bigots in order to cynically secure their votes, I wonder?

Khan isn't impressed with my line of questioning. "I want to speak to people who didn't vote Labour on May 22nd, some of whom previously voted Labour. Between 1997 and 2010 we lost five million voters. I'm speaking to those millions of voters."

A recent YouGov poll suggested 51% of Ukip supporters believe immigrants and their families should be "encouraged" to leave the UK. Are people who support the repatriation of immigrants and their families racist, in his view?

"Yeah," he replies before adding, defiantly: "But I don't subscribe to the view that people who vote Ukip voters are racist. I do believe that if we're going to win the next general election you want as many people as possible to vote Labour."

How is that not pandering? "We can talk amongst ourselves or we can talk to people who didn't vote Labour in May 2014 and who didn't vote Labour in May 2010."

Khan adds that he doesn't think Labour "should be outkipping Ukip.. what we should be doing is understanding some of the reasons why someone might want to vote Ukip".

I point to Labour MP and former shadow minister Diane Abbott's recent intervention in this particular debate. The right, she argued in a column in the Guardian on 28 May, wants Labour to talk even more about immigration and adopt a more aggressively anti-immigrant tone. Such a move would be disastrous. Labour cannot win the 2015 election fighting on Tory ground."

She's correct, isn't she? Khan, the son of immigrants, maintains immigration has been "good for the country" but thinks there were negative consequences in relation to the "pace" of inward migration, especially in the wake of Labour's decision to drop transitional controls on migrants from new EU member states. "It's all well and good for us saying immigration is good for the country...but actually you've got to understand there are concerns people have and try and listen to them and then address them," he says.


But immigration wasn't the only issue that led to five million voters abandoning his party between 1997 and 2010, was it? What about the fallout from the 2003 invasion of Iraq?

Khan believes Sir John Chilcot's inquiry into the war "should be published a soon as possible. I'd like to see as many documents published as possible. I'm not sure.. why the Cabinet Secretary is so reluctant to publish the letters [between Tony Blair and George W. Bush] we're talking about."

Would he want to see the full text, rather than merely the "gist", of those exchanges?

"Yeah," he replies. "If we're gonna learn the lessons we've got to learn the lessons. How can you learn the lessons with just the 'gist'?"

Anti-war Khan wants the full text of the Bush-Blair letters on Iraq to be published

When the Chilcot report is finally published, Labour's leader will have clean hands. Ed Miliband didn't support the disastrous invasion of Iraq - unlike the elder brother he beat to be leader in 2010. That gives Labour an advantage that the party wouldn't have had under David Miliband, right?

Khan shifts in his seat. "Rather than looking backwards.." He pauses. "As far as the British public are concerned...what they want to know is that next prime minister gets it." Labour's decision to oppose the bombing of Syria in August 2013, he says, is evidence "that [Ed] gets it."

I'm told Labour's internal focus groups react very positively when told that Miliband opposed the Iraq war. Why, then, don't we hear more from the Labour leader about Iraq or his critique of Blair and Bush's invasion? Is it because, as some have suggested, he doesn't want to upset those of his colleagues in the shadow cabinet - Yvette Cooper, Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy, among others - who voted for the war?

"The biggest issue facing the British public is the cost of living crisis and we spend as much time as possible talking about the cost of living crisis," is his answer. Nevertheless, Khan tells me, "around the time Chilcot [reports], we'll want to speak about [Iraq] then".

Miliband's stance on the war may have also helped the party win over ex-Lib Dem voters in the four years since Nick Clegg and his frontbench colleagues joined the Tory-led coalition government. But could the result of the next election see Clegg and co get into bed with Labour instead?

Khan mouths the usual political platitudes about wanting a Commons majority. "I'm in it to win it", he says. "We're fighting for every seat."

Okay, but talking points aside, does he agree with Ed Miliband, who told me in 2010 that he couldn't work with a Liberal Democrat party led by Nick Clegg?

"Things have moved on since 2010," he says, indicating that his party's opposition to Clegg has softened. So, would Labour be willing to do a deal with Clegg in the event of another hung parliament in 2015? "Given the choice between.. David Cameron being prime minister and Ed Miliband being prime minister if there's a coalition then obviously I'd go for [the coalition] option."

I guess that's a yes, then.

Khan isn't willing to rule out a Miliband-Clegg coalition

I finish the hour-long interview by asking Khan to tell me what the big challenge for the political parties is in an anti-politics era?

"The public just don't believe what we say," he answers. "The challenge for all politicians is to persuade the public that politics can make a positive difference. The issue isn't so much: 'Should we have more policies on housing?' It's persuading the public that the polices we have are credible and can be delivered."

However, in 2010, he argues, "Ed understood the scale of the problem. It was either change or continuity. Other [Labour leadership] candidates ran with continuity... It was a fundamental issue, people had lost trust in politics.. people thought we were all the same. Ed understood that.. Over the course of the next 12 months we've got to make the British public understand that we're not all the same."

How? With "radical" policies, he says. "We're going to win the next election not by being less radical but by being more radical. Not by being less bold but by being more bold. The challenge of the next 12 months is: 'Can we be bolder and more radical?'"

The eloquent and energetic Khan is convinced that the answer to this question is 'yes'. Whether the rest of his frontbench colleagues agree is another matter.

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