During an interview with Sadiq Khan last Thursday, the day before he launched a booklet he edited for the Fabian Society on policy ideas for London, I asked him about the contrasting approaches to community cohesion followed in Newham and Tower Hamlets.
As well as being Shadow Justice Secretary, the Tooting MP is also Shadow Minister for London. He ran Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign and during 2014 we may well get strong hints (and more) that he is Ed’s favourite for Labour’s next candidate for Mayor of London.
Officially, Sadiq hasn’t declared himself, but it’s all but certain he will. In the meantime, he’ll be in charge of co-ordinating Labour’s council campaign in London for May and Tower Hamlets is top of the party’s hit list.
He’s a big fan of Newham Mayor Sir Robin Wales, as are many in Labour’s top team judging from the amount of policy ideas they seem to be adopting from him.
As I disclosed here in April, Sir Robin has City Hall ambitions of his own….but but but… . Sadiq describes him as a “good friend” and he asked him to write a chapter for the booklet Our London. His piece was on the potential power of local councils to help create jobs: not in the way that Tower Hamlets has traditionally done by using public cash to create non-jobs, but by training up youngsters and encouraging businesses to hire them through a scheme called Workplace.
Since Sir Robin outlined his ambitions to me in April, he’s been fairly low key on the subject. I suspect that’s because he now sees himself as a future driving force deputy/chief of staff…to Sadiq Khan. A Labour version of Sir Edward Lister, as it were.
Sadiq is also more impressed with Sir Robin’s attitude towards community cohesion, particularly compared with the Lutfur Rahman model in Tower Hamlets. During our chat, I raised the issue of Tower Hamlets council funding free Bengali Mother Tongue classes for kids whose grasp of English isn’t often up to scratch. He was shocked. Such finite public money should be used for English lessons, he said.
He also said he was not particularly in favour of using grants for mono-ethnic projects and events: that if taxpayers’ money was to be offered, there should be some demonstration of inclusiveness to people of all backgrounds. Clearly, public money being used for things like Eid in the Square or London-wide Diwali celebrations would be exceptions.
These mirror Sir Robin’s thoughts, as he outlined on this blog here.
Anyway, all this is b way of background…and because it’s of relevance to Tower Hamlets, I thought people might be interested in reading the interview I did with Sadiq, which was published on Express Online yesterday.
I tried to explore his personal background, what shaped him…suffering racism as a kid in London in the late Seventies and early Eighties certainly had an effect, as it had on so many in Tower Hamlets.
FOR football mad youngsters growing up around Wandsworth, southwest London, the question of which team to support isn’t usually the hardest decision they’ll ever make.
But in the early Eighties, Chelsea weren’t much good. And neither were their fans the most welcoming group to teenagers of Pakistani heritage.
Which is why Tooting MP Sadiq Khan, Labour’s Shadow Justice Secretary and an aspiring Mayor of London, is a passionate and lifelong Liverpool fan.
One of his elder brothers did go to the Shed end at Stamford Bridge, but he and his friends were so appallingly attacked and abused, supporting Chelsea just “wasn’t an option”.
He says he feels uncomfortable talking about his experiences of racism–some of them violent–but they have clearly helped shaped him, first as a leading human rights lawyer, also as a Wandsworth councillor, then as an MP and minister, and now as a yet-to-be-confirmed challenger for London’s City Hall in 2016.
Today, he launches a fascinating pamphlet of essays that he’s edited and entitled ‘Our London – The Capital 2015’.
In some ways, the pamphlet is groundbreaking: it’s been sponsored by both the City of London and Unions Together, the political campaigning arm of 15 trade unions.
As one MP joked, “that’s harmony”, but the collection contains thoughts from a number of leading London lights, including from Baroness Doreen Lawrence, the recently ennobled mother of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence.
Khan’s own chapter is on housing (“housing, housing, housing” should be Labour’s solution to poverty, he argues) but almost all of them tap into the theme raised by Labour leader Ed Miliband in his own foreword: the cost of living crisis.
Arguably, that crisis is greater in high cost London than anywhere else.
The pamphlet is something of a Labour vision for London: more housing, a London minimum wage, new tunnel and bridge crossings for the east of the capital, more grassroots access to the booming arts scene, greater representation of ethnic minorities in the Metropolitan
Police, and more harmonious community cohesion are just some of the ideas explored.
But who would deliver them for Labour?
MPs David Lammy and Diane Abbott are known contenders, as is Newham Mayor Sir Robin Wales, but when Sadiq Khan was made Shadow Minister for London 11 months ago, it was a strong hint he was the leadership’s favoured candidate.
In fact, Sir Robin, who has written an essay for the pamphlet and whose policies have been admired by Labour HQ, might well end up as Khan’s deputy.
Does he want the job, though? Of course he does, but he won’t confirm it.
“I’m happy in the Shadow Cabinet, but if the ball comes my way, I’ll certainly play it,” he says.
But what would he be like as the capital’s most powerful man and London’s first Muslim mayor.
Unlike current incumbent Tory Boris Johnson, or his Labour predecessor Ken Livingstone, he doesn’t seem to have an ego that mirrors London’s massive scale.
Yet a more thoughtful, subtle and softer approach is perhaps just what is needed after years of division and bombast.
Now 43, he grew up the son of a bus driver in Earlsfield and has lived in the Tooting area all his life.
He is married to a fellow solicitor and has two daughters, both of whom went to the same state schools as their parents.
And the fact that they haven’t had to endure some of the racism he suffered when their age is to him a mark of how much London has changed.
“Things have definitely moved on in the sense that the sort of name calling [I experienced] would not be tolerated and schools are now far, far better at stamping it out,” he says.
“There’s much more a zero tolerance now. My big brother used to go to Stamford Bridge a few times and was given a hard time. They used to have this this thing called The Shed. And if you were a person who looked like my big brother–Asian–you weren’t welcome there.
“People we know suffered really bad racial abuse. They were beaten up and all the rest of it, so because of their experience of Chelsea, at that stage, I wanted nothing to do with Chelsea.
“Supporting them really wasn’t an option for me.”
Asked about his own experiences, he says: “I feel uncomfortable talking about these sorts of things because I don’t want younger people of ethnic origin to feel discouraged, but when I was growing up you’d often suffer racial abuse, verbal abuse name-calling, people driving past and spitting on your car.
“It didn’t happen all the time but it wasn’t unusual, so you’d be playing football in the park, and somebody would call you the P word. You’d be walking down the road or on the estate, you’d see a group coming along; the sensible thing to do would be to cross the road and just to avoid it, so you became street wise and you’d learn ways of avoiding trouble if you could.
“That said, I can look after myself. We knew how to look after ourselves if we got into a fight. I’ve got six brothers. It wasn’t an issue about being a coward and running away but it was about being sensible. Life’s hard enough as it is without looking for trouble.”
“It was part and parcel of life in those days, hearing about someone being attacked or beaten up. That’s why the murder of Stephen Lawrence had such an impact on people like us because we feel the ripples.
“There but for the grace of God that could’ve been me, it could have been my brother.”
Does he suffer racial abuse now?
“In recent times, not to my face. One of things that happens when you become middle aged and you wear nice clothes and you drive a nice car is it doesn’t happen so much, but I still know which estates to avoid and how to be streetwise.”
As mayor, he would be responsible for overseeing the Metropolitan Police Service whose struggle to recruit and retain ethnic minority officers is known to be a concern for Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe.
Khan has similar concerns. “Do we really want a London where people feel like second class citizens because of the colour of their skin?” he says generally.
While he believes abundant and genuinely affordable housing, including private rented accommodation (which he wants regulated) is the key to social mobility and poverty, community cohesion is also a key theme.
“Community cohesion is not gobbledegook,” he says. It’s vital.
He argues for more “community hubs”, places such as playgrounds, local football clubs and schools where people of all backgrounds and faiths actually mix and learn about each other.
The earlier the mingling starts in life, the better.
What he would not want is public money directed to projects that encourage a mono-ethnic identity and introspection.
In Tower Hamlets, where many young Bangladeshi children struggle with English when they first attend primary school, grant money is used to subsidise free Mother Tongue classes to teach them Bengali.
He himself is fluent in Urdu but is adamantly against such policies: “When you have finite resources, that money should be used to teach them English.”
Khan, regularly goes to Hyde Park Corner to watch the soapbox Sunday orators, is not shy of a debate.
But will he fulfil his dream for London? As one of his Labour colleague points, his 2010 election slogan in Tooting was “Yes we Khan.”