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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.”

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In April, around the time David Goodhart published his book on immigration, The British Dream, I wrote this article for the Sunday Express comparing and contrasting Robin Wales’s Newham and Lutfur Rahman’s Tower Hamlets.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I suppose…the esteemed Economist newspaper published its own version yesterday. It’s here.

Why not compare and contrast the two pieces. The Economist piece seems to have been written by someone making their first visit to the borough, by someone overawed by the Mayor’s Hollywood limo-driving charisma (ahem); by someone who hasn’t even considered the resentment caused by his policies, by someone who thinks synagogues are aplenty and the backbone of the community, by someone imagining Tower Hamlets is a microcosm for potential Middle East divide: note the lack of a single reference to any churches.

Note also how it is Lutfur Rahman building all these five bedroom homes–nothing to do with the Ocean New Deal for Communities regeneration scheme…

STRIDING into the east London Central Synagogue, Lutfur Rahman grasps Leon Silver, a wiry Jewish elder, in his arms. Mr Silver hugs back. Since winning the mayoralty of Tower Hamlets, an east London borough with a quarter of a million inhabitants, in 2010, Mr Rahman has allocated some £3m ($4.5m) to repairing religious buildings. The synagogue is one of them. Tactile and soft-spoken, with a beaming countenance, Mr Rahman—a Bangladeshi Muslim—is every bit the local champion. Crossing the street, he poses for a photo with the owner of a café. That causes a traffic jam, which worsens when drivers spot the mayor and demand to shake his hand.

Fans duly placated, Mr Rahman sets out his political philosophy. Religious groups are the backbone of Tower Hamlets, he explains. The riots of 2011 never came there because faith groups patrolled the streets and elders kept the young in line. Nurturing a community, he says, means building up religious outfits and charities that serve particular groups: mosques, synagogues, lunch clubs and the like. Mr Rahman also waxes eloquent about the social benefits of large extended families; he is building five-bedroom public homes to accommodate them.

Mr Rahman’s job is unusual. Only four of London’s 32 boroughs have elected mayors. Elsewhere party-political cabinets elect a council leader. Borough mayors emerged mostly where local councils were ailing. These days all are overshadowed by Boris Johnson, the TV-friendly mayor of the whole city. But two stand out, because of their contrary views.

East of Tower Hamlets, Sir Robin Wales, the elected mayor of Newham, has an entirely different notion of how to run a diverse borough. Whereas Mr Rahman soothes and smooths, Sir Robin fizzes and bulldozes. “We need to be constantly knocking down walls,” he says in a Scottish accent (he moved south 30 years ago). He means it literally: he points to a forest of cranes erecting new shops and housing, some of it on the Olympics site. He also means it figuratively. Sir Robin wants to take a sledgehammer to divisions between religious and ethnic groups in his patch.

In Newham, every spare penny goes on events and organisations designed to benefit everyone. The borough provides children with three years of music lessons and a visit to the theatres of the West End. Sir Robin refuses to give money to faith organisations and has cut spending on translation services. “If you give money to a group you make it more powerful,” he growls. Any street that wants to hold a party can apply for money—so long as the event involves all, not just one community. In allocating social housing, Sir Robin insists he is ironing out the divisions between different ethnic groups.

The two mayors’ philosophies are thus utterly at odds—and also rather odd, at least for Britain. Mr Rahman’s style of ethnic-group politics is reminiscent of urban America. Sir Robin’s determined secularism is more French.

One explanation is the different make-up of Newham and Tower Hamlets. Both have lots of immigrants and non-whites, but Newham is more diverse. No ethnic group constitutes more than one-fifth of its population (see chart). Tower Hamlets, by contrast, is about one-third white British and one-third Bangladeshi. And, because the borough’s white Britons are divided between yuppies, many of whom work in the financial district of Canary Wharf, and old working-class Cockneys, the Bangladeshis hold sway.

For all that Mr Rahman brandishes his support for other groups, Bangladeshis run so many religious and charitable organisations in Tower Hamlets that spending on such outfits tends to benefit them. And money given can also be taken away. John Biggs, a Labour opponent of Mr Rahman (who is an independent), says some organisations have cancelled meetings with him for fear of losing the mayor’s support. One man, whose charity did invite Mr Biggs and whose grant was cut, says he was subsequently told at the local mosque: “If you want to live in the water, you have to be a crocodile.” Mr Rahman’s allies and aides deny the removal of funding had anything to do with the invitation.

Because Newham is more diverse and more immigrant-heavy (over half of its residents were born abroad) its political complexion is quite different. No group dominates. As a result, the mayor can eschew patchwork politics and run his borough as a melting pot.

He has critics all the same. Sir Robin’s decision to refuse planning permission for a new mosque drew protests from local Muslim groups. It also persuaded Respect, a left-wing, anti-war party with a strong Muslim following, to stage a rally in the borough—at which George Galloway, the party’s sole MP, called on the mayor to resign. Sir Robin insists that the mosque contravened planning rules and that the land was earmarked for houses and businesses. “The public has already paid for new roads and services there,” he explains. “Why should only one group get the benefit?”

Both Mr Rahman and Sir Robin go before voters next May. Opponents are stirring. Mr Biggs is confident that despite his disadvantage among Bangladeshis, a high turnout will propel him into office. Sir Robin has cross-community appeal (he won 68% of the vote in 2011, albeit on a low turnout) but Respect will challenge him. And both men are threatened by bigger forces.

London is churning, becoming ever more ethnically, religiously and linguistically diverse. Every year almost 1m people move into or out of the city, or between its boroughs. Bangladeshis are moving out of Tower Hamlets and their share of its population is falling slightly, threatening Mr Rahman’s power base. And both he and Sir Robin have ever stronger competition in Mr Johnson, who is steadily grabbing powers from the boroughs. Local politics is unlikely to produce more men like them. Which is rather a shame.

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