Labour’s candidate to be the next Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is dominating his Conservative rival Zac Goldsmith in the polls at the moment. Business Insider met up with Khan at a cafe in London’s famous Borough Market to find out more about the man who could become London’s third Mayor.
He started off by telling BI a well-rehearsed version of his life-story. Khan, a London-born son of immigrants, wants to be seen as a true Londoner who has experienced the best and worst of the city. By pointing out that he grew up on a council estate, went to a state school, and his dad was a bus driver, Khan is highlighting the difference between himself and his son-of-a-billionaire rival Zac Goldsmith:
My family story is the London story, my parents came to this country in the 1960s, actually my grandparents, immigrants, they left India for Pakistan after the partition. My parents were immigrants as well, they came from Pakistan to London. My dad was a bus driver for more than 25 years and my mum sewed clothes to help support the family.
We lived in a council estate in Earlsfield in south London. The council estate gave my family the security of knowing that they had a tenancy as long as they needed it and also the rents were affordable. So my parents were able to raise a family, put money aside for a deposit for their own home — which they were able to buy.
We all went to good local state schools where the teachers pushed us to work hard. All of us who wanted to go to university were able to do so. One of my brothers, who wanted to be a mechanic, got a good quality apprenticeship as a mechanic. It’s the London story where you work hard and you get out what you put in.
Khan doesn’t only use the polished story of his childhood set him apart from Goldsmith, he also uses it to show what has informed the thinking behind many of his policies. For instance, as the coffee arrived, Khan told the story of how he was able to buy a house in his mid-20s, despite only being a trainee solicitor — something that would be impossible today. He later told me that fixing the housing crisis in London was his top priority:
The problem with today’s London is that there are too many Londoners who aren’t able to fulfil their potential, they haven’t got a secure affordable home, they haven’t got a good local state school, they don’t go to university based on their grades, they can’t get good quality apprenticeships. After university, after law school when I was a trainee solicitor, moved back home with Mum and dad, slept on the top bunk of my old bedroom, put money aside for a deposit. My wife and I bought out property with the mortgage and that when we were in our mid-20s. Today’s Londoners. The average age of a first-time buyer is 39.
Today, Khan is the MP for Tooting, an area his family moved to when he was a child. He went to the local Fircroft primary school, the school he sent his daughters to, followed by the local Ernest Bevin comprehensive school. While most of his classmates from Ernest Bevin did go to university, Khan secured a place to study law at the University of North London, which is now called London Metropolitan University (ranked last year as the worst university in the UK).
He had originally wanted to become a dentist until his maths teacher told him “you’re always arguing, why don’t you become a lawyer?”
He was also inspired by the TV show L.A. Law, which glamorised the life of lawyers. He wasn’t alone, the show led to an increase in law school applications in the US with law school dean Dr. Michael J. Kelly concluding that show was a hit among young law students because of “the inspiration it gives them for the infinite possibilities for sex.” Khan himself was inspired by the character Victor Sifuentes, a character that turned actor Jimmy Smits into a sex-symbol.
You’re probably too young to remember L.A. Law. L.A. law was about lawyers in LA who do great cases, act for the underdog, drove nice cars, look great and I wanted to be Sifuentes. Sifuentes, played by Jimmy Smits … so I did a law degree rather than dentistry and loved law.
Khan’s law career took off, by the age of 27 he was an equity partner in his firm and he represented broad range of clients, from people who had been unfairly dismissed from work to victims of police misconduct.He’s proud of the impact his work had, particularly when he was able to set legal precedents. BI asked him for the highlights from his previous career:
Well there’s lots of cases, if you’re a law student you will know about some of my cases. I was fortunate to win a case at the European Court of Human Rights, I was fortunate to win a case in the House of Lords. I’ve won cases in the Court of Appeal … If you’re a lawyer and you’re blessed and you’re lucky, you have a landmark case and you set a precedent, which I was able to do a number of times, the impact your case has on your client of course, but if you set a precedent other people can benefit from the case law you set.
But Khan didn’t always represent innocent victims. On one occasion he represented corrupt police officer Ali Dizaei. Khan admits he had some “unsavoury characters” as clients, but points that everyone is entitled to good legal representation.
I loved being a lawyer, great, great job. You literally get to change lives and lots of lots of my clients that I acted upon, I’m really proud of. Some clients I acted for, frankly speaking, not very nice people, unsavoury characters. One of the great things about this country is we’ve got the rule of law, we’ve got due process, everyone’s entitled to you know, good representation.
So, what made Kahn give up a job he clearly loved when a House of Commons seat became available in Tooting? Khan says it was the chance to change the lives of millions of people.
The way I saw it is, if you’re lucky and have a brilliant case and set a precedent, you can improve the quality of life for your client and for a handful, a dozen, a hundred people. But if you are a parliamentarian, making legislation, changing legislation, you can potentially affect the lives of millions of people.
Sadiq Khan drinking coffee.
If he does become Mayor, Khan really will have the power to influence millions of lives and he would start by shaking up London’s housing market. Khan has three big policies that his says will ease the soaring cost of renting accommodation in London.
The first will be to get developers to make 50% of new homes “genuinely affordable.” This is what he says genuinely affordable means:
Genuinely affordable means homes with either a social rent — council rent — and, or a London living rent. London living rent will be a third of average earnings in an area, so not linked to market value of the property, but average earnings, so a third of that. And or homes to buy, rent to buy or shared ownership — half will be genuinely affordable, the other half will be market value.
Compare and contrast my definition of affordable with Boris Johnson’s and Zac Goldsmith’s. Boris Johnson says affordable homes are 80% of market value. Do the maths, Zac Goldsmith says affordable homes are homes costing £450,000.
The contrast between what Khan thinks “affordable means” and what he says his main rival Goldsmith thinks it means is becoming central to his campaign. At the first mayoral hustings held at the London School of Economics on February 28, Khan repeatedly attacked Goldsmith for not saying on stage what he thought an affordable house was.
Khan’s second big housing policy is to give Londoners “first dibs” on sales of within new developments that are being sold “off-plan,” meaning sold from the construction plan before they are even built. This would prevent properties being sold to foreign investors without being advertised in the UK first. “First dibs” means that Kahn will give Local Authorities the right to negotiate with developers to make them advertise their off-plan properties in London.
My London plan will also say “first dibs to Londoner’s” developers can’t sell off-plan overseas anymore, Londoners need to have first dibs.
The final policy, and this is a huge one, is that Khan will set up his own letting agency that will undercut all the private lettings agencies in London. He says this is necessary to combat “rip-off” fees.
I’ll be saying to you as a Londoner, look, you can have a three-year tenancy with my not-for-profit letting agent. No rip-off fee. So, in three years, the rent only goes up by inflation.
It sounds great for renters, but how on earth will Khan get landlords to sign up? He reckons that six months rent up front would do it:
And I say to you as a landlord, give me your property for three years, I’ll give you six months rent up-front. I’ll look after the property and do all the checks that need to be doing.
In addition, Khan says bad landlords need to be “named and shamed.” He didn’t give any specifics on how this would be done, but did highlight the example of New York where lists of bad landlords are published online.’
Transport is another area where Sadiq is drawing on his past to try and convince voters that he’s the right man to be mayor. He says that because of his bus driver father, he has transport in the blood; he’s also doing his best to remind people that under Gordon Brown he was the Transport Minister.
I’m the only one of the candidates who’s got any experience of running the transport system, I was the Minister of State for transport, responsible for TFL, the Minister for Crossrail. So aside for having transport in my blood with my dad, I’ve got a bit of experience running transport.
Khan is clearly very passionate about London’s transport infrastructure and didn’t need much encouragement to talk rapid-fire about the policies he wants to introduce. It was hard to get a word in edgeways:
The chancellor needs to announce in his budget in spring serious funding for Crossrail 2. We need to start thinking about Crossrail 3, we need to start thinking about expanding the tram in parts of London, we need to start thinking about expanding the DLR, expanding the Bakerloo line, we need to think about and start talking about having the next generation of buses that are properly hybrid, or electric cell, or hydrogen powered cell, we need to be talking about getting people to cycle more, segregated cycle lanes that are safe, fixing the junctions which are dangerous, making sure there are quietways that are working, but also encouraging young people to be confident cycling by cycling proficiency, pedestrianising Oxford Street.
But the huge flagship transport policy that Londoners are talking about, is Khan’s promise to freeze Tube and bus fares till 2016:
I will freeze fares on the buses, on the tubes, on the DLR, so that in 2020, you will be paying the same fares as you were paying in 2016. And also, in the week before the Mayoral elections in 2020, when I’m hopefully going for my second term, the fairs you pay will be the same fares you pay in 2016.
Khan says he will pay for the price freeze by ending what he calls “vanity projects.” These include subsidising the Greenwich cable car, buying new £300,000 double decker buses, clamping down on fare evasion and, intriguingly, making TFL “sweat its assets.” Basically, he wants TFL to be able to bid for contracts outside of the country; this could mean that TFL could end up running the part of the transport infrastructure in another city and the profits from that could be used to freeze fare prices in London.
Above everything else, Khan says that keeping Londoners safe is the number one job for a mayor and following the attacks in Paris there is a renewed focus on how to protect London from terrorist attacks. Khan believes that the threat doesn’t come from abroad, but is home-grown. His solution to stopping this type of radicalisation is to help people feel proud to be British.
We’ve got to do much more in stopping Londoners, stopping British people becoming radicalised … actually young people are now becoming radicalised in their bedroom. I’ve spoken to experts and studied terrorist attempts in London, terrorist attempts in the UK and actually in Paris. they’re radicalised, not in Syria or Iraq, they’re radicalised here in this country. And that’s why we’ve got to think about what we can do to give young people pride in being British. Pride in being a Londoner. Making them resilient when somebody tries to brainwash them.
In practical terms, Khan’s solutions are surprising and include helping parents chat while waiting for their kids outside school and encouraging neighbours to grow vegetables together.
So, for example, can I use the office of Mayor to bring people together, getting people playing sports together? Can I use planning to think about having shelters in playgrounds so mums and dads speak to each other, get to know each other. Can we think about community allotments, so friends and neighbours get to know each other?
As a Muslim, Khan is very proud of how London has treated him. “I’ve got family who live in Muslim-majority countries, and they tell me they couldn’t achieve in their countries, what I’ve achieved in London,” he told BI.
Khan says he recognises that segregation exists and that the government needs to push for integration. For instance, he says it’s very important for people to be able to speak English.
It’s crucial people speak English, it’s because I can speak English that I can talk to you, it’s because parents can speak English that they can talk to parents in their classrooms, or get to know their neighbours, or apply for jobs.
It sounds a bit like he might agree with Prime Minister’s nDavid Cameron’s new policy that will deport Muslim immigrants if they don’t improve their English within two years of coming to the country. Does he agree with Cameron or does he think that that policy is a bit clumsy? Khan says that Cameron should meet his mum.
I’m sure David Cameron worries about security, I’m sure that he wants to make sure that there are zero attempts … you can see the response from British Muslim women who were just appalled that he was trying to say that you know, they were kind of subservient — you should meet my mum. I say this to you half seriously, half jokingly. One of the reasons I’d never even think about getting rid of the freedom pass [a pass that allows older Londoners to travel on public transport for free] and why I’m a great advocate of the freedom pass is my mum would kill me if I got rid of the freedom pass.
With time running out, BI just had time to ask Khan about his relationship with labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters. Khan answered with a quote from former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The Labour Party has always been a big tent, we’ve got people on different parts of the spectrum, and I will seek support from whoever wants to give it to me. It’s really important that we understand that you can only change things if you win elections. So, you know, Tony Blair once said “principle without power is futile, but power without principle is barren.”… So look, Jeremy Corbyn isn’t on the ballot paper on May the 5th, David Cameron isn’t on the ballot paper on May the 5th, nor is Boris Johnson. I say with the greatest respect to the other people standing for Mayor of London, it’s going to be Goldsmith or me.
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