Standing in his constituency office on the Balham High Road in South London on an unseasonably hot April day, Sadiq Khan jokes during a photoshoot that his wife will want him to look like George Clooney. He then tells a very good story about a worried Boris Johnson following Bob Crow into a toilet before a recording of Radio 4’s Any Questions in case the union man was trying to release a story to the press.
Creating a light atmosphere comes easily to a man described as a “warm character” by his colleagues.
Appointed as Ed Miliband’s campaign manager during the Labour leadership contest, Khan remains a fan. He says: “What is remarkable is how quickly we’re starting to earn back permission to be heard. We’re only in the tenth month.
Of course, the public aren’t buying everything we’re saying but we are earning back permission during which time there was white noise − even before we lost the election. If a Labour politician came on TV, radio or wrote an article, the public would switch off.”
This has now changed, Khan believes. He continues: “I’ve been really impressed by how quickly we’ve been able to project the key messages. One of the reasons George Osborne had to include a fuel duty cut as a last minute addition to his Budget was in reaction to our message about the ‘squeezed middle’.”
Doubtless the chancellor would disagree, but Khan says that the Labour leader has got people outside the Westminster village talking about three key ideas: the aforementioned squeezed middle, falling living standards and the ‘British Promise’ – Ed Miliband’s attempt to encapsulate in Khan’s words a sense that we “expect the next generation to do better than we did”. He believes this communications success “bodes well for the future”.
Khan describes Ed Miliband as a unifying figure with “the humility to ask: what do you think? He has the ability to bring people in and to earn their trust and respect over time.”
I question the Labour leader’s personality, asking if he’s strong enough to lead a party containing figures like Ed Balls. Instead of highlighting personality traits, Khan claims it is the “big decisions” that make Ed Miliband stand out.
Decisions like standing against his older brother or getting Nick Brown to stand down as chief whip back in the autumn of 2010. Khan says appointing Alan Johnson as shadow chancellor, and then moving Balls to the role he coveted after Johnson’s resignation, actually reflects well on the Labour leader. He singles out the policy decisions to attack the VAT increase, sticking to Alistair Darling’s commitment to reduce the deficit by half over four years and campaigning for Yes to AV as marks of a good leader.
Labour has shown it empathises and understands the challenges people face: “People haven’t started yet feeling ninety-five per cent of the cuts the government announced in the first Osborne Budget and we have to recognise that.”
The memory of being in power remains strong for Khan, and he believes in the party itself. “I don’t think any of us who have been members of the party for a long time believe that glorious failure is better than winning. We all want to win. We’ve tasted what being in government can do, and how you can act with the levers of power and how you can make change. None of us are in favour of simply playing to an audience. That’s a waste of time.”
The shadow justice secretary has already served in government as a whip, a communities and local government minister and a minister for transport. He was asked to attend cabinet meetings by Gordon Brown, becoming the first Muslim to do so, a milestone in British politics. Khan has only been an MP since 2005, and straddles the generation gap between veterans like shadow cabinet colleague Ed Balls who’ve been around long enough to build intimidating parliamentary bases and the new intake who are finding opposition provides plenty of opportunities to get noticed. It could be a dangerous gap to fall into.
Khan lacks the parliamentary power base of some of his colleagues. He says he had no friends who were already MPs or special advisers when he was elected to Westminster. He had to work hard to retain his constituency in 2010 in the face of an enormous Conservative effort. He wants to avoid becoming “a bit too orchestrated” like some colleagues, adding: “You and I both know people who get a bit too clever by half and try and build a support base for the sake of having one. You’ve got to be authentic and be yourself.”
His large brief encompasses justice as well as political and constitutional reform. That means facing both Ken Clarke and Nick Clegg, so Khan is seen far less in Ed Miliband’s office suite than he was at the beginning of the Labour leader’s reign. With his adjoining office and long presence at the top of the party, Ed Balls is a far more senior figure. Chuka Umunna, the Labour leader’s parliamentary private secretary is a frequent visitor. Khan and Umunna hold neighbouring constituencies in South London and the arrival of another fast-rising operator with good political instincts could signal a squeezing out of the shadow justice secretary.
However, Ed Miliband’s team follow Khan’s strengths and ambitions. One insider says: “He’s trying to stake out his own territory. It seems almost like he’s executing a strategy. Khan is known to be popular among young activists. His potential lies in building a base in the wider party.”
There are good reasons why he should prosper. Of course, he looks good in a suit and might give off a flash air. But that can be forgiven considering he was raised on a council estate in Tooting with a bus driver father and pushed himself to become a human rights lawyer and a partner at a Bloomsbury law firm. We meet for the interview after a school visit in his constituency. Khan says: “This school is next to a council estate. It’s important for those kids to know I also went to a primary school next to a council estate and now walk in the corridors of power.”
The resignation of Alan Johnson, which precipitated a rapid shadow cabinet reshuffle in October 2010, highlighted the desperate shortage of frontbench politicians with that experience of social mobility.
He is more of an operator than a philosopher, saying: “I don’t put myself in a pigeon hole,” but Khan adds: “I’ve got a set of values. I believe in social justice, but I believe that you’ve got to be pragmatic and realistic at the same time.” He says he’s not obsessive about politics, and Tooting provides the grounding he needs. “When you have family 300 miles away and you’re an MP or minister in London, it can go to your head – the deference from civil servants, the deference from colleagues, deference from media – you’ve got no way of being brought down to earth. I sleep in my own bed. When I get home I put the rubbish out and get my girls up to go to school.”
Now he has the frontbench shadow justice role that should be ideally suited to his experience. But Khan already knows that whatever policies he rolls out, he must not endanger New Labour’s hard-won record on crime. It is of totemic importance for the generations of Labour MPs who arrived in Westminster after Tony Blair uttered one of the most famous soundbites in modern politics: “Tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime.”
For Labour to win power again in 2015 (unless events intercede before then), it has to be ahead on the economy. But crime and law and order come a very close second. Deborah Mattinson was Gordon Brown’s pollster when he was chancellor and prime minister. Now with public opinion consultancy Britain Thinks, she says: “Labour has rarely been ahead on crime in the polls. It has always been core Conservative turf.” Policies that allow Labour to be heard on law and order need to be valued.
One Labour MP says: “It’s so important to the working class communities we represent. They instinctively back us economically but they have to trust us on the law and order.” Mattinson remembers running focus groups in Barking: “There was a sense that the area was neglected when it came to crime. There is a powerful perception that it is Daily Mail readers who obsess about it, but people on estates worry about it hugely.”
At the beginning of March, Khan gave a keynote speech on his ‘justice tests’ – his ideas for achieving justice and ensuring Labour has the right approach to policy. In the speech he criticised the Labour government’s failure to bring down reoffending rates. The scorecard could have been much better, he said. It caused a minor flap that could have caused long-term problems for Khan’s career, with Yvette Cooper appearing on the airwaves to reaffirm Labour’s commitment to being tough on crime.
When asked about the incident Khan responds: “Those people who took the time or trouble to read my piece in The Guardian or the speech agreed with me – from the whole spectrum of the Labour family.” He admits that allowing a small part of a wider speech to be read as such was an issue. “The problem I suspect is always going to be if you’re caricaturing a thoughtful speech as Labour going soft, then we need to deal with that. We can’t lose the well-earned reputation of being the party of law and order.”
He points out that far from being a distant politician promoting weak prison policies, he has “lived on a council estate, and have been the victim of crime. I recognise that CCTV actually has a purpose and that locking away people for a long period of time can give respite for people on the estate.”
Khan also knows that if he is to push for greater rehabilitation in prisons successfully, the right balance must be found. He says: “For the first 10 years of our government we had record periods of growth but also during the last two or three years a serious recession during which crime continued to go down. There are a number of reasons why that happened, but it’s important to understand that that’s our legacy. At the same time, I can’t get away from the fact that we know people in the community who have been the victim of people who’ve served a sentence, and been punished but not reformed.”
Khan has a habit of describing politicians he knows well as “mates”. Despite the controversy at the start of March, Yvette Cooper remains a “mate” and they “meet regularly, talk regularly, text regularly”. He compares the shadow home and justice teams with the government: “Ken Clarke and Theresa May are, I suspect, poles apart. Yvette and I are as one. It’s very important we stay as one.”
Ken Clarke and Sadiq Khan certainly represent different generations of British politics. Ken Clarke was elected an MP four months before Khan was born. But with Clarke distinctly unpopular with factions of the Conservative Party both for long, historical reasons and his current prisons policy, Khan could have a fair amount to agree with his opponent on. He says: “We tease each other. We’re in danger of damaging our street cred with our own parties. The problem with Ken is he talks a good game in relation to the progressive agenda. He talks about being tough on crime, tough on causes of crime, talks about rehabilitation. A lot of what he says is smothered in apple pie.”
Khan continues: “My problem is his actions. He boasts about the fact he was the first member of the cabinet to accept the 23 per cent cut in his budget. Compare and contrast that with Liam Fox, Andrew Lansley and the others who negotiated. He says he wasn’t going to be an alpha male − that’s a problem for me.” Khan accuses the justice secretary of having no plan B if crime statistics go up. He says Clarke has become obsessed with reducing prison numbers by the “arbitrary figure” of 3,000.
Khan goes further and claims Clarke’s policies are potentially very dangerous: “I make the comparison with Care in the Community [in the early 1990s]. Care in the Community was actually a good idea. The problem was that it wasn’t thought through. There weren’t enough resources, and there were high profile, horrible deaths and murders. His policy now is potentially Care in the Community Part II.”
Khan’s alternative vision for justice is being mapped out. At the moment Khan’s speeches cover broad messages. He talks of his concern over preventing fair and equal access to justice, says it is crucial to have far greater diversity in the legal profession and wants courts to be more sympathetic to victims so they don’t, for example, have to sit next to family of the defendant in court. He expects to get detailed policies back within 18 months.
At one point in the interview, Khan says his approach to speaking out is to ask: “Before you do anything, do you calculate there might be some negative comments and have a response to that, or do you say what you believe in?”
He remains willing to stand up and criticise his party’s record. In particular, he believes Labour got it wrong on human rights while in government. He says: “One of the things the 1998 Human Rights Act (HRA) should have done was change our relationship with the state from being subjects to becoming citizens.
“It’s a very important piece of legislation. We’ve got positive rights now. What we failed to do as a government was have a human rights commission, or just educate people about human rights − what it means to be a citizen rather than a subject. Being a citizen means we have both rights and responsibilities.”
That failure to change our relationship with the state meant it became the preserve of human rights lawyers, Khan’s career before entering Parliament. He continues: “The HRA is a floor not a ceiling – often you’re talking about human rights of people who are not the most desirable instead of the human rights of an elderly person in a residential home or the human rights of someone who can’t get their dead husband’s name on a birth certificate. We didn’t talk about that. Instead, the HRA became a tool for lawyers.”
Khan believes this opens up confusion between the HRA and the European Court of Human Rights. The Bill of Rights Commission set up by the coalition further muddies the waters, he believes. But Khan lays the blame firmly with the Labour government: “Whenever there is an issue, be it prisoners’ voting or something else, you can use that issue to attack whatever you want. As a consequence of us not talking about human rights from 1998 onwards, the public are none the wiser and so he who shouts the loudest tends to be he who gets heard. That’s why it’s important we have a proper discussion with the public. But before we do that we need a proper discussion as politicians and that’s not taking place at the moment.”
For Khan’s constitutional reform brief he faces Nick Clegg in Parliament. He calls Clegg “a disappointment” and a “lightweight”. He says David Cameron has got his way on the Bill of Rights Commission and that he is “not confident there’s going to be any major constitutional change between now and the next general election”. With this statement and the passing of the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill, which reduces the number of constituencies, to Labour’s chagrin, you might expect Khan to be focusing on AV heavily.
Surprisingly, despite being an early supporter of Yes to AV, Khan is uncharacteristically muted on the forthcoming referendum. He is not enjoying tramping the streets pushing for voting reform. He says: “Every Sunday I go knocking on doors as an MP. We can do a street in 45 minutes and I can meet most people on the street. Doing a referendum canvass you can spend four hours doing one street because you have to explain at every door what the voting systems are, the pros and cons. It’s quite difficult. If we had a longer leading time and there was the distraction of an election, it would have been far easier.
“Frankly speaking I’m spending more of my time campaigning in Kent, in Bury, in Burnley. I’m going to Manchester, other parts of the country where there are Labour candidates standing for council, or Scotland and Wales, rather than for a referendum and it’s a real shame.”
While the AV referendum is not enthusing Khan, he could benefit from the time travelling around the country. He will meet many more party activists and can continue his work on building a base in the wider party. This is particularly true as his justice brief tends to be perceived as having a much wider law and order responsibility by the public (he admits “justice means different things to different people”). At only 40, Khan’s sometimes obscure remit means he will be using his hinterland to build his profile. The parliamentary representative for the “Republic of Tooting” wants to be known beyond South London. Can this fast-riser continue his upwards trajectory? As a former human rights lawyer, he says he took on “very unpopular causes and acted for clients who I may not want to have Christmas supper with.” Compared to that, when asked about where he sits in the Labour Party, Khan just replies: “I basically suck it and see. I’m really lucky. I’m blessed.”