On the campaign trail: Sadiq Khan in London
As the election campaign gets underway for real, Sadiq Khan has detected a new response when he asks voters if he can count on their support.
“We’ve had a couple of Hell Yes’s on the doorstep,” says the Tooting MP and shadow justice minister. “A few people were genuinely surprised at Ed, how good he was. No surprise to us, but they were genuinely surprised.”
Khan is referring to last week’s TV clashes, when Ed Miliband unveiled a new soundbite in an attempt to demonstrate his hard man credentials. “Am I tough enough? Hell yes, I’m tough enough,” the Labour leader told Jeremy Paxman after it was suggested he might be too geeky to take on Vladimir Putin. The Tories poked fun at Miliband’s turn of phrase but as the clip got replayed the next day, Labour began offering "Hell Yes" t-shirts to raise money for the campaign coffers.
As we meet, a new poll has just come out indicating a post-debate bounce for Labour (although subsequent polls have suggested otherwise). Khan has been hitting the doorsteps every day since the programme aired and he is upbeat.
“A phrase I heard yesterday was ‘I didn’t realise Ed had it in him’. A lot of people didn’t see the entire programme, they’ve seen bits and pieces. I suppose the ‘hell yes’ bit has been on YouTube and stuff because everybody seems to have seen that, everyone’s talking about that which is great. It’s been all positive since Thursday.”
Strictly speaking, with parliament having dissolved, Khan is no longer MP for Tooting. Rather he is now a mere candidate. But he remains shadow London minister and it is in this capacity that Khan is taking a central role in campaigning across Labour’s 12 target seats in the city.
On Friday, he was in Brentford and Isleworth where Labour is trailing the Conservatives by just under 2,000 votes. On Saturday he spent time in his own constituency before heading to neighbouring Battersea where the Tories have a slightly healthier majority of almost 6,000.
On a drizzly Sunday he has ventured up to the Harrow East constituency where Labour’s candidate Uma Kumaran is looking to overturn Tory MP Bob Blackman’s majority of 3,403.
Three teams set out from Labour’s local campaign office at 1030am but they returned an hour later, defeated by the rain. Instead of pounding the streets they hit the phones. “You have to know when to call it a day,” smiles Khan as he takes shelter in the Harrow HQ.
Supping on a coffee, he explains that the Labour London election drive started in earnest some 18 months ago and that no voters are out of bounds.
“We didn’t write off people who previously voted Tory. Normally you’ve got your electoral register and you have voter ID from previous elections. This time we thought we’d start afresh, so everyone is given a clean slate. We don’t want to leave any stone unturned.”
Labour already holds 38 out of the 73 seats in the capital. Its 12 London target seats are Battersea, Bermondsey & Old Southwark, Brent Central, Brentford & Isleworth, Croydon Central, Ealing Central & Acton, Enfield North, Finchley & Golders Green, Harrow East, Hendon, Hornsey & Wood Green and Ilford North.
Of Labour’s candidates in those seats, 70% are women and 40% are non-white. The average age of Labour candidates in these seats is 34, which also happens to be the average age in London (compared to 39.7 years across the UK).
“In the target seats we did a couple of things. We selected our candidates early, we had each of those candidates with a good organiser,” says Khan.
Kumaran, the candidate for Harrow East, is youthful, smart and articulate. Should she succeed in overturning the Tory majority in the outer London constituency she would become the first Tamil MP in the Commons, Khan points out.
A key component of her local offer is the pledge card, which Khan acknowledges is drawn up in conjunction with Labour HQ. “She’s given help centrally on what our policy offer is, what the manifesto will look like. She’s not making promises that we couldn’t keep as a government.
“Because one of the things we’re keen to do in this election is something novel: we’re trying to under-promise and over-deliver, rather than the other way around. Voters now aren’t simply apathetic, they’re cynical about politicians. So we’re trying to be straight with people. To say, look we can’t solve all the country’s problems overnight.”
The Tooting MP tells me that in 2013, in the run-up to the European and councils elections, Labour spoke to a million people in London. In 2014 he hopes to double that.
“This year, my target for London between January and May is two million. And it’s based on using volunteers, ordinary residents, Labour party members, trade union members, members of faith groups, civil society. We don’t want to rely on the old model of just members.
“So the reason why we’re not writing off Tories or Lib Dems or Greens people is because things have changed so much in the last five years, people aren’t tribal like they used to be.”
Flirting with the Greens
In October 2013, Labour established a task force, headed by Khan, to look at how to deal with the threat posed by the Green party. Sources suggest a decision was made not to criticise the Greens too heavily as this could turn off voters, especially in London. Rather Labour’s approach is now to highlight how voting Green will split the vote on the left and help David Cameron back into power.
Khan argues that the increase in people considering voting Green has been “a consequence of the Lib Dems collapsing” and points to 19 councils in London which he says are now without a single Lib Dem councillor.
He predicts that Labour will be able to win over many wavering Greens before the election.
“I’m quietly confident, in a non-complacent way, that the people who are flirting with the Greens, a large number of them will end up voting Labour - for positive reasons, because we’ve got radical policies on the environment, we’ve got very good policies on addressing inequality, the housing crisis, the NHS. Some of them will vote for us though because they’d rather have Ed Miliband as prime minister than David Cameron.”
He also insists he has never been interested in attacking Natalie Bennett’s party.
“I’ve never been hostile to the Greens, but I think generally speaking you don’t want to patronise voters. The same goes for people who are considering voting for Ukip. There’s no point saying to them, don’t be so stupid. You’ve got to explain to them that actually some of the things that Ukip are saying are proxy for concerns that we can address.”
It’s no surprise to hear from Khan that the NHS is a big issue on the doorstep. So is housing. He claims that some households are being given misleading leaflets by the Tories, suggesting they will be hit by Labour’s mansion tax. “So part of the time, it’s explaining and educating what the mansion tax is.”
Unlike some other Labour figures, Khan gives a robust defence of the policy. “I’ve been quite vocal in saying that those with the broadest shoulders should bear the greatest burden and I’m very proud of the NHS, we’re going to save and transform it, and the way we’re going to pay for that is partially from the mansion tax,” he says.
“The reality is I think the top one per cent should pay a bit more. So you either believe in saving and transforming the NHS and you believe in explaining how you’re going to pay for it - or you don’t.”
His comments are slightly at odds with remarks made by Tessa Jowell, David Lammy and Diane Abbott, all of whom are expected to do battle with Khan to be Labour’s candidate for mayor of London. Not that Khan is prepared to officially throw his hat in the ring just yet - although he does come close.
He says: “I’m a born and raised Londoner. The idea that someone like you is asking me will I consider being mayor of London gives me goosebumps, it’s just exciting to be asked the question because it’s a dream job. But my focus now and everyone’s focus should be on the general election.”
The Tooting MP was born in 1970 to immigrants from Pakistan and went on to become a lawyer. He grew up on a council estate, calls people “mate” and speaks with a London accent. As MPs are routinely pilloried for being out of touch, it’s hard to see the charge sticking on Khan. And he seems to know it.
“One of the things that’s noteworthy, whether it’s me or our other candidates, is people like the fact that you’re like them. One of the things about politics is people assume we’re different, we’re a different breed, we’re a different species. So when they realise we’re the same as them that makes them have more confidence in the system.”
Whether voters think Khan’s leader is just like them is much less certain. Other Labour MPs have questioned Miliband’s doorstep appeal but Khan is reluctant to get bogged down in the Ed factor.
“Some people raise who the prime minister’s going to be. Most people want an advocate for the local community,” he says. “People are pleased to see you. If I knock on 10 doors, there’s probably one person who says ‘you’re rubbish, you’re all the same, get lost’. It happens very infrequently. Most people want to have a conversation, want to be persuaded.”
For less hardy souls, one out of ten people telling you to get lost might be too much to take. Not so for Khan. Straight-talking and streetwise, he gives the impression of relishing the challenge of tackling voters on the doorstep whatever they have to throw at him.
“This is the best part of being a politician,” he enthuses. “All the stuff in the Commons is fine, but that’s not what being a politician is about. All the stuff doing media is fine, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about being on the doorstep, speaking to your family, friends and neighbours, fellow Londoners, fellow citizens in the country, saying the next election matters, this is why I think you should vote for Labour.
“What worries me, what depresses me, is when I meet people who are switched off and they say I’m not going to get registered to vote, it doesn’t make difference…. There’s a great saying which is decisions are taken by those who turn up. I want more people to turn up.
“That’s why I got involved in politics. I had a pretty nice life, a pretty good job before I was candidate and an MP. It was meeting people, helping people, and also changing peoples’ perceptions.”
So with less than 40 days to go until the election, the man who could be the next mayor of London is spending a drizzly Sunday working out of a Labour campaign office in the outskirts of the capital.
Is Khan in his element? As the occasional voter might say to him: Hell, yes.