When Sadiq Khan recently addressed the Greater London regional council, he had an admission to make – that he had recently “pinched” the UNISON rep at its City Hall branch, to work for him as a trade union engagement adviser. The Mayor of London smiled and added, “Sorry about that.”
His cheery demeanour at the podium, and the ease and laughter he generated when later having his picture taken with NHS workers, sum up Mr Khan’s close relationship with UNISON – he’s been a member for a decade, currently with the Local Government Organisations branch.
Unlike his predecessor, Boris Johnson, a man whose chief cause is himself, the incumbent is a trade unionist through and through, with a mission to make London a better place for everyone who lives in the city.
“I know from personal experience the difference that trade unions make,” he told the council members. “My dad: a unionised bus driver with decent pay and conditions. My mum: a seamstress, not a member of a trade union and with no decent pay and conditions. For me, growing up, that was a clear contrast.
“Throughout my career I have often spoken about the benefits of a constructive relationship between employers and trade unionists. And I’ve put that into practice in City Hall.”
Breaking the mould
It’s coming up to two years since Mr Khan’s election as London Mayor. “Landmark” barely covers the achievement: the largest number of votes won in one election of any politician in British history; London’s first ethnic minority mayor; the first Muslim to become the mayor of a major western capital. But then, he’s broken the mould his whole life.
The roots are well known: one of eight children of Pakistani immigrants, he grew up in a cramped house on a South London housing estate, attended a tough local comprehensive, became politicised early and joined the Labour Party at 15. His initial career may have been prompted by the glossy TV show LA Law, but he put his skill to good use, working as an accomplished civil rights lawyer.
You might say that In 2005 he decided to take the law into his own hands. “If you’re in government, you’re a legislator and you have the opportunity to make laws that can improve things for millions of people,” he said. He left his law firm for national politics, retaining Labour’s marginal seat in Tooting, London.
In government Mr Khan was minister of state for transport; in opposition, front bench roles included shadow lord chancellor, shadow justice secretary and, presciently, shadow minister for London. Following Labour’s 2015 general election defeat, which he felt left the party “unable to effect the change our country and our city badly needed”, he set his sights squarely on the capital.
‘Their culture is public service’
With the regional council meeting wrapped up, we sit down for a chat. He’s dressed in his trademark style of dark, close-cut suit, open-necked shirt, no tie – a look that’s both dapper and business-like. He talks quickly and passionately, not least when asked about the value of public service workers.
“I saw that value during the terrorist acts last year. We had UNISON members leaving the hospital and running over Westminster Bridge, knowing they were risking their own lives to help people who were injured. I saw it at Grenfell Tower. And there are so many other examples across London, such as the work that takes place in town halls, by innovative council staff who have thought of savvy solutions to the austerity cuts they’re facing.
“Their culture is public service,” he adds. “But there is that double whammy here. On the one hand, it’s public servants who are at the coalface in relation to the cuts the government is imposing. But it’s also these people who face the consequences of low wages.”
Impatient for change
There’s an amusing contradiction to the mayor. When I ask him for an appraisal of his performance in the middle of his first term, he gives his routine, pragmatic line that “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” And yet he’s running this marathon very quickly indeed, with dynamic initiatives across a number of areas, including affordable housing, transport, air pollution, the living wage and skills (see box below).
“I’m ambitious for London and I’m inpatient for change,” he admits. “I think we’re ahead of schedule. We’ve laid the foundations now for progress to be made, whether it’s in housing, transport, skills, security. But that’s in the context of an anti-London government and Brexit. And we’ve had eight years of a mayor more interested in vanity projects, with no long-term planning, so it will take some time to undo the damage he’s done.”
It would be easy to look at London’s three mayors to date and see the ideological divide: Ken Livingstone and Sadiq Khan for Labour on one side, Johnson’s Conservative on the other. Yet the equally important distinction is their backgrounds – Johnson from a well-to-do, upper-middle class background, born in New York and whose character seems to have been largely formed at Eton, Messrs Livingstone and Khan working-class South Londoners with a deep-rooted love for their hometown.
“As someone who is London born and raised, I’ve always had a deep affection for my city and been proud to call myself a Londoner,” Mr Khan says. “Of course, I occasionally have to pinch myself. When I was growing-up, if you came from an ethnic minority and a council estate background you never imagined you could go on to become the Mayor of London.
“But, to be honest, I don’t spend too much time dwelling on what an iconic role it is,” he adds briskly. “It’s an enormous privilege, but I spend all my time delivering the things Londoners need most. That’s why I’m doing everything in my power to build more genuinely affordable homes, to clean up our city’s toxic air, to make public transport more affordable, and much more.”
What we have to realise is the huge benefits that migration has brought to our city and our country
Not surprisingly, this mayor is keenly aware of the significance of the capital’s diversity and multiculturalism.
“For 1,000 years London has been a place where people come and contribute – not just economically, but also socially and culturally. The food you eat, the clothes you wear, the music you listen to, and on and on. Unlike the generation before me, my generation doesn’t look at Germans or Italians or French with suspicion – but as neighbours and friends and colleagues. And they are Londoners, by the way.
“That’s the attitudinal change that the European Union has brought about. So we need to be very careful about the consequences of what’s happening now. What we have to realise is the huge benefits that migration has brought to our city and our country. We need this talent to continue to come here.”
He’s adamant that the situation regarding Britain’s EU citizens is far from settled, and that “the uncertainty is a big cause of concern,” both for individuals and for the London economy. Again, he’s keen to back rhetoric with action. The GLA is launching a website for EU citizens in the capital, which will provide information about their post-Brexit rights and direct users towards legal advice, support services and guidance on employment rights.
With the combination of hard work and a supporting hand you can achieve anything
Possibly the only thing that Mr Khan and Donald Trump have in common – the Mayor describes the US president’s policies as “the polar opposite of our city’s values of inclusion, diversity and tolerance” – is a fondness for Twitter. That said, their use of the social media tool couldn’t be more different. While Mr Trump uses his personal Twitter account to exercise spleen and settle scores, Mr Khan’s tweets are an ebullient celebration and stewardship of his city.
In the space of just a couple of days he can urge Londoners to burn environmentally friendly winter fuel, voice his concern about budget cuts at the Metropolitan Police, support a project to create an LGBTQ museum, give the thumbs up to a local fish restaurant, lament the death of Bollywood legend Sri Devi, praise the suffragette movement, greet Chinese New Year with a message in Mandarin and announce his new £45m Young Londoners fund to help young people fulfil their potential. It suggests a man finely tuned to the lifeblood of the city.
But Mr Khan is also looking outside London, to the six city-regions who for the first time last year had their own elected mayors. He’s “tickled pink” that Labour colleagues Steve Rotherham and Andy Burnham are in the hot seats in Liverpool and Greater Manchester. All seven mayors are in accord that there is strength in numbers, to which end Mr Khan recently hosted the first of what will be regular, rotating metro mayor meetings.
“If you compare us to American or European cities, the mayoralty is quite new,” he says. “London’s had a mayor since 2000 – so we’re like teenagers and the others are in their nappies. We’ve got to help each other, share what we learn, so it’s not London versus Manchester versus Liverpool versus Birmingham. When I’m on a trade mission, I’ll try to promote other cities around the country as well.
“We have far more in common than you might think,” he continues. “Homelessness, the NHS, housing are issues in some of our areas. Skilling up our workforce – big issue in some of our areas. Air quality – a big issue in most of our areas. These are common themes that we can work on together.”
He cites some examples, such as Transport for London, which has been in existence since 2000, offering advice to the fledgling Transport for the West Midlands and Transport for the North; and Mr Khan looking to learn from Andy Burnham’s work to combat rough sleeping in Greater Manchester.
“All of us agree, by the way, that there needs to be more devolution. We’re from the cities we represent, we love our cities, we probably know our cities better than civil servants in Whitehall. But we are the most centralised democracy in the western world. London v New York v Tokyo: Tokyo gets to spend 70% of the monies raised in Tokyo; New York gets to spend 50% of the monies raised in the city; we get to spend 7%.”
Mr Khan is keen to flag the May local elections, which will see 151 seats up for grabs in councils throughout the UK, including all 32 London boroughs.
“This is a great opportunity for us to build on Labour’s recent success and to send a message to the government that enough is enough. These elections are a crucial step along the way to getting Jeremy [Corbyn] into Number 10 and a Labour government that will help everyone in the country. We need to get more Labour people, more people with our values, into positions of power and influence.”
And these days, that could easily be someone like himself, or former UNISON president Eleanor Smith, the MP for Wolverhampton South, or another UNISON member, Angela Rayner, a former care worker who is currently the Shadow education secretary.
“My mission has always been the same,” says Mr Khan, “to break down barriers and ensure that every single Londoner, no matter their background, race, gender, sexuality or religion has the opportunities to reach their full potential. I’m proud that my election has potentially helped to change perceptions among young people from a similar background about what they can achieve.
“What UNISON and the trade union movement have been good at is developing individuals – they become stewards first, they become work reps, and they can go on from there. One of the things we can do more is use trade unions – UNISON in particular because of who you represent – as a way of getting people to stand for councils, for governing bodies, for hospital trusts, to stand to be parliamentarians. And then hopefully those people will get senior positions and we can put into practice our UNISON values.”
Does he think that anyone needs to limit their aspirations? “Oh, listen. One of the things I see from my dad, from my family, is that with the combination of hard work and a supporting hand you can achieve anything. The trade union movement is that supporting hand. So there should be no cap on ambition at all.”
And that very much includes women, more of whom he wants to see in senior positions across politics, business and the media. “More than half of my deputy mayors are women, and 10 out of 16 of my Business Advisory Board are women. I’m really proud that the police commissioner, who looks after our safety, is a woman, the London Fire Brigade commissioner is a woman. When people say that the reason we can’t get women into these positions is because there aren’t any talented women, my answer is that ‘You’re mixing in the wrong circles’. It’s just not true.”
So can we expect a female London Mayor, say, after his second term? “No reason at all,” he smiles. “After my sixth term.”
And with that, a firm handshake and a “Cheers brother”, the Mayor rejoins his marathon, at a very promising clip.
Sadiq’s half-term report
Housing. Sadiq Khan is investing £3.15bn into the building of affordable housing in the city, through to 2021, and has a raft of initiatives geared to maximising affordable house building by local authorities, private developers and others. There will be clear tests introduced to assign that ‘affordable’ means affordable.
Transport. He has frozen all Transport for London fares and introduced the ‘hopper fare’ that allows unlimited bus travel within an hour, aimed at helping people on lower incomes.
The Living Wage. The Mayor cites UNISON’s influence in his manifesto aim to increase the London Living Wage to more than £10/hour by 2020. Three years ahead of schedule he announced the new rate of £10.20/hr.
Air pollution. Pointing to the 9,000 premature deaths a year due to London’s air quality, he is introducing a raft of measures to tackle pollution, including an ultra low emission zone, aimed at diesel vehicles, a toxicity charge aimed at older, more polluting cars and a £300m retro-fitting of London buses.
Policing. An additional £110m to the Metropolitan Police, some of which will be spent on combatting knife crime, a 2% police pay increase and boosting officer numbers.
Skills for Londoners is a new skills agenda for the capital, to ensure that all Londoners have the opportunity to train in the skills that the capital’s economy needs. £114m will be invested in high-quality equipment and facilities at London’s further education colleges and other education and training providers.