When Sadiq Khan beat bookies' favourite Tessa Jowell to become Labour's candidate for London mayor at the start of September, his victory was largely attributed to the effect Jeremy Corbyn has had on his party's politics. Jowell, who once joked that she would "jump under a bus" for her "great friend" Tony Blair, had suddenly become the past. The throngs of people joining up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn weren't going to vote for a Blairite peer-to-be. This shift to the left provided an opportunity for one of the other candidates in the mayoral race. A week before Khan's victory was announced, a key member of one of the rival campaigns told me it was Khan, MP for the south London borough of Tooting, who had made the most of Corbyn's rise and that he'd done it by running an "intense, political campaign" that positioned him as a radical but still pragmatic alternative to Jowell.
When I spoke to him a few days after his victory, Khan – who nominated Corbyn for the leadership race but who said he voted for Andy Burnham – was keen to stress that his campaign had some momentum before the advent of Corbynmania. At this point he has obviously decided to put a certain amount of distance between him and his party's leader, but Khan did tell me that the rise of Corbyn meant that he was "meeting people below the age of 35 who were energetic and enthused about politics. Jeremy managed to persuade people that not everyone who is a politician comes from the University of Media Coaching and Focus Groups and Being Risk Averse."The lives and hopes of younger people is a theme Khan returns to again and again in our conversation. He recognises that "today's youngsters are having the hardest time. They can't afford to rent in London, let alone buy. They can't afford to travel into Zone One because public transport is so expensive. They are the people who are still being stopped and searched by the police."The increasingly difficult and unaffordable nature of life in the capital represents a betrayal of something Khan likes to call the "London promise". Last year, the Office of National Statistics released figures that showed that, between June 2013 and June 2014, 58,220 people aged 30 to 39 had left London – the highest number on record. "For me, that's a colossal waste of talent," says the MP for Tooting. "The promise of London has always been that the next generation will be better than the current generation. That promise is about to be broken."
This story is also a personal one. Khan, the son of Pakistani immigrants, grew up with his seven brothers and sisters on a south London council estate. Here was a family that benefitted from the policies of post-war British social democracy, a family that came to a city that helped them to swim rather than just letting them sink. "My dad was a bus driver, my mum sewed clothes," Khan tells me. "They were given a council home that was affordable and secure so they could save money to buy their own home. All their kids went to good local state schools and all of us got the grades to go to university."
This compelling, salt-of-the-Earth tale contrasts noticeably with that of Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative candidate for London mayor. The son of billionaire financier and strident Eurosceptic James Goldsmith, Zac is probably better known for his extreme wealth than he is for his environmental campaigning. "I'm a bit nervous about saying that, just because Zac's a billionaire, he can't have empathy," Sadiq Khan tells me. "I like him, he's a nice guy and I don't hold it against him that he's a billionaire," he adds, casually dropping a second "billionaire" in there for good measure.While he's proud of his own story, the Labour man doesn't believe it's one that can be easily repeated in 21st century London. When I ask the 44-year-old if he thinks today's equivalent of a 15-year-old Sadiq Khan has the same opportunities he had, he tells me, "No chance! No way at all, man."
When it comes to helping young people in the metropolis, Khan believes the priorities are building more "genuinely affordable homes", using a higher proportion of public land for these homes and getting businesses to invest in training Londoners. In order to ensure that "at least half" of all new homes are really affordable, Khan proposes either using a social rent that applies a formula linked to the wages of manual workers or – and this is a scheme he really likes – introducing the London Living Rent, which would see rents linked not to the market but to salary. "It will be one third of average earnings in an area," Khan says. "So, if you live in Wandsworth, where the average earning is £2,000 a month, then the London Living Rent would be, roughly speaking, £650."
These kinds of policies would, he hopes, provide a necessary corrective to Boris Johnson's laissez-faire approach to rent control. Khan points out, "At the moment, Boris Johnson says, 'Please provide affordable homes and if you want, it should be 80 percent of market value.' It's nonsense!" Labour's candidate for mayor also wants to make sure property developers aren't able to use laws around the concept of "viability" as a way of getting out of their obligation to provide affordable homes. Currently, it is too easy for developers to claim that it is not "viable" to build affordable homes.Khan intends to tackle this problem because, he says, "if we are not careful, London will be like Paris and New York, where the rich live in the inner city, and the poor live in the donut around the edge". Isn't this already happening? "Of course it is!"
Khan says he would be a pro-business mayor, but he also says that while "we want London to prosper and grow, you've got to plan for growth… I want to go to businesses and say to them: 'Help me devise the courses to provide the people you need for tomorrow.' That means we've got to be thinking about the jobs of tomorrow: tech, financial technology, creative industries, manufacturing, low carbon…" This relates to an idea Khan has for giving Londoners the skills they need to get the jobs on offer. He says he's "nicked it" from the New York mayor Bill de Blasio – "only mine will be better!"When it comes to accusations that he is too close to business and that his campaign's financial ties to property developers put him in a compromising position, Khan points out that he had support from "bus drivers and trade unions" but also from developers "because they can see – forgive the cliché – that this really is a tale of two cities. If you're well off you can go to the best bits in the world, but most Londoners have got no chance of going to a Zone One theatre or a Michelin-starred restaurant." He has faith – perhaps faith that is misguided – that the successful people supporting him really do have an interest in helping tackle the growing inequality eating away at the heart of the city.This inequality is not something Khan shies away from. He acknowledges that "social cleansing is taking place" and says that this is why he would outlaw poor doors – the back entrances that many social renters are forced to use while private tenants swan in through grand front doors.
Gentrification has also led to the erosion of London's nightlife. Clubs, pubs and gay bars are being closed down in favour of creating a bland, supposedly resident-friendly atmosphere. Sadiq Khan says he doesn't want to "live in a city of Philistines" and that the capital's nightspots need to be defended. "The problem is that local authorities give permission for housing developments next to a live gig place or a pub or theatre. That development is built and people there complain about the noise, so there is a requirement on the music hall to soundproof the venue and they can't because it's too expensive," he says. "We've got to flip it… If you want to build a home, you soundproof your home, rather than us having to soundproof the venue."At the end of our conversation I feel both won over and wary. During the campaign, Khan's team courted supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. This courting paid dividends. Now, as we can see in an interview with the Financial Times in which he cast doubt on some of shadow chancellor John McDonnell's policies, Khan seems to be distancing himself from a new leadership that he was only too happy to be associated with when there were votes to be won. What seems clear is that, unlike Corbyn, he is a more traditionally canny political operator, ready to move and adapt in order to win support. For now, though, his focus on the future of London's young and lost generation – and his desire to do something about the capital's housing crisis – can only be causes for cautious optimism.
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