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Sadiq Khan: Starmer Must Spell Out His Vision At Labour Conference

Sadiq Khan

6 min read

If the capital is an accurate compass of voters’ mood, the Labour Party might do well to follow in the footsteps of Sadiq Khan. The re-elected London mayor tells Adam Payne why Starmer must “set a direction of travel” and signpost what a Labour government would do in power.

Sadiq Khan doesn’t mince his words: the next 12 months are “enormous” for the Labour Party.

Now in his second term as mayor of London, Khan, 50, saw off a challenge from Tory Shaun Bailey to be re-elected in May, securing another three years in charge of the city where he grew up, and which is now a relative Labour stronghold having not so long ago been Boris Johnson’s London.

Khan was visibly chipper when we met, excited by London’s re-opening after months of lockdown-induced dormancy. He is particularly keen to talk about the return of football and his beloved Liverpool’s title prospects.

Born in south London, Khan says he started supporting Liverpool as an eight-year-old. He had briefly supported nearby Wimbledon, but suffering racist abuse at a game against Tottenham led him to avoid the terraces altogether and watch football on TV instead, where he fell under the spell of Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush.

Once you support a team with your heart, it lasts a lifetime, he says.

When the conversation shifts from football to the challenge facing another of his loves – the Labour Party – the mayor of London is frank and unambiguous: “This is a really important Conference for us,” he says.

“If we see the summit as the next general election, we’ve got a number of staging posts along the way, and this Party Conference in Brighton is one of those important staging posts.”

He stresses that Keir Starmer must use his conference speech to “set a direction of travel” and flesh out what a Labour government would do in power.

“One of the things the country wants to see from us at Conference is not simply a critique of the government, but a vision for the country going forward,” he says, “and that’s one of the things I’m sure Keir will do in his conference speech.”

Starmer, with whom Khan has a “very good” relationship, has been reluctant to spell out policies since inheriting the mantle of Labour leader from Jeremy Corbyn in early 2020. Those around him argue it would have made little sense to reveal an in-depth plan for government in the middle of a pandemic, when the public’s attention was firmly elsewhere.

However, with lockdown seemingly over and the debate in Westminster returning to some semblance of normal, exemplified by the recent furore over Boris Johnson’s national insurance hike, Starmer is under growing pressure to explain in more detail what he stands for, and what he would do in the event of being sent to 10 Downing Street.

The Labour leader started to put some meat on the bones earlier this month, telling TUC Conference that as Prime Minister he would raise the minimum wage to £10 an hour, end zero-hour contracts, and ban fire and rehire, as part of a “new deal for workers”.

Khan wants to see “policy development” when Labour reunites on the south coast and warns the party leadership “you can’t wait for the general election campaign” to put forward an offer to the nation.

“What you shouldn’t ever do is announce policy three years ahead of a general election, for the simple reason that things change and they become outdated,” he says. “But what you can do is set a direction of travel. That’s what I’m hoping to see over the next few months.”

The former MP for Tooting says the prospect of an early general election, which is the subject of ongoing speculation in Westminster, means his party has little time to waste.

While the country isn’t due to go to the polls until 2024, he believes Johnson will want to capitalise on the likely post-pandemic economic bounce and could be tempted to hold an election in spring 2023.

“That really isn’t far away,” he says, “and that’s why it’s important for us to make the most of this Party Conference. It is an opportunity for us to speak to the country and show who we are.”

The government should be very careful about neglecting our capital city

Turning his attention to London, Khan says helping the city recover from the huge economic damage done by the coronavirus was one of the biggest challenges he has ever faced – and one in which the government isn’t doing enough to support him.

“I am disappointed that London is not getting the support from government that, for example, New York is getting from its federal government. Our £7m ‘Let’s Do London’ campaign has had no support from the government,” he says.

“You don’t get a national recovery without a London recovery” is a line Khan uses several times.

He is keen to point out that businesses in the borough of Westminster alone pay more in business rates than those in Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham, Manchester and Sheffield put together.

“What we are saying to the government is if you can help us to make more of a success of people returning to the office and to the West End, it benefits you,” he says, “because every pound you invest, you get that and some back in relation to spend, taxes and so forth.”

Khan fears, however, that the so-called “levelling up” agenda is coming at the expense of the capital and goes as far as describing Johnson’s all-encompassing head-line policy as appearing “anti-London”.

“Of course I’m all in favour of our country being more equal,” he says.

“However, the way to do that is not making London poorer. What the government should be doing is devolving more power and resources to all parts of the country.”

Khan has visited Bristol, Liverpool and Yorkshire in recent weeks, and is planning a trip to Wales where he will catch up with Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister. “I want to build bridges and explain why their success is crucial to London’s success, and why our success is crucial to theirs.”

In a direct warning to his predecessor in City Hall, Khan adds: “I appreciate that they [the Conservatives] won a majority of 80 at the last election without doing so well in London, but the government should be very careful about neglecting our capital city. They sometimes try to play cities and regions off against each other. It’s counterproductive and it’s not conducive to a national recovery.”

Khan sidesteps the question of whether he would like to return to the House of Commons once his second term is up.

“I’ve got the best job in politics,” he says. “We got a fantastic result in May – the biggest vote ever given to a sitting mayor. It was the second biggest vote in the history of elections in London, the first biggest being in 2016.

“We’re really proud of the trust put in us by Londoners and we have some big policies going forward. We’ve got the ultra-low emis-sion zone being expanded this October, for example, and we’ll be opening Crossrail next year. So I’m really busy trying to be the best mayor possible for London.”

However, ending where our conversation started – namely, his love for Liverpool FC – Khan keeps the door open to a second spell in Westminster.

“I love Jürgen Klopp [Liverpool manager] and he always says the most important game is the next game. My next game is being mayor of London.” After that, who knows?

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