London Mayoral Candidate Khan Wants to Appeal to All, Bar One

Updated on
  • Labour candidate distances himself from party leader Corbyn
  • Khan leads Conservative Goldsmith in poll for May 5 election

Sadiq Khan wants to work with multinational corporations as well as labor unions, he’s pledged to “sweat the assets” of the transport network, and peppers his conversation with examples from the U.S. as he makes his pitch to be the next mayor of London. 

Khan, the opposition Labour Party candidate and the front-runner for the May 5 election, is seeking to appeal to all Londoners, with one notable exception: his party leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

Sadiq Khan
Sadiq Khan, the Labour Party candidate for London mayor.
Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

As he fights off allegations from Zac Goldsmith, his Conservative rival, that he’ll use the capital as a laboratory to test out Corbyn’s socialist policies, Khan points out that a leaked memo from Corbyn’s office referred to him as “hostile.”

“The idea that I’m somehow in the pocket of Jeremy Corbyn is ludicrous,” Khan, 45, said in an interview in central London last week. 

The Labour candidate has spent much time courting London’s financial-services industry and business community, at times putting himself at odds with his own party’s policies while allowing him to emphasize his independence. Unilaterally imposing a financial-transaction tax, for example, “would be bad for London’s businesses,” he said -- a stance in direct contradiction to Corbyn, who favors such a levy.

“Successful mayors around the world have been independent-minded,” said Khan. “I’ll be my own man as well.”

After Labour’s disastrous 2015 general election, the London mayoral race offers the party its biggest opportunity among a series of regional and local elections taking place across the U.K. the same day to show that it’s back as a serious force. Those votes are also now turning into a barometer of how much damage Prime Minister David Cameron’s tax troubles has done to his Conservative Party’s support nationwide.

Poll Lead

Khan leads Goldsmith by 35 percent to 27 percent on first-preference votes, according to an online survey of 1,015 Londoners by Opinium Research LLP conducted between March 30 and April 3. When second preferences by those backing other candidates are taken into account, he leads by 54 percent to 46 percent.

When the results are broken down, however, they show that, while Khan is ahead by 70 percent to 30 percent in traditionally Labour-supporting inner London, Goldsmith leads by 56 percent to 44 percent in the predominantly middle-class outer suburbs that were crucial in Johnson’s victories in 2008 and 2012.

Khan’s response is to pitch himself as “a mayor for all Londoners,” and he’s focused on building affordable housing and freezing transport fares during the campaign. Housing is Londoners’ biggest concern, according to a poll for the BBC.

‘Unashamedly Pro-Business’

The London mayor has the biggest individual mandate in British politics and the job has provided the Conservative incumbent, Boris Johnson, with a platform from which he heads the field to succeed Cameron as prime minister.

Khan, who describes himself as “unashamedly pro-business,” name-checked New York Mayor Bill De Blasio and Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel as he spoke of his plans. He’s seeking to work with financial-services companies to provide homes for their staff in return for investment capital for affordable housing on land owned by Transport for London, which runs the Underground rail network, the Tube, as well as its buses -- an example of “sweating the assets.” He cited Deloitte LLP’s program to help graduate trainees find accommodation to show that high house prices don’t only affect the poorly paid.

Tube Strikes

Khan, whose father was a bus driver, has also pledged to freeze public-transport fares until 2020 through efficiency savings, dismissing Goldsmith’s argument that investment would suffer. His strategy of holding face-to-face talks with unions to avert strikes is intended to mark a change from Johnson, who saw his attempt to introduce round-the-clock Tube services stalled by worker opposition.

“A Tory mayor has led to more than double the amount of strikes, because he refuses to sit down and talk to those who represent those who work on public transport,” Khan said. “You don’t have to give in to them, but it’s ridiculous not to talk to them.”

The son of Pakistani immigrants, Khan grew up in social housing in Tooting, south London, the district he represents in the House of Commons. He worked as a human-rights lawyer before becoming a lawmaker and was the first Muslim to attend cabinet meetings when he was made a minister in Gordon Brown’s government in 2009.

He has pledged to join the fight to keep Britain in the European Union in the referendum on June 23. If he becomes mayor, he says, he will also make sure London is properly represented in Brussels, arguing that Johnson has failed to fight for the U.K. capital.

“We’ve got to make sure we’ve got the EU working for us,” he said.

As May 5 approaches, Khan finds it hard to resist pointing to the divisions in the Conservative Party over Europe and spending priorities and offers himself as the more predictable alternative.

“We’ve got the Conservative Party in chaos,” he said. “I’m the guy who provides security and stability for London, because I’m clear where I stand.”