Interview: Sadiq Khan - 'Believe me, I won't be another Ken Livingstone'

Labour's London Mayoral candidate tells the JC how he'll repair the relationship with the capital's Jewish community

By Marcus Dysch, September 20, 2015
Tooting MP Sadiq Khan

Tooting MP Sadiq Khan

London’s mayoral elections have been some of the most personal in British political history. So prominent, and indeed notorious, have the past two holders of the role been, that only first names were needed: Ken and Boris.

Enter stage left, Sadiq. Labour’s former Communities Minister, Sadiq Khan, won the race to fight to reclaim City Hall from the Conservatives earlier this month.

One of the toughest tasks the 44-year-old former lawyer faces is to convince the capital’s Jewish community to give his party another chance.

At a café in East Finchley, north London, last Thursday, Mr Khan was eager to outline the ways he plans to repair the devastated relationship between Labour and London’s Jews before May 5.

“By engaging, by listening, by talking, by reasoning. Look I’m going to spend the next nine months persuading every Londoner to vote for me. The obvious choice open to someone like me is ignore the Jewish Chronicle, but that’s not how I do stuff.

I’ll be on your side when it comes to the challenges the Jewish community will face

Sadiq Khan

“I’m going to be the mayor of the entire city. It’s really important that you know I’ll be on your side when it comes to the challenges the Jewish community will face. I am my own person, my own man.”

But Mr Khan could hardly have come to the role at a worse time. Ken Livingstone’s baiting of London Jews during two terms in City Hall was followed by five fractious years under Ed Miliband at national level.

The election earlier this month of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader took the situation to a new low. The media attention afforded to Mr Corbyn’s associations with Holocaust deniers, antisemites and other extremists during the contest was unprecedented for a mainstream British politician.

The new leader is something of a touchy subject for Mr Khan, who was one of the 36 Labour MPs who nominated Mr Corbyn, putting him on the party’s ballot in the hope of broadening the debate, only to find the backbencher catapulted to victory.

Mr Khan’s campaign team was at pains to point out he did not actually vote for Mr Corbyn in the leadership contest itself – he instead voted for Andy Burnham. But the association is unlikely to go away.

In a later interview with the Mail on Sunday, Mr Khan admitted Labour had to move away from its " unacceptable anti-Jewish" image.

He also repeated his concern expressed to the JC about the correlation of violence in the Middle East and the spiral of antisemitism in Britain.

Mr Khan is also backed by Mr Livingstone – another potential millstone around his neck whenever he meets Jewish voters. Again the mayoral contender was robust when asked about his predecessor.

“I want to reassure you I’m not like the last guy, I’m not going to be like previous Labour politicians,” he said. “For me it’s a source of sorrow that people who historically voted Labour are now not voting Labour.”

Mr Khan reeled off a list of Jewish politicians who back him, including party veterans Margaret Hodge and Oona King. Jewish Labour supporters give a mixed response when asked about Mr Khan’s track-record on issues of interest to the community. While one described him as a “mensch”, another responded with a scowl and shake of the head when his name was raised.

As Communities Minister during Gordon Brown’s premiership, Mr Khan worked with the Board of Deputies and other communal groups, particularly on interfaith projects. His own Muslim faith had aided his efforts to understand Jewish ways of life, he explained.

“We have a huge amount in common. We need to see the great work in the past that the Board of Deputies and Muslim Council of Britain have done together on halal and kosher food and male circumcision. I’m optimistic about the future.”

Three times this summer Mr Khan began his Ramadan fast at synagogues, discussing with rabbis ways to make London a beacon for interfaith efforts. He also cited his past work with Mitzvah Day, Emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks and Jewish Labour peer Lord Mitchell as examples for the future.

He said: “There’s so much we can do together, that’s why I’m excited about this job. Just imagine the message it would send to other parts of the world where communities don’t get on. I’m completely comfortable in a synagogue, you’re perfectly comfortable with me, even though we’re of different faiths.

“What’s important to me is that we have zero tolerance of antisemitism. I will ensure there are sufficient police resources and the resources of City Hall to address this issue.

“One of the things that has impressed me with the Community Security Trust is that they are now helping Muslim communities address Islamophobia. Many of the challenges the Jewish community have been through over the centuries, now London’s Muslim community are facing.”

Visits to the Nightingale House Jewish residential home in the MP’s Tooting constituency in south-west London have added to Mr Khan’s understanding of the immigrant background stories that Muslims and Jews often share.

He wants future generations to strengthen those links. “My cousins in Pakistan and India don’t mix with Jewish people. It’s very different here. I’ve got best friends from different backgrounds and that’s a huge source of pride. My daughters grew up in an environment where Jewish friends come to our house and fast during Ramadan. We should celebrate that.”

Mr Khan pledged not to use City Hall as “a pulpit for foreign policy”, but outlined his opposition to boycotts of Israel. Current mayor Boris Johnson has overseen burgeoning business links between London and Tel Aviv, a strategy Mr Khan is keen to continue.

But he is clear about the key challenge ahead: “I have to accept many, many Labour voters who historically voted Labour did not vote for us, and that includes Jewish communities.

“We need to make sure we do whatever we can to court them, to explain why they should lend me their vote next May. Not simply to show we understand the concerns communities have got, but to show that we are relevant in the 21st century with the policies we have got.”

Last updated: 12:07pm, September 21 2015