Newsmaker: Sadiq Khan — British, Muslim, socialist and successful

A stone-cold loser. That was the barb. A stone-cold loser leading a city where knife crime was totally out of control. Terrible. Horrible. Gosh — it seems such a long time since the hyperbole was hurled with such abandon on Twitter by the real Donald Trump. How things and times have changed.

Now Sadiq Khan is settling back into his second term of Mayor of London, Trump has gone away, and that dystopian and dark picture of the city looks quite bright now — notwithstanding the effects of Covid 19.

During his first term in office, Khan was a regular target of political scorn from Washington, which seemed a rather unusual target for the then President of the United States. But Khan, now 50, has never backed away from a fight even if his political judgement was a little skewed when he confidently predicted back in 2016 that Trump would never become president — and we all know how that worked out.

Khan might be older, wiser now, but still isn’t one to back away from a political fight. Being born the fifth of eight children to a Pakistani immigrant father who drove for London Transport, it was never going to be easy growing up in Tooting, the kind of area that doesn’t come anywhere close to the top half of the best 100 places to visit in London. Home was a council-owned apartment. Buses; council flats; Tooting: the school of hard knocks that gave the young Khan a first-hand experience of the underbelly of life in London — and of the importance of social services, transport, housing and education support — all of the issues that matter to most Londoners in Europe’s largest city.

After school Khan set his sights on law — no prestigious university in Offord or Cambridge, no punting in rivers, no hallowed halls darkened by the elite of British society. No, instead to the University of North London, on Holloway Road, near the former infamous prison, in Islington. It’s an institution that works hard to make it to the lower rankings of academia and its most famous graduate to date is Jeremy Corbyn, Member of Parliament — the deposed Labour leader and erstwhile Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition at Westminster. And, like Khan, an avowed socialist who believes in social justice, the sharing of wealth, a society that looks after the most vulnerable — just as in Tooting and countless other rough-and-tumble areas that make up the 32 boroughs that together run the conurbation of London.

Maybe that’s why the young Khan specialised in taking on cases against the police, against government departments, championing the affected and afflicted, the addled and the cajoled — and he was good at it, jumping straight in as soon as he graduated with a BA in Law in 1994. That was the same year he was elected a city councillor for Labour in Tooting.

Chance is often an unknown factor in politics — and Khan took his chance when the local Labour MP decided to retire in 2005, winning the seat and entering Westminster as the party under Prime Minister Tony Blair won its third successive majority.

Just weeks into the new parliament, British born terrorists killed more than 50 people in a series of bus and train bombings. And there stood Khan, speaking fiercely again the terrorists, saying they reflected the view of small and misguided minority who had tarnished the very notion of Islam itself. It was a risky stance, one that saw him received death threats. But plaudits too, so much so that the Spectator magazine labelled him the Newcomer of the Year in 2005. Three years later, in October 2008, Khan was appointed undersecretary of state for communities; a year later he was promoted to minister of state for transport.

Following Labour’s defeat in the 2010 general election, Khan ran Ed Miliband’s successful campaign to become party leader, and his reward was his appointment as justice secretary in the shadow cabinet. By the time 2015 rolled around, the Conservatives under David Cameron had tapped into enough discontent and that little issue of promising a Brexit referendum — Labour seemed like a fading force on the Westminster stage, notwithstanding Corbyn and Miliband’s resignation.

Rather than continue on the opposition benches in Parliament, Khan sought and won his party’s nomination as mayor of London in the capital’s 2016 election. The previous two-term Conservative mayor — one Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson — did not seek a third term, had his sights set on returning to Westminster and, as things would have it, lead the successful Brexit campaign and end up 36 months later residing at 10 Downing Street — new sofa, curtains and all.

With London becoming an increasingly Labour city, Khan defied the expectations of some that his faith would diminish his appeal. Not so, Not in London, where half of the population were born somewhere else. He easily defeated Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith, and Khan took office later that month.

It was a result that didn’t sit easy with Trump — who saw Khan as the antithesis to all his stood for.

London — as with many big cities the world over — has a problem with knife crime. Khan has, however, set up a task force to try and curb it, tackling to social conditions that make it easier for young people to turn to violence. And he’s pushed a green agenda. Pushing public transport, standing firm on the need for more spending, more cycles lanes, better Underground service, getting Johnson’s government to cough up £2 billion (Dh10 billion) more for trains and buses.

But the capital has been hit hard by coronavirus. And unlike other devolved regions of Britain such as Wales and Scotland — far smaller in population compared to London — Khan has had little wriggle room to press for exemptions, special powers, London-specific measures that would meet the needs of Londoners, not those living in the rest of England.

That Brexit issue, the referendum and all of that — the capital voted overwhelmingly against it. Nowhere else in England could such an outspoken Muslim mayor be elected. They know their place. So does Khan. It’s London. And he’s a second term to boot.

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