“The only thing I haven’t done yet is have my bar mitzvah,” jokes Sadiq Khan, Labor Party member of parliament and front-runner in the race to be the next mayor of London. “I did a practice Pesach seder last week – I’ve even eaten matza,” he adds. The week of Passover is also the last full week of campaigning before London’s mayoral elections on May 5. And Khan, a 45-year-old lawyer, prematurely gray-haired but with boyish energy, is on a charm offensive of the capital’s Jewish community.
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It seems as if barely a day passes without photographs of Khan, wearing a snug kippa, appearing at some synagogue, or in a Jewish community center, or meeting with the chief rabbi. “We have to go from synagogue to temple to church to mosque,” he exhorts a group of Labor Party activists who have shown up on a blustery Sunday morning to knock on the doors of voters in the northeast London borough of Enfield.
Khan, like any politician, doesn’t want to admit that there’s a tactical reason for focusing on any one specific community in his constituency. “That’s London, that’s what London’s about, man,” he says with feeling. “The great thing about London is that we don’t just tolerate each other, we respect each other. We’re friends, we break bread together, we work for each other.”
It’s easy to make the mistake that Khan, who has become Britain’s most famous Muslim politician, is anxious to reassure Jews who may be attracted to his main rival, Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith, who has Jewish roots. But there is also clear political reasoning behind Labor’s candidate focusing on the Jewish vote.
At some 250,000, London’s Jews make up, at most, 3 percent of the city’s population of over eight million, though due to factors of age and voter turnout, their electoral weight is slightly higher. A significant portion of these Jewish voters are historically, ideologically and instinctively Labor supporters, just like the majority of Londoners. However, in the last two mayoral elections, many of them either stayed home or even crossed party lines and voted for the Conservative candidate.
London was the only major area in the United Kingdom where Labor held on to its traditional strongholds, and even slightly increased its vote, in last year’s general election. However, for the last eight years it has had a Conservative mayor. This is largely due to the personalities of the two main candidates in the previous elections: Mayor Boris Johnson, a colorful, talented and noisy character, Britain’s most popular politician and quite possibly the next prime minister, is a true-blue Conservative who could win in a Labor city like London. He twice beat previous mayor Ken Livingstone, a character in his own right and veteran left-wing firebrand. Khan readily acknowledges that Labor has lost part of its Jewish support in recent years.
“You know what breaks my heart? That there are Londoners who think the Labor Party isn’t for them because they’re Jewish – that can’t be right, man, that can’t be right,” he says. “In 2012, in the last mayoral election, I had friends who [had] always voted Labor and couldn’t vote Labor because they’re Jewish and because of Ken.”
Livingstone, who was mayor between 2000 and 2008, had a troubled relationship with the Jewish community for a number of reasons, including his welcoming to London of radical Islamic preachers and hypercritical statements on Israel. Unlike Khan, who seems genuinely comfortable in Jewish settings, Livingstone was often prickly. Four years ago, during the last of his four mayoral campaigns, on his way to what turned out to be a rather tempestuous meeting with Jewish voters, the elevator shuddered. “Perhaps we’ll stay stuck inside,” joked Livingstone to his aides. A few weeks earlier, he had shocked those present at another meeting with Jewish Labor Party members when he said he wasn’t expecting Jews to vote for him as they were too wealthy to vote for Labor anyway.
Khan’s eagerness to win back the Jewish voters for Labor is, of course, heartening. But it also reveals something worrying about contemporary British politics – because he’s not only after the Jewish votes, he’s sending a broader message. Spending valuable campaign time in Jewish areas, says one Labor Party insider, “make the point to all Londoners that Sadiq’s a different kind of candidate.” Different from whom? In Labor circles, the answer is clear: different from the party’s new and controversial leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
Much of Khan’s mayoral campaign has been an attempt to create clear distance between himself and his party leader, who, while being hugely popular among Labor’s rank and file – particularly the hundreds of thousands of new members who have joined up since last year’s crushing election defeat to the Conservatives – is deeply mistrusted by the wider British public due to his hard-left views.
Khan has criticized Corbyn in a series of interviews, and promised Londoners that should he be elected mayor, “I will be my own man.” And if the relationship between the Jewish community and Livingstone was difficult, that with Corbyn is verging on the disastrous.
Labor’s leader is not only a veteran campaigner against Israel, but has in the past shared platforms with notorious anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers, and described Hamas and Hezbollah as his friends. Matters have not been improved in recent months by Corbyn’s apparent reluctance to forcefully speak out against what appears to many Jews, including Labor Party members, as an outbreak of anti-Semitic feeling within its ranks, both among student groups and local activists. Though no one in Labor will say so outright, openly embracing London’s Jews is one way for Khan to show that he’s no Corbyn.
Khan, of course, prefers to be more diplomatic. He still needs the logistical support of his party and the votes of its more left-wing members. “What the city wants is a candidate and a mayor who will be a champion for that city,” he says. “So on the ballot paper on May 5, Jeremy Corbyn’s name won’t be there and neither will [Prime Minister] David Cameron’s. With the greatest respect to all the other candidates, it will be me and Zac Goldsmith. What I’m saying to London is, look to my experience, my values and my vision.”
Should he win next month, as the polls are predicting, it won’t be a victory for Corbyn, he says. Instead, he references what has become one of his main campaigning issues, saying it will be “a victory for all London, a victory for those who are optimistic. Those who are hopeful, those who realize that we are at a crossroads, where Londoners have been priced out of London because of a housing crisis.”
But the Conservative Party, facing defeat with their man Goldsmith trailing in most polls by around 10 percent, don’t want the campaign to be about issues such as the shortage of affordable housing in London and lack of resources for the city’s public transport system, which is the most expensive in Europe. This would only focus attention on their failings in eight years under Johnson’s administration and six years of Cameron’s government.
In a last-ditch attempt to close the gap, they are trying to portray Khan as tainted by association with a series of radical Islamic figures with whom he previously appeared and shared platforms at public events. These accusations have appeared nearly daily in right-leaning newspapers in recent weeks, and increasingly over the past few days in speeches and interviews with Goldsmith and other prominent Conservative politicians, including Cameron.
Nearly all these cases occurred over a decade ago, before Khan was first elected to parliament in 2005, while he was working as a human-rights lawyer. As a politician, he has steered away from radicalism, positioning himself as a centrist within Labor, swiftly becoming a minister – first for communities and then for transport. He shakes off the Tory attempts to link him to extremists, some of whom even went on to be involved in terror activity. “When election campaigns get desperate they become negative, but we’ve got to be unrelentingly positive. The temptation would be to spend the next two weeks on their agenda and get involved in the weeds and issues that they want us to raise. If there are questions that people want me to answer, I’ll answer them. But the key issue is how does this fix housing prices? How does this build us a modern, affordable transport system?”
So how does he respond to what his colleagues are calling “a Tory smear campaign”?
“I’ve been clear from the start: I’ve never run away from the fact that I used to be a human-rights lawyer,” he says, explaining what he was doing hanging out with those unsavory characters. Instead, he is eager to portray himself as the Muslim politician fighting extremism from within. “I’ve never run away from my faith. Most British Muslims, I’m afraid, come across people [other Muslims] with views that are abhorrent, and British Muslims have to address that. When I first stood for parliament, there were people standing outside the mosque saying that I shouldn’t be taking part in democracy, that I’m an apostate. But I voted for things like same-sex marriage, even though I’ve had a fatwa against me. I don’t mind dealing with that, but tell me how that helps someone with housing problems.”
What seems to irritate Khan most about the Conservative attacks is that they force him to abandon his own personal narrative – what he calls “the London story” – about the son of Pakistani immigrants, a bus driver and seamstress, who became a successful lawyer and politician. Married to a Londoner himself and with two teenage daughters, he doesn’t avoid acknowledging his Muslim identity, but doesn’t want to flourish it, either. “I never call myself a Muslim politician,” he explains. “I’m a British politician of Muslim faith,” he adds, claiming that he wasn’t aware, before being first elected as MP for the working-class constituency of Tooting in southwest London, that he was the city’s first Muslim MP.
Whatever part Khan’s religion and ethnic identity play in his political beliefs, one thing is clear with him on the campaign trail: He is both an instinctive and extremely professional politician. Khan is the kind of representative capable of pounding the streets of London for long hours, a candidate who always turns up in a district knowing the names of the local MP and council leaders, canvassing for them along with himself. The kind of politician who is ready to speak with every voter who answers the door, breaking off the interview in mid-sentence, and half a minute later resuming on exactly the same message he was trying to push before. He seems unfazed by the campaign’s demands, even by the fact that the man who is hoping to run London’s local affairs has to repeatedly express views on the Israel-Palestine conflict, including staunchly repudiating the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
“The mayor of London doesn’t have a foreign secretary and I won’t provide a running commentary of foreign affairs while I’m mayor,” he insists. “But I understand that Londoners of Jewish faith want reassurance, and it’s not unreasonable to ask where the mayor stands on concerns that are authentic to you.”
He also recognizes the link between the situation in Israel and the challenges facing the Jewish community in London. “I’ve had Jewish friends all my life, but I didn’t discover until I was minister for communities that if you do a graph of tension in the Middle East, there is a similar graph of the rise of anti-Semitism. I find it unacceptable – and I speak as someone who is a member of a minority – that there are fellow Londoners, who by virtue of their place of worship being a synagogue, need 24-hour protection around their synagogues and schools.”
Campaigning to be mayor of a multinational city like London, with its hundreds of diverse communities and 40 percent of residents who were born outside Britain, means Khan has to reassure minority voters that as a member of a minority and the son of immigrants himself, he understands their concerns, while also reassuring the majority that he is not a parochial or special-interests candidate.
“This campaign has the support of Londoners who are Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, rich, poor, young, old, black or white, gay or lesbian,” he insists. “That’s the sort of mayor I want to be, [one] who unites people rather than divides them.”
If he wins on May 5, he will become not only the most prominent Muslim figure in Britain, but also have the largest direct mandate of any Muslim politician in the West. That will be a huge achievement both for him and also for London’s openness. Right now, though, it seems like a political burden he would prefer not to have to bear.