Election 2020: ‘I’m just warming up’ says pugnacious Sadiq Khan on the campaign trail in the East End

Election 2020: ‘I’m just warming up’ says pugnacious Sadiq Khan on the campaign trail in the East End

At the weekend, along with calling for misogyny to be classified as a hate crime, Sadiq Khan limbered up for the elections campaign trail. On Saturday morning he addressed a rally in Whitechapel alongside Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs, Bethnal Green & Bow MP Rushanara Ali and City & East London Assembly Member Unmesh Desai before answering questions from the British Bangladeshi media at Labour’s Bethnal Green HQ.

Subjects ranged from council house-building to coronavirus, during which he revealed that he isn’t shaking hands at the moment as a precaution. Afterwards, On London had the opportunity to speak to him exclusively. 

The Mayor’s Conservative rival Shaun Bailey has repeatedly accused him of “hiding” from responsibility for crime by blaming the government. Asked whether he would put crime front and centre at any stage in his mayoral campaign, Khan replied that there were “three big things that are front and centre”, and these grew to four as he spoke: violent crime, housing, air quality and transport. 

On violent crime, he doubled down on his attack on the Tories. He said his task is “making sure people understand the consequences of central government cuts, the consequences to families who are bereaved as a consequence of the cuts,” and he contrasted his decision to increase the Council Tax mayoral precept to invest in policing with Boris Johnson’s freezing or cutting it when he was Mayor. He also talked about diverting business rates to invest in youth centres and early intervention – “to be tough on the causes as well as tough on crime” – and his work setting up England’s first Violence Reduction Unit. London Assembly Conservatives, he pointed out, have opposed all of his budgets.

Khan’s approach to crime during the campaign so far has differed from that of Bailey. There’s an emphasis on violent crime but also an unwillingness to make crime in general his sole top priority. By contrast, Bailey has been placing crime very firmly in the foreground and though at his most passionate when addressing youth violence he has also been exercised about rising burglary rates and sensitive to how a car break-in can have a greater impact on some people than others.

Meanwhile, the Independent Rory Stewart has been defining himself against Khan in his particular way. At a recent campaign event in Hampstead, he took aim at what he characterised as Khan’s tendency to create a committee for everything – “every time somebody says here is another tragic problem, he immediately sets up a new task force with a new panel of the great and good” – arguing that clear priorities are needed instead. But Khan, who jokingly pretended not to know who the former Conservative MP is, booted away this accusation. He believes in democratic accountability, not being a dictator, he said. “It’s for those who are critics of democracy and accountability to say which [boards] should be abolished. If my critics explain which ones, I’ll have a look at the evidence”.

On London writers have noted differences between “Sadiq for London” campaign leaflets being distributed in different parts of London: one delivered in Hackney was very green issues-oriented, while one in Camden trumpeted housebuilding figures. The Mayor said “there’s literature going to all parts of London. That may be more to do with timelines of getting stuff out,” rather than “any specific microtargeting”. He added that he is spending lots of time in areas that have traditionally not voted Labour and that, as in 2016, he will campaign to be a “Mayor for all Londoners”. Borrowing from Rory Stewart, he hoped Londoners weren’t just receiving Sadiq campaign material but engaging in “conversations” with him and his team to ensure he would address their issues in his second term.

There’s mounting criticism of Khan as the election campaign gathers intensity. From the Right, the website CapX , owned by the Centre for Policy Studies think tank, has torn into his policy record and “bubble of virtue” liberal positioning. From the Left, he has been mocked for expressing a preference for Mike Bloomberg over Bernie Sanders to be the US Democrats’ presidential candidate. Business groups have been frustrated with him over the Crossrail delay saga, and fellow mayoral candidates have been dismayed that he’s missed hustings. But in Bethnal Green, Khan was a picture of assurance and determination. Flanked by Biggs and Ali, lowering his gaze until it was his turn to speak, he had the air of a football manager or perhaps an exceptionally disciplined boxer.

“I’m not someone who has only discovered London in the last three months when I got sacked, or somebody who is a failed would-be MP” he told me pugnaciously about his credentials for “the greatest job in the world”. And: “Unlike any other candidate I’ve got a full-time job, running this city. We’ve got 60 days to go, the campaign’s not begun yet. I’m just warming up”.

His next bout will a People’s Question Time event in Wandsworth on Wednesday. Two of his rivals for City Hall, Bailey and Green Party candidate Siân Berry, will be able to join the debate in their capacities as London Assembly Members.

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