Sadiq Khan in Tooting: On London, Labour, Brexit and Tory metro mayors

Charles Holden’s glorious, Grade II-listed Tooting Broadway station opened out on to a blazing flower stall. Then it was a fast walk down a buzzing Mitcham Road, past its salons and secondhand shops, take-outs, chains and the fine, foursquare Tooting Library to where the Labour crowd waited to greet their stars.

Soon, the pair of them approached: Rosena Allin-Khan, hoping to hold the Tooting seat she won in a by-election less than a year ago; and Sadiq Khan, whose elevation to London Mayor brought that by-election about. Allin-Khan held Tooting for her party with a bit to spare – 6,357 votes. But by-elections can deceive. Tooting has been a Tory target for a while. They missed it in 2010, but came closer than some expected two years ago.

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Allin-Khan can feel their blue breath on her neck. Armoured with a bright red coat, she climbed on to a Labour soapbox, looked the faithful in the eye and said: “As we stand here now, there are opposition campaigners all over Tooting. They want to stand up on 9 June, point at Tooting and say: ‘We have turned this Tory’. This seat really is on a knife edge. It really, really is. Every single day, every single hour is going to count.”

She gave way to her near namesake. Khan isn’t very tall. “Stand up, Sadiq!” someone yelled, a quip he seemed to enjoy. He told a story from his Wembley photo-op with Anthony Joshua, heavyweight boxing champion of the world after stopping Wladimir Klitschko: “Someone said to me, ‘the last time I saw someone knocked out like that was this time last year…Zac Goldsmith”.

Goldsmith is very tall. It didn’t do him much good. As passing cars honked their horns, Khan spoke of Labour values. “We are the keepers of our brothers and sisters,” he said. “We don’t walk by on the other side of the road.” Biblical references, these will puzzle only the more crackpot critics of the Muslim mayor. “We believe those with the broadest shoulders should cary the greatest burden,” continued Khan. “We believe we should look after the many, not the few.”

This is a core Labour slogan, but Allin-Khan’s campaign, like those of many other Labour candidates, is fiercely local. Who will stand up for Tooting’s people if they don’t have a Labour MP, asked Khan. “We’ve got to go from mosque, to church to gurdwara. From factory, to office to bus garage. I’m not sure if any of you know this…”

Big laughs. Khan mentioned his bus driver father often – very often – during the mayoral campaign, you may recall. He also used to do stand-up turns at Labour conferences. Now, his other parent became part of his routine. “My mum said, ‘the best MP we’ve ever had is Rosena’.”

There was gravity too, though, about Thursday’s local election results. Jeremy Corbyn was not mentioned at all.

*****

Before leaving, Khan spared five minutes for some questions. I asked him first about two bright spots for his party on Thursday, the elections of Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram as “metro mayors” of Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region respectively. Would they be in competition? In co-operation? Both?

“I believe in collaboration, not competition,” Khan replied. “What’s quite clear from my contacts with the core cities group is no one thinks this is a zero sum game. No-one thinks London does well at the expense of others, or vice versa. I think we should work on how we can work more closely together.”

He stressed that London should not patronise other cities and seemed keen to mention city regions that had elected Conservative mayors as well as those that chose Labour ones: the fact that London Underground trains are made in the West Midlands, where Tory Andy Street prevailed, is of mutual benefit, not some symbol of London grandeur and largesse, Khan emphasised. “I’m a bit concerned about an anti-London animus growing. So we’ve got to make sure we are collaborative. If it is the case that Manchester and Liverpool are keen to have a joint Commonwealth Games bid, that’s a good thing and I’m not going to compete with them. And there are more things we can do together, one of which is me working with all the mayors, including the mayors of the West Midlands and the Tees Valley (another Tory victor) to say to Whitehall that it’s important to devolve more power to mayors, cities and regions.”

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Could Labour’s mayors could provide a platform for the party to grow stronger in the future? “If you look at the Liverpool region, Greater Manchester and London, you’ve got a population of approaching 13 million people altogether,” Khan replied. “We have a responsibility as Labour politicians in positions of power and influence to persuade those in, and also outside of our areas, by being good mayors, of what Labour administrations can do.”

Khan listed mayoral qualities he thinks required: “Being unapologetically pro-business, being entrepreneurial, providing good public services and value for money. Making sure that we have affordable public transport and can provide safe communities by being on the side of the police. That will hopefully mean that we are serving our citizens well, and showing people in other parts of the country that Labour administrations can be a force for good.”

Finally, how did he rate Labour’s general election chances in the capital? In 2010, the Conservatives failed to capture some of their target seats in London. The Labour vote proved more resilient here than elsewhere. Similarly, Labour made gains in the capital in 2015 while the party struggled nationally.

“The lesson I learned from my own experience in this marginal seat is that people are far more meritocratic than was previously the case,” Khan said. “If you were knocking on doors 15, 20 years ago, people would say ‘My family’s always voted Labour, so I’m voting Labour’. Or, ‘My family’s always voted Tory, I’m voting Tory’. But they’re less tribal now. We saw examples in 2010 of voters rewarding good MPs by lending them their vote again.

“But I’ve been saying this year, as I’ve said before, that there is no such thing as a safe seat. It’s going to be tough. And some seats are going to be won and lost by tens or dozens of votes. It’s tough for obvious reasons. You’ve just got to look at the polls. There’s a very good reason why Theresa May called the general election when she did – she wants a three-digit majority, she wants a mandate to negotiate an extreme, hard Brexit. We can’t allow that to happen.”

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