Sadiq Khan’s favourite summer holiday snapshot features him outside the Colosseum in Rome, speaking on a mobile phone in a conference call to shadow cabinet colleagues. “My wife is keeping it to blackmail me with,” he says. Having curtailed his visit to a monument to indiscriminate slaughter in the ancient world, Khan was about to address the modern variant. Shortly afterwards, as parliament was recalled, he caught a plane to London to vote against the government motion paving the way to possible military action in Syria.
Any defeat of David Cameron, who had initially hoped for Labour’s support, might be expected to have gratified Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign manager. The PM’s instant assertion that he “got it” and thus would not, in any circumstances, bring the issue back to parliament prompted a slightly different reaction. “I was very surprised. That’s Flashman Cameron, ruling out forever military action. He recognised that the British public weren’t persuaded of the need for military involvement, and that if he were to lose a second vote, it would be game over for David Cameron.
“Now, who was playing the [political] interest there? Was it David Cameron or Ed Miliband? I’d say it was Cameron.” So why, exactly, did Miliband choose to back the PM’s decision, rather than leaving open the option for parliament again to debate the crisis, should a volatile situation change? “Because we aren’t in No 10, so we haven’t got charge of the armed forces.” That reason, coupled with the justification that the government is privy to better information, is unlikely to allay the worries of those Labour MPs left uneasy by Labour’s reaction to the alleged chemical attack by the Assad regime.
That frisson of disquiet followed a difficult summer in which Miliband faced criticism from within and outside the party. Khan, Miliband’s staunch political advocate, skirts smoothly around any suggestion that the leader and the party might be in trouble. Instead he offers a glowing character reference to an incumbent “who won the leadership contest in circumstances where nobody in their right mind would want that job.”
The view at that time was, in his recollection, “that the next Labour leader who is electable probably hasn’t even entered parliament. Now fast forward and here we are – not only competitive, not only in the game but regularly five, six, seven, eight points ahead.” Yet while Miliband has certainly defied the Jeremiahs by proving he could turn round his party, not all Labour sympathisers feel as bullish as Khan on the eve of party conference and following a bruising encounter with the TUC.
Even Andy Burnham, one of the most senior shadow cabinet members, seemed to suggest during the summer that the party was failing to connect with the electorate. “I don’t characterise Andy’s comments as an attack on Ed Miliband personally.” As for the hostile voices, Khan construes their attack as a compliment, believing that hostility must be an oblique tribute to Miliband’s success and a mark that “actually we must be doing something right.”
Such accolades do not signify blind loyalty. Among the Miliband coterie, frequently judged to be weighted towards academics with little experience of the frontline fray, Khan is a shrewd adjutant with finely-burnished political instincts. When the going gets rough – in other words, often – Khan can be relied upon as minister for the airwaves. He is, however, scrupulous in maintaining some distance between himself and Miliband.
“Since Ed became leader, I’ve been quite careful to treat him as the future PM. I’ve tried not to dine out on the relationship we built up during the leadership contest. You’ve got to be very careful about taking liberties, and I’ve never wanted to do so. Of course it’s tempting, and of course people assume [I] can ask him for whatever [I] want, but it’s important to treat someone who is leader of the opposition with a serious chance of being PM with respect.
“So the moment he was elected, I was conscious that I should change the way I behave around him because it affects others. Obviously we are close, but if I’m too chummy with him, that gives the impression that everyone can behave like that. So I’m quite careful not to [exploit] our friendship. You have to get and keep your job on your merits and allow Ed to come to you when he wants advice rather than always proffering it. There are some colleagues who do it differently – who keep texting him or ringing him – naming no names. Ed knows he can ask me for honest, candid advice.”
In addition to his roles as shadow lord chancellor and justice secretary and minister for London, Khan has impeccable credentials as the sounding board for any Labour leader. A bus driver’s son who grew up on a council estate in Earlsfield, south-east London, he is a devout Muslim and a leading human rights lawyer with a taut grip on strategy. His long-held view is that Labour does not need an emergency manifesto and that Miliband can stay calm through the squalls “because the election is going to be in May 2015 so it means that we can do things properly.”
But hard-pressed voters, denied the luxury of time, may not be content to work to the Khan calendar. People hurting in the here and now are wanting, I suggest, to know exactly what Labour has to offer them. Although Khan cites some examples of clarity from his London brief – such as criticising Thames Water for raising charges and saying that if Labour was running London today, “we would freeze fares to RPI” – he maintains that it is impossible to predict the exact conditions that will prevail in 2015.
That said, few leading shadow figures have been as precise in offering examples of what the 2015 manifesto will, or might, contain. Lowering the voting age is one such gambit. Khan, wearing his constitutional hat, recently made the case for votes at 16, but he would not – as he now adds – be content merely to enshrine that offer in the manifesto. “I’m always in favour of trying to make things perfect. My aspiration and desire is to have 16 and 17-year-olds being able to vote in the 2020 general election.”
As well as considering making first-time voting compulsory, on the grounds that people who vote the first time they are eligible to do so are far more likely to adopt the habit, Khan is studying other means to engage both the potential youth vote and disenchanted older voters. The list of possible changes “which are not yet definite but which I’m working on” cover the following questions: “Do we need to vote on a Thursday? What about voting on a Saturday [instead]? I’m also keen to get [people] involved in democracy between elections. How involved are you in between: how many people are on the electoral register, for example? “
Khan’s plan to swell the register involves tapping into existing databases, such as “DVLA, DWP, council tax, halls of residence … Think of all the databases we could use to ensure we’ve got as complete a register as possible.” In addition, he wants to “use centres of education. What about getting all young people … before they reach the age of majority – to see if you can persuade [them] to vote for our manifesto; to get them to fill in the registration forms as part of their citizenship class? That way you would know that every single person who’s 16 would be on the register.”
Is his wish, in placing such a heavy focus on young recruits, to recalibrate a system that has historically favoured the grey vote? It seems so. While he believes that the state has a covenant unconditionally to protect “a state pension and free bus passes,” he points out that young people have no chance of establishing such a beneficial compact. Thus, in a sign that Labour may be more radical than it has indicated so far in cutting perks to the affluent elderly, he is “more relaxed about [free] TV licences for the over-75s. The issue there is whether the administrative fee would be worth the savings you would make. We’ve already said we would look at the winter fuel allowance.”
Khan has more drastic steps in mind to boost civic engagement. He and Jon Cruddas, Miliband’s chief policy reviewer, have devised a scheme to reward good behaviour by offering bonus points allowing good citizens to increase their chances of progressing up the housing ladder. “At the moment the way you allocate finite resources is through points. If you are in overcrowded housing, with a wife and two kids, you’ll get [some] points. But if someone has more children, and is homeless, and moved last week to the area where you’ve lived for ten years, they will leapfrog you. Need trumps entitlement.”
Under the Khan plan, a social variant of the supermarket Nectar card, “getting points for being a good citizen means you can have a transparent system where you go up that ladder and are rewarded for good behaviour.” The criteria he cites include “getting involved in your FE college or hospital foundation trust, or parent teacher association, or being a special [constable].” This potentially controversial prioritising of merit over need, first aired in Miliband’s ‘predators versus producers’ conference speech has gone far beyond airy theorising. “My wish is that we get Labour local authorities to … pilot it to see if can happen in 2015.”
As an admirer of Cruddas (“he talks straight, there’s no bull, he tells it like it is, and we want the election to be a battle of big visions”), Khan also shares his interest in the idea, now common currency in America where mass incarceration has become unaffordable, that fewer people should be sent to prison. None the less, Khan’s acute political sensibilities seem likely to forbid an explicit programme of jail closures.
Nor, despite his reservations about some Tory initiatives, will he pledge to reverse them. “I am opposing government plans to privatise probation. We’re hoping that it hasn’t happened by 2015. What I can’t commit to is that if [the] operation is privatised, I’d be able to buy back the contracts. That wouldn’t be a priority in 2015 for obvious reasons.” On payment by results, regarded as a bedrock of rehabilitation by the coalition, he would revert to pilots. “You need a five-year period to see what happens.” On legal aid, where he has forced key retreats by the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, Khan argues that the “Guildford Four, the Ghurkas, Jean Charles de Menezes’s family” would or will be disadvantaged by cuts. His conference speech, however, will focus chiefly on “a criminal justice system that is in tune with the needs of victims” as well as underlining his wish for early years interventions that prevent crimes being committed later on and for intensive alternatives to custody that inspire public confidence.
None of that, I suggest, sounds very new. While Khan replies, quite reasonably, that the US – with its elected governors and judges – is conducive to state initiatives on closing jail and cutting prison sentences that cannot apply in the UK, it may also be that, in an age of falling crime, Labour is unwilling to stake too much political capital on potentially unpopular policies.
Recent events have served to underline the task facing Miliband. Khan and I meet shortly before the TUC conference and the revelation that the Labour inquiry into behaviour in Falkirk – the catalyst for Miliband’s crusade to end the automatic affiliation of union members – uncovered no wrongdoing by Unite. Though the Falkirk fallout has yet to be felt, the earlier announcement by Paul Kenny, the head of the GMB, that his union’s contribution to Labour funds would be slashed, has left Khan in no doubt of the battles ahead.
“What Ed is saying, and I agree with him, is that we’ve got to engage directly with trade union members and so that means being more transparent. The obvious question is: why would you do that when you can lose millions of pounds. Answer – because we want to improve the way we do politics.” Is he really so sanguine about taking that hit when the party is almost bankrupt?
“I think it’s a big risk we’re taking, but think of the bigger gain to be made. At the general election people will have the choice of one party [the Conservatives] funded by 30 people giving [millions] or another funded by hundreds of thousands of people giving small sums.” While early polling by YouGov gave some backing to Khan’s hope that the reforms would prove popular, this battle is very far from won. Miliband, as Khan stresses, is not in the business of trying to debunk those critics who think him a soft touch. “People have been saying to Ed: to show you’re tough and that you’re not in the pocket of the trade unions, why don’t you manufacture a fight? That’s not what it’s about.”
Khan’s own career has not lacked confrontations. Although he challenges fellow Muslims to find another country offering more rights than the UK, he has faced “a huge challenge and a huge fight. When I became a privy counsellor and asked for a Koran to swear the oath before the Queen, Buckingham Palace said they hadn’t got one, and could I bring my own? I left it for the next person. I was the first Muslim MP in London, the first to attend cabinet. That’s because mass migration began 40 years ago, not because I’m super-talented. I’ve tried never to talk too much about race.
“My worry is that if I start telling horror stories from my days as an MP and minister, I might stop the next person coming forward.” What examples would he single out? “When I went to see my constituent, Babar Ahmad [long detained without trial in the UK], I was bugged, and when I voted for same sex marriage, some Imam from Bradford put a fatwa on me. It was frightening. You don’t want your wife and children [Khan has two young teenage daughters] to face that sort of stuff. But you never play the victim card.”
In the political arena, this conference may ultimately determine whether Ed Miliband and his party are destined to become victims or survivors. Khan, the loyal lieutenant, has his own ambition, to be “the first Tooting MP to become lord chancellor.” In addition, he has an eye on the London mayoralty. “If the ball was to come loose at the edge of the box, and I had the best shot at goal and thought I could score, then I’d probably shoot.”
For the moment (and though some would dispute the scoreline), his focus is on the leader’s tally of victories. “Nobody said he would win versus Murdoch … or taking on the energy companies. Nobody said he would win on defeating the government’s attempts to write a blank cheque on getting involved in Syria. All the big fights Ed’s begun, he’s won.”
The question is whether Miliband, with pressures crowding in on him, can win in 2015. Sadiq Khan is adamant that the doubters are mistaken. This conference will show whether he is right.