Jenni Frazer speaks to the three frontrunners bidding for Labour’s nomination for mayor of London .
Sadiq Khan is as smooth as a teaspoon of chocolate, even on the phone, purring and flirting. But like all the candidates to be mayor of London, that is his job at the moment: the current MP for Tooting is pressing whatever flesh he can, literally and metaphorically, in an effort to persuade as yet undecided voters that he is the best Labour Party nominee from a field of six.
- Special report: Labour’s mayoral hopeful – Tessa Jowell
- Special report: Labour’s mayoral hopeful – David Lammy
The one-time lawyer, a practising Muslim, recognises that as far as the Jewish community is concerned, he comes from a different starting place from some of the other candidates. For a start, Khan, like fellow Labour candidate David Lammy, nominated Jeremy Corbyn for party leader; and, notoriously, he was the lawyer defending the Nation of Islam’s controversial leader, Louis Farrakhan, when the latter, denounced as an antisemite, tried unsuccessfully to visit Britain.
But these days Sadiq Khan is singing an emollient tune. He has “zero tolerance” for antiSemitism, he says, and when asked directly if he would continue to say Farrakhan was not an antiSemite – after Farrakhan blamed the terrorism of 9/11 on the Jews – Sadiq Khan responds: “I agree. That is anti-Semitic.”
He is keener, however, to talk about antiSemitism in London’s backyard. “I recognise that at the last mayoral election and at the general election, there were many Jews who felt they simply couldn’t vote Labour. Being a Jewish Londoner in 2015 is a challenge. I didn’t fully understand the scale of anti-Semitism, and it is an outrage that schools and places of worship should have to have the level of security which they do in order to protect the community from anti-Semitism.”
Khan says he understands that there was “reluctance” by the Jewish community to vote either for Ken Livingstone or Ed Miliband. “I began to understand more when I became faiths minister in 2008, the correlation between tension in the Middle East and the rise of antisemitism in the UK. Even though I knew the issues, the penny dropped then.” In that capacity he was charged with implementing the recommendations of MP John Mann’s All-Party Parliamentary Report on Antisemitism, and it brought Khan first-hand experience in the front-line of Jewish communal politics.
He met and made friends with, he says, leaders of the CST and the Board of Deputies and also began to visit synagogues, in some of which he had the opportunity to break the Ramadan fast. He has also established good relations with Nightingale House, the ground-breaking home for the aged which is in his constituency.
And Khan is a fan of Mitzvah Day and the Three Faiths Forum. What he is not keen on, he says, is speaking about foreign policy which he does not believe is an issue for the mayor of London. “I won’t use it as a pulpit to pronounce on foreign affairs,” he insists. He went to “the Middle East” with the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (Caabu) but really does not want to talk about Israel or Palestine, believing it irrelevant to the job he wants to do.
If he wins the race, he says, he will stand down as an MP. “You can’t do both”. He hopes that his allegiance to his faith will appeal to Jewish voters, too, adding: ”We have so much in common.”
• Other Labour candidates for London mayor: Diane Abbott, Gareth Thomas, Christian Wolmar.