The Pugilist: Sadiq Khan's Quest to Become Mayor of London and the Most Senior Muslim Politician in Britain

By Eaton, George | New Statesman (1996), March 11, 2016 | Go to article overview

The Pugilist: Sadiq Khan's Quest to Become Mayor of London and the Most Senior Muslim Politician in Britain


Eaton, George, New Statesman (1996)


One recent morning, Sadiq Khan entered the ring at Earlsfield Amateur Boxing Club in Wandsworth, south London. He began sparring with one of the regulars: ducking, weaving, throwing jabs. Khan learned to box as a boy, partly for self-defence; two of his brothers are coaches at the volunteer-run academy near Tooting, the constituency he has represented since 2005. Among those pictured on the wall is Frank Bruno, the club's most famous son.

Khan had invited me to join him, and soon after I arrive at 10am, Pop, the youngest of his seven siblings, inducts me in the ring and we begin 90 minutes of training. "Boxing isn't fighting," Khan told me when I interviewed him two days earlier. "It's a classic mistake people make--boxing is a sport. The skills you learn are life skills: being magnanimous, what to eat, how to keep fit, how to look out for each other. The first thing you learn in boxing is defence--you've got to defend yourself ... We all boxed [in my family] and that gives you confidence if you get into bother on the street."

The only one of his brothers not to compete at amateur level, Khan preferred football and cricket (he had trials for Surrey). But he moves with an agility seldom associated with MPs--many of whom are more likely to be found in the Palace of Westminster's bars than its gym. As a devout Muslim, Khan does not drink, and in 2014 he ran the London Marathon.

During our warm-down we pass a road on which his father drove the number 44 bus. A few minutes away is the council estate where Khan grew up. He doubts that bus drivers today could afford to live in the area, and speaks with sadness at how gentrification has frayed the bonds of community. It was the fear that working-class Londoners were being denied the opportunities afforded to his family that partly inspired his candidacy for mayor of London.

In eight weeks, on 5 May, Sadiq Khan will compete in the UK's biggest bout of all--the London mayoral election. With the exception of the French president, no European politician has a larger personal mandate. The mayor controls a 16bn [pounds sterling] budget and housing, planning and transport policy. If the government lives up to its devolutionary rhetoric, the next incumbent will acquire still greater powers.

For the past eight years, London has been led by Boris Johnson, who twice defeated his Labour predecessor, Ken Livingstone. But Khan is predicted to win back City Hall for Labour. Zac Goldsmith, the Tory MP for Richmond Park, whose billionaire father founded the Eurosceptic Referendum Party, was the candidate that many in Labour feared: telegenic, green (he edited the Ecologist magazine) and socially liberal. The Tories' hope was that, like Johnson, Goldsmith would attract non-Conservative voters. Yet in a city that leans ever more towards Labour--the party won 45 of its 73 seats in last year's general election--few believe he can emulate his predecessor. Fellow Tories have criticised his campaign as "lowenergy". The most recent poll, published by Opinium on 8 March, gave Khan a 10-point lead in the final round.

"I'm the least complacent person you'll find but I'm quiedy confident," he told me.

Khan, colleagues often say, is "a winner". At the 2010 general election, he defended his Tooting seat from an aggressive and well-funded Conservative challenge. In the same year, he managed Ed Miliband's leadership campaign, masterminding the defeat of Miliband's elder brother, David. In the 2014 local elections, after Miliband rewarded him with the post of shadow minister for London, Khan achieved Labour's best result in the capital since 1971. At last year's general election, on an otherwise disastrous night, the party gained seven seats in London, its strongest performance since 2001.

When Khan announced in May last year that he would stand to be Labour's mayoral candidate, he was expected to be defeated by Tessa Jowell, the popular former Olympics minister. …

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