Sadiq Khan is feeling bullish. He bounces into the back office of his Tooting campaign HQ a little later than we’d arranged, still buzzing from being out knocking doors. “So, how do you think the election will go?” he challenges, plonking himself down on a plastic chair.
The man who is leading Labour’s crusade in London is clearly thriving on the challenge of meeting the ambitious targets he’s set, despite weeks of campaigning.
With 73 constituencies in London, after the last election 38 were held by Labour. This time, Khan is determined to not only keep those seats, but turn a further 12 red — taking three from the Lib Dems and nine from the Tories.
Some seats are easier than others, but it’s a sign of how high he’s set the party’s sights when targets include secure incumbent Lib Dems Simon Hughes in Bermondsey and Southwark (a 19% majority at the last election) and Lynne Featherstone in Hornsey and Wood Green, as well as the Conservative Mike Freer in Finchley.
Party insiders admit that these seats were on the list as long shots, but a Lord Ashcroft poll in September put Labour just one point behind Hughes, while one in April had the party two points ahead of Freer.
This is Labour’s biggest campaign in the city and, having spoken to a million Londoners for last year’s local council and European Parliament elections, Khan proudly says this year the plan is to speak to over 2 million between January and 7 May. In fact, he says they'll comfortably exceed that target.
Part of the door-knocking has come from a mammoth effort by volunteers and party members to incentivise people to register to vote — with a particular focus on young people.
“The fact that young people don’t vote means politicians don’t have policies that engage these people,” Khan explains. “So we took the decision to stop chasing the small number of people who were already on the register, and decided to get out there and make sure as many people as possible were registered to vote. We weren’t even saying ‘vote Labour’, we just need people to be able to vote. The second stage is trying to woo them.”
One key issue they hope to woo people on is housing. Khan readily admits Labour wasn’t exactly a paragon of virtue on this topic in the past, but insists the party has learned lessons and is determined to fix what he called “a broken market”.
“At my surgeries, I see people who’ve had to move every 12 months with their family because they have to renew their lease each year and the landlord has told them they have to pay extra or will be kicked out; people whose children have had three different schools because they’ve had to move so often; or children who have to travel an hour-and-a-half each way to get to school because they have had to move.
“Our solution is we promise to build 200,000 homes a year, and a million by 2020 — many of which will be in London.”
Where will these homes come from? “Some will be council houses, some will be housing association, and a lot will be private developers…”
Anticipating the cynicism, Khan outlines measures Labour will take to combat some of the worst complaints about developers, including curbing land banking by giving local councils the power to set a time limit for when land must be developed, or face having it compulsorily purchased.
He says the party will also tackle one of the biggest blights on the capital’s housing market — that entire blocks of flats are sold off-plan to overseas investors. “We’re in the outrageous situation where in inner London, of all the new homes built, 75% are bought by foreigners. I’ve got nothing against foreigners, but these homes are being bought off plan before they’ve even been built.
“We’ll tell developers they can’t sell off-plan overseas.”
There will be people who are rattled by this invasive policy. A government intervening so heavily in a market is pretty radical compared with the laissez-faire approach that’s so familiar. What would he say to those who would accuse Labour of meddling in the market?
Khan’s heckles visibly rise and there’s a real impassioned anger in his voice. “I make no apologies, for one second, about interfering in a market that’s broken,” he growls. “You’ve got a situation where people will leave properties empty, rather than have people live in them; people exploiting loopholes by putting a table and chairs into a property to get round the fact it’s empty. A crisis deserves nothing less than a radical response. This is another reason why I want young voters to get involved — they’re the ones unfairly hit by these policies.”
He adds the party wants to ensure that renters can have a three-year tenancy contract as standard if they want one, with rate rises capped at the level of the Consumer Price Index. To prevent huge increases in rent between tenants, the party will force landlords to tell the tenant what the previous resident paid. He also says there will be a register of landlords, with the aim of stopping those people who provide poor quality housing.
Although there are pockets of strong feelings, a major issue where London appears largely out of step with the rest of the country’s political narrative is immigration. A recent Centre for London hustings event saw one of the biggest cheers of the night go to Streatham MP Chuka Umunna when he exhorted the benefits the capital has seen as a result of immigration.
But elsewhere, the narrative around immigration is not as positive, and the Labour party hasn’t exactly helped. Khan and Umunna were clearly irked at the party selling a mug proclaiming “controls on immigration”.
“We should always start a discussion about immigration by telling people that it’s positive,” says Khan, conscious that his own story is the model example for those extolling the benefits of immigration. “One of the greatest myths is immigrants get all the council homes — that’s nonsense. These people are paying commercial rents to a private landlord who has often bought a council home under the last right-to-buy scheme.
“And the claim they’re taking jobs from people — immigrants are being exploited by agencies who are paying them less than the minimum wage through some wheeze. And that’s what we need to stop.
“In fact, most of the migration to London is fellow Brits coming here from all over the country. No-one comes here to sit on their backside, they come here for the jobs, the arts, the culture, the opportunities, the atmosphere. We respect people who are different, that’s what makes our city so fantastic, that’s why I’m not worried about taking away non-dom status — people don’t come here for the tax rate, they come for many other different reasons.
“But we’ve become a tale of two cities — there’s over 100 billionaires living here and yet a third of the people here are living in poverty, two-thirds of whom are working. Immigration is not the reason these people are poor, the reason is that we have an economic system based around the idea that the people at the top will make lots of money and it will trickle down. Our aspiration is different: we believe that reducing inequality is imperative.”
Labour’s Black and Minority Ethnic Manifesto — written by Khan — has been an important document for setting out the party’s aim to fight inequality, and it’s an area he’s clearly exercised by.
Leaning forward, he rattles: “It’s a scandal that although unemployment has gone down, for African-Caribbean people, it’s gone up to 15%; it’s a scandal that if you’re a young black or asian Briton, you are much more likely to be stopped and searched by the police; it’s a scandal that in the FTSE100 there’s only one chief executive that’s not white, of 108 High Court judges, only one isn’t white.”
The former Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice was also made Shadow Minister for London in 2013. A born and bred Londoner he's often talked about as the next Mayor of London. But when we push him on it he just delivers a stock answer about how someone coming from where he has being talked about as Mayor is very flattering, but he's focussed on the job in hand — the election.
And his focus is still sharp — he still seems to have a lot of energy despite being in the final run of a long electoral campaign. What's his secret?
"I love campaigning, I call it ‘political viagra’,” he grins, sitting back. “Knocking on doors, meeting people, having arguments on the doorstep... I think of it like this: if you’re Christiano Ronaldo and you’re about to go into the World Cup finals, there’s huge pressure on you… if you’re not excited by that, then you’re in the wrong game."
Read more of Londonist’s election coverage.