Politics

Sadiq Khan: 'We've only got limited time to make a difference'

In an interview with The Big Issue, London mayor Sadiq Khan talks about his health scares, toxic air, and writing his new book, Breathe, on the bus

Sadiq Khan

Image: GREATER LONDON AUTHORITY/ CAROLINE TEO

Sadiq Khan opened his mouth to speak, felt his chest tighten, and had to be carried off stage. It was November 2021 and he’d been about to give a talk at a COP26 event in Glasgow’s City Chambers. Due to deliver a bigger speech at the climate summit the next day, which could be the biggest address of his mayoralty, Khan was eager to crack on and reluctant to go to hospital. He gave in. Tests found that levels of the protein troponin, which usually indicate whether somebody has had a heart attack, were high, but not enough to be definitive. By the time he left the A&E department of Glasgow Royal Infirmary at 6am, nobody knew for certain whether he’d suffered a heart attack. 

He still doesn’t know. “They can’t be unequivocal and unambiguous. They suspect it was, but there are certain tests you’ve got to do. I’m fit and healthy, that’s the main thing,” Khan explains. At the time, Khan was simply focused on returning for his big speech. “That’s the public service ethos. It’s more scary for my wife and kids and stuff, and friends, than it is for me,” he says. “Look, without getting too philosophical about this, we’ve only got limited time to make a difference.” 

Which is to say, he gave the speech the next day. 

It’s enough to make you slow down. Instead, speaking 18 months after the event, Khan says the maybe-heart attack gave him a renewed sense of urgency. He’s already served seven years as mayor, and next year’s election will see him seeking another four. 

Downstairs in Euphorium, an Islington cafe, all is casual. Khan, wearing a quarter-zip with a T-shirt underneath and his jacket still on, is sitting against the back wall. The music and chatter hasn’t stopped, and customers at surrounding tables continue working on their MacBooks. It’s only two burly men at the top of the stairs, doing an impression of blokes eating muffins and chatting but with wires in their ears, who serve as a reminder that Khan probably doesn’t get to just nip to a coffee shop for a Friday afternoon chat any more. 

Sadiq Khan, 52, has been in politics for a long time. Before becoming mayor in 2016, he had been the Labour MP for Tooting since 2005, and served as the transport minister in Gordon Brown’s government. He talks with the intensity and message discipline to match. An answer can run for a minute or two, packed with statistics, and usually ending back on message. To give an example, when I ask what his legacy might be, first, he says: “Anybody who talks about legacy should do so at the end of their career. I’ve still got four terms to go. So it’s not about legacy.” 

But when I suggest what it might be if, perish the thought, he doesn’t win next year’s election, this is what follows, with barely an “um” or a pause interrupting the flow. 

“There are a number of things I’m proud of in the first seven years. We’ve started building more council homes than any time since the 1970s. In the year before I became mayor the number of homes where you pay a social rent was three. Three. It’s more than 24,000 since I’ve become mayor. 

“In the last five years we’ve completed more homes, on average 35,000 a year, than any time since the 1930s. We’ve managed to – by providing mentoring for young people, reopening youth clubs and employing youth workers – buck the national trend by reducing violent crime, youth crime, gun crime, burglaries and so forth. We’re now providing free training for anybody unemployed, anybody long-term unemployed, anybody receiving below minimum wage. 

“So lots of things I’m proud of, not least in the centre of London, cleaning up our air by 50%, inner London by a further 20%, planting record numbers of trees, increasing fivefold the number who are cycling, more electric buses than any city in western Europe, more rapid charging points than any city in western Europe. So there are lots of things I’m proud of, but legacy you should ask me about in 12 years’ time.” 

OK, but if there was just one? “Standing up for our values,” he replies. 

Even putting the health scare aside, you might think writing a book alongside running a city of nine million people would be a stretch. That’s why Khan’s here, by the way. Breathe, which he dubs a “handbook for hope”, is a memoir-cum-manifesto detailing his efforts to clean up London’s air

“Rather than sleeping five hours, I was sleeping four and a half hours every night. I used the Christmas break – not this Christmas, the one before – Christmas Eve until 30 January, breaking the back of the book,” he says. 

“I wrote bits when I was on the tube or bus on my iPhone. It was tough finding the time to do it, really tough. But you know, if you want a job done, ask a busy person to do it.” 

It’s because of my kids, my family, I’m doing this stuff. We can be the first generation to do something about it, or the last generation not to

Sadiq Khan

Politicians usually wait until they’ve left office to write the big book. But Khan consciously wanted to do it the other way round, while giving others the practical tools to tackle climate change. 

“It’s because of my kids, my family, I’m doing this stuff. Listen, we can be the first generation, my generation, to do something about it, or the last generation not to. I’m somebody who became sick by doing something I enjoy in the city I love. That can’t be right. I’m somebody who thought I was quite well-informed. Clearly not.” 

He’s talking about another health scare – being diagnosed with adult onset asthma at the age of 43 while training for the London Marathon – which put him on the path to clean air. It’s “absolutely” a book about winning elections. Khan knows, without hesitation, exactly how many days he’s got left in office – 370 when we speak. 

Key to extending that number will be the ULEZ. The Ultra Low Emission Zone, introduced in 2019, imposes a daily charge of £12.50 for vehicles that don’t meet exhaust emissions standards. Come August, it’s expanding to all boroughs in the capital. 

Opposition has been vocal. Some opponents, he says, have genuine concerns. He hopes these will be addressed by the scrappage scheme – grants to replace non-compliant vehicles. But there are others with less sincere motivations. 

“Others have latched on to this and have conflated a whole load of issues – low traffic neighbourhoods, 20 mile per hour limits, 15-minute cities, cycle lanes – and they think I’m the bogeyman. Others are bad actors, conspiracy theorists, covid deniers, anti-vaxxers. They’re all conflating this,” he says.  

“My worry is that decent genuine people with concerns are being used by these others. And so, we’ve got to address the concerns genuine people have and recognise this is a vocal minority who is using this opportunity. The silent majority, I think, are with me.” 

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Khan talks in terms of silent majorities and vocal minorities. But he is being taken to the high court over the ULEZ expansion by four London boroughs – Brexley, Bromley, Harrow and Hillingdon – and Surrey. This, surely, is less easy to write off than the objections of a few cranks. Khan stresses the importance of persuading people – and yet there’s a degree of difference between getting round the table and going to the high court. 

“Yeah, but who’s gone to the high court? There are 32 boroughs in London, 32 boroughs. There are 73 MPs in London. The four councils going to court are Tory boroughs. The one outside London is a Tory
bor-ough,” he says. 

“The MPs opposing are Tories, save for two Labour ones, so this is politics, right?” 

And with typical message discipline, he returns to what you suspect will become a fixture of the election narrative: “We now know what the dividing line is: clean air with me, toxic air with the Tories. That’s the choice.” 

There’s long been speculation – as with Andy Burnham, the other mayoral king-across-the-water – that Khan is biding his time for a return to Parliament. The last mayor of London, after all, became prime minister. Khan’s team has previously said he has “absolutely no plans” to run for Parliament. But plans can change. I ask if he would ever go back. He answers firmly: “No.”

When Khan gets up and leaves, ending with optimism at the prospect of working with a Labour government, it’s brisk, a well-practised handshake as he stands up. Everyone’s still working on their laptops. 

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

Breathe book cover

Breathe: Tackling the Climate Emergency by Sadiq Khan is out now (Hutchinson Heinemann, £16.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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