When Sadiq Khan was appointed to the Privy Council and first asked to attend cabinet meetings in June 2009, Labour’s MP for Tooting became the first Asian and first Muslim to do so.
Still today, Khan – the shadow Secretary of State for Justice, shadow Lord Chancellor and, as of earlier this year, shadow minister for London –along with Chuka Umunna, is one of the only non-white faces in the Shadow Cabinet. “And we’re a progressive party,” he says.
But he doesn’t dwell on the issue – “You can get obsessed by it and people do. Just by virtue of the fact that mass immigration only happened 30/40 years ago, there are going to be lots of first-ofs” – but the lack of diversity, not just ethnically, but “the shortage of women and of people from different backgrounds” makes it hard not to feel some sense of isolation. “When you first get to No 10 and everyone else around the cabinet table is white … If during Ramadan I’m fasting, people get it, but when you’re the only one, you do sort of stand out.”
As shadow Secretary of State for Justice with responsibility for political and constitutional reform among his raft of duties, the Labour MP has plenty to keep him distracted, including the Coalition’s imminent privatisation of the probation service, a move he describes as a “huge, huge risk”.
“Prisons are warehouses, they are warehouses for criminals,” he says. “There is no rehabilitation, no treatment of alcohol problems or drugs problems, there is no giving offenders a second chance, and they leave after serving their sentence no better, sometimes worse.”
In no small part thanks to the last Labour government, the 42-year-old concedes. “We did a great job punishing people, we did a great job with crime going down and we did a poor job reforming people. We need to make sure there is mentoring, a buddying system, giving probation the autonomy they need.” Before pulling out one of Tony Blair’s much-pilloried catch phrases: “‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’… People were often dismissive of it but it works.”
The privatisation of the probation system, which is being brought in under Justice Secretary Chris Grayling without any case-testing or trials, worries Khan. “I’ve got nothing against the private sector and the public sector working together … The problem is the privatisation of the criminal justice system on this scale has not been done anywhere around the world.
“Probation being privatised where you are demarcating high-risk, low-risk, and [handing control to private companies] like G4S, who couldn’t organise security at the Olympics, and A4E, who couldn’t organise the Work Programme. [For them] to be in charge of potentially very serious offenders, that worries me hugely.”
Rolling out such a controversial scheme without any proper testing, he says, could have dangerous consequences: “In the context of the criminal justice system, if something goes wrong, it could mean someone who should be supervised properly by the probation service, who should be in custody, not being so, and that means potential risk to the public. The problem is if one person who has not been properly supervised goes on to commit an offence, imagine how much confidence the public will have in alternative custody or in probation.”
Khan’s family originate from India. Following partition in 1947, his grandparents on both sides fled to Karachi, and his mother and father were born in Pakistan. His father moved to London in the Sixties and invited his mother to join him. The fourth child, Khan was the first to be born in London, in 1970, and went on to study law at the University of North London.
Before standing as MP for Tooting – his first attempt at becoming an MP having served as a councillor for Tooting in the London borough of Wandsworth since 1994 – he was a leading human rights lawyer, campaigning against issues such as stop and search.
In his post-election speech in 2005, Khan told his voters they would go to “socialist heaven”. Today, his message to aspirational youngsters hoping to follow in his footsteps is that there is “nothing wrong with wanting nice cars and nice suits – I’ve got both”.
Just months after his first appointment in Parliament, Khan was named Newcomer of the Year at The Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year awards “for the tough-mindedness and clarity with which he has spoken about the very difficult issues of Islamic terror”.
Balancing his faith and his role as an MP, he admits, has not always been easy. Last month, he was the subject of a fatwa calling for his death after he voted in favour of same-sex marriage. “What all minorities need to recognise is today in a pluralistic society it’s not just a question of tolerating others, you’ve got to respect others. I challenge anybody to find another country in the world which is more progressive or has laws that protect minorities more than this country.
“I speak to my cousins in Pakistan or India and they make the point that because [my family] aren’t well off and don’t have contacts in those countries, notwithstanding the fact that there is a Muslim majority in Pakistan, they couldn’t dream of being in the cabinet or doing the stuff that I’ve done here, and I’m a minority in the UK both religiously and ethnically and in all sorts of ways.”
A lawyer before taking to the House, Khan is very much the reluctant “working-class boy done good”. His father was a bus driver and his mother stayed at home to look after their seven children (six boys and one girl) and did sewing on the side to help make ends meet. He grew up on a council estate in the Tooting area which remains his home.
When he is not at work, Khan, “a long-suffering Liverpool fan”, plays football or jogs in his local park or hangs out with his two daughters, whom he will accompany to a One Direction concert next week.
“In my job, if you’re not careful, it goes to your head. The car picks you up in the morning, there is a huge amount of deference from civil servants, lobbyists. There are some corridors [in Westminster] only MPs can walk down, some restaurants only MPs can eat in, you get home at 11pm or midnight and you’ve not met a normal person. You can see why MPs lose touch.”
But, he says, his feet are firmly fixed. “I’m lucky to live in my own home, sleep in my own bed with my own wife, rather than someone else’s. I spend time with my kids, my wife’s not averse to making me put the rubbish out, my kids aren’t adverse to making me clean their trainers. That’s really important. If you are an MP it’s easy to get delusions of grandeur.”
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