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Sadiq Khan on change at a local level

Sadiq Khan on change at a local level

The Mayor of London on politics, pollution and penning his new book on climate change

In September 2015, Sadiq Khan was a recently re-elected MP, with a record winning margin, and the front runner in the race to be London Mayor. He should have been elated. But he was heartbroken.  

His GP had just revealed that he had developed adult-onset asthma, aged 43. A year earlier, he’d completed his first London Marathon. “I finished in good time,” he recalls fondly. “More importantly, I beat Ed Balls!” 

But, in the months that followed, he had found himself wheezing after a run, developed a cough and felt increasingly run down. He’d put it down to working too hard. But the diagnosis showed it was a lung condition brought on by decades of breathing in air pollution in his beloved Tooting, the area of south London he had spent his whole life. 

"Things I enjoyed doing, like running, in the city I adored, had made me sick"

“My dad had been a bus driver, and one of my earliest memories is sitting on the top deck of the 44 as he drove from Tooting to Battersea,” says Sadiq. “But I now realised he’d been spending his days in a diesel vehicle, breathing in poison for 25 years. Things I enjoyed doing, like running, in the city I adored, had made me sick. Neither my dad [who died of pancreatic cancer in 2013] or I had been fully aware of the dangers of air pollution.  

“But, knowing he would have been lobbying for change with me, had he still been around, I knew I had to do something.”

The fight against pollution

Sadiq was elected mayor in May 2016. Further motivation to do something about air pollution came when he learned about the case of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah who died in 2013, aged nine, following an asthma attack. Though medical professionals didn’t accept it, her mother, Rosamund, believed Ella’s death was caused by pollution from the main road outside their Lewisham home. Sadiq lent his weight to her campaign to find the truth. 

“Ella could have been my parents—or me,” he says. “I was worried about by own teenage daughters, Anisah and Ammarah, too.” 

Sadiq Khan in Tooting - Sadiq Khan interview

Sadiq Khan at Tooting Station

As mayor, Sadiq introduced the world’s first Ultra Low Emission Zone, in inner London, where a fee is charged for driving the most polluting vehicles. It has been bitterly opposed by many, including businesses and drivers, as have current plans to extend it to all London boroughs. However, Sadiq points out that, since he became mayor, London has seen a 94 per cent reduction in the number of people living in areas with illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide. His administration has also planted 440,000 trees and created Europe’s largest fleet of zero-emission buses. 

But Sadiq wants to take his work beyond the capital. His new book, Breathe, seeks to empower people throughout Britain and beyond to take proactive action against pollution and climate change.  

"London has seen a 94 per cent reduction in the number of people living in areas with illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide"

It’s estimated that air pollution causes 40,000 premature deaths a year in the UK and illnesses like cancer and poor lung development in children. It also contributes to climate change. 

“Most books by politicians are self-serving memoirs,” says Sadiq, as we chat in his publisher’s central London office. “Breathe is designed to be a handbook for change.”

“Only one of the 196 countries who signed up to the Paris Agreement on climate change have met its requirements. But two-thirds of cities worldwide in the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group have, including London. So change is possible at a local level and I want to show people what can be done and give them the tools to make sure their local authorities are doing enough. I want to arm them with the confidence and knowledge to take on the hostile, loud minority who oppose change, too.” 

Getting into politics

Sadiq, now 52, has, he says, always been motivated by social justice and improving the lives of those around him. Before entering politics, he was a human-rights lawyer. “I reckoned that my dad or neighbours might need someone who knew about things like employment or discrimination law, at some point. Plus, I wanted to be Jimmy Smits from LA Law or Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird.”

He worked on some high-profile cases—including cases of police assault of Black suspects and overturning an exclusion order on US activist, Louis Farrakhan—and was a partner in a legal firm by his mid-twenties. But when Tooting’s sitting MP, Tom Cox, resigned in 2005, Sadiq decided to run for his seat. 

Sadiq Khan at his South London home - Sadiq Khan interview

Sadiq Khan waiting to find out whether he would be elected Labour’s candidate for London Mayor in his south London home

“When you’re the child of Pakistani immigrants, your parents want you to be one of three things: a doctor, lawyer or engineer. So telling my mum and my wife, Saadiya, that I wanted to go into politics was a difficult conversation. Particularly as there was a massive pay drop! But I explained that I didn’t want to be an MP for the sake of it. I wanted to be the MP for Tooting. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.” 

Sadiq went on to serve as Tooting’s MP for a decade. Gordon Brown appointed him Minister for State for Transport and Sadiq became a key shadow cabinet minister under the next Labour leader, Ed Miliband. His mum was still not entirely convinced by his career change, though. 

“When I won the election to become mayor, she said, ‘Well, now you’ve done that, will you go back to becoming a lawyer?’” Sadiq chuckles. 

Life in the limelight

Politicians are savagely criticised by the press and public and are often seen as arrogant or self-interested. You don’t always hear what effect this has on the politicians, themselves. Has being a senior political figure changed Sadiq as a person? 

“As a mayor or MP, when you go to a meeting, you’re often the most famous, important person there. But it’s really important that you decompress between work and home. Things like running or listening to good music. I’m not allowed airs and graces, in our house. We have a rule not to discuss work and I’m always the guy that has to put out the bins or hoover up downstairs.” 

"It’s really important that you decompress between work and home"

Saadiya, a solicitor, Anisah, 23, and Ammarah, 21, are encouraged not to look at any social media about Sadiq.  

“Unless you live like a monk, it’s impossible to escape it completely,” says Sadiq. “Especially when the leader of the free world is tweeting nasty things about you.” In 2019, former US president Donald Trump called Sadiq “a national disgrace who is destroying London” because Sadiq was critical of his policies. 

“But I tell my daughters not to take it personally. And they were lucky that their dad was at his most popular when they were at school and university! You mustn’t let the small amounts of badness in political life cloud the huge amounts of goodness. My dad drove a bus and my mum made clothes to help the family make ends meet. My kids are well aware of their roots and their privilege.” 

Sadiq Khan planting trees - Sadiq Khan interview

Sadiq Khan helps to plant the final two trees in the London Blossom Garden at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

Is it possible to have fun as a modern prominent politician? 

“It is!” Sadiq enthuses. “People think—and the likes of Matt Hancock don’t help—that being a politician is all about celebrity. But that’s not the fun bit for me. I get to plant trees! I get to meet families who are in a new home because of me and my team’s policies. I now get primary school children lecturing me about climate change. It’s brilliant.” 

“If you want to flourish as a politician, you have to have mental fitness, or criticism makes you angry. I have to accept that it’s perfectly acceptable for people to be unhappy with some of my policies. I think one of the explanations for Boris Johnson losing his rag when the House of Commons Privileges Committee quizzed him about Covid rule breaking, is that he didn’t fully understand that they were fully entitled to ask him tough questions, given that he was a rule maker.” 

Sadiq says he has to “pinch myself and laugh in this job on a regular basis. I was a kid, aged seven, who was waving a Union Jack on my council estate for the late queen’s silver jubilee. Now, I get to frequently spend time with her son, King Charles III.  

Sadiq Khan and King Charles - Sadiq Khan interview

King Charles walks with Sadiq Khan as they meet key workers from Transport for London, who have worked throughout the Covid-19 pandemic

“My mum can’t believe it. She finds it funny. Her kitchen still has spoons with Charles and Diana’s heads of them from their marriage. I come home and tell her I’ve just been with the King and she’ll say, 'Really? Can you go shopping for some milk?'” 

But Sadiq believes there’s a lot of pride in his family because of what he’s achieved in politics and for the environment. In 2020, a coroner ruled that toxic air had played a role in Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah’s illness, making her the first person in the UK to have “air pollution” listed as a cause of death. Sadiq is now calling ministers to introduce “Ella’s Law” which would force the government to greatly reduce particulate pollution in the UK.  

“My mum worries that I don’t get enough sleep and that I don’t spend enough time with her. But I suspect my family would worry about me, if I was a lawyer, too. Worrying about how to spend all that money I’d be earning, for instance! But my daughters’ generation could be the first that is less well-off than the previous one, due to things like climate change and the cost of having a home, and I want to help try to prevent this. To leave things better than when I arrived.”

Breathe: Tackling the Climate Emergency by  Sadiq  Khan is out now in hardback, eBook and audio (Hutchinson Heinemann, £16.99) 

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