Autumn began with a bang for Sadiq Khan. Londoner of the Year in the Evening Standard annual 1,000 top Londoners awards, GQ magazine’s politician of the year, the successful rollout of ‘hopper’ bus tickets. It all looks and sounds as though the result was preordained. But Dave Hill’s highly readable and well-informed account of the months leading up to May is a useful reminder that this was far from being the case.
Certainly Sadiq achieved a comfortable victory, first by winning the Labour nomination against the main challenger, the experienced, talented and well-known Tessa Jowell, then by achieving a 13 per cent margin over Zac Goldsmith. Both achievements are testament to Sadiq’s considerable political skill and sure-footedness, to the excellence of his team and the efforts of many thousands of activists who campaigned for him. Neither were managed with the fair wind of media support (although, oh, how pleasingly that has changed now, for the moment, anyway). And, as Hill’s book illustrates so well, there are some very important lessons for Labour here.
First, you have to establish the story of who you are (and stick with it until you are heartily sick of it, then carry on …). Policies matter and Sadiq leant heavily on his housing and transport pledges, but detailed policies do not engage most people most of the time. It is not just the ‘backstory’ either – it is the person who emerged from that background, and what they do with their experience, that counts. People seek above all to be assured that the politicians seeking to lead have credibility, competence and character. Establish those, and you get a hearing. Fail to do so, and second chances rarely come around.
Second, be under no illusions about the ferocity of the attacks during the campaign. This was one of the dirtiest I can remember, from attempts by the Tories and Goldsmith to associate Sadiq with extremism to targeted messaging, such as at Londoners of Indian heritage who were specifically warned of a ‘wealth tax on family jewellery’. Ultimately, voters rejected the underlying fear-based message, and that says something important about modern London, but the fact remains that the Conservatives were willing to fight a divisive battle, regardless of any legacy it might leave.
Third, take your own fight everywhere. Sadiq has presented himself as a ‘mayor for all Londoners’, and this speaks not just to a city of all faiths and none, but to London in all its social, economic, cultural and geographical diversity. Hill’s account describes the relationship-building with the business community as well as the voluntary sector; aspiring homeowners as well as private and social tenants; outer London as well as ‘Zone 2’. Now, more than ever, we know that politics means building a breadth as well as a depth of support. Speaking to the already passionate is not enough.
Sadiq richly deserved his victory, as his competence in these first months in office confirms. There will be tough times to come alongside the successes, undoubtedly. There always are. Zac versus Sadiq reminds us that there have already been tough times aplenty, and they can be overcome. This book is about London, but it is not only about London. Everyone interested in Labour should read it, enjoy it – and find plenty to reflect on.
Karen Buck MP was chair of Sadiq Khan’s mayoral campaign. She tweets at @KarenPBuckMP
Zac Versus Sadiq: The Fight to Become London Mayor
Double Q | 256pp | £6
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