Sadiq Khan: An immigrant son’s rise from London public housing to mayor
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'I never dreamed that someone like me could be elected as mayor of London'

Sadiq Khan: An immigrant son’s rise from London public housing to mayor

Labour MP, fierce critic of anti-Semitism within party, was UK's first Muslim cabinet minister. Now he's first of Islamic faith to lead capital

London's new mayor, Sadiq Khan, looks at his watch during the official signing ceremony in Southwark Cathedral, London, Saturday May 7, 2016. (Yui Mok/Pool via AP)
London's new mayor, Sadiq Khan, looks at his watch during the official signing ceremony in Southwark Cathedral, London, Saturday May 7, 2016. (Yui Mok/Pool via AP)

AFP — London’s new mayor, Sadiq Khan, has gone from a public housing estate in the British capital to running the city, a remarkable rise for the Pakistani immigrant bus driver’s son.

The 45-year-old, a former human rights lawyer and an opposition Labour lawmaker, was swept into City Hall on 57 percent of the vote, becoming the first Muslim mayor of a Western capital in the process.

After a campaign that saw his main rival try to establish links between Khan and Islamist extremists, the mayor now faces the task of bringing London’s diverse communities together to keep it on its perch as a top world city.

An ongoing anti-Semitism row within the Labour Party cast a shadow over the mayoral campaign. Several Labour members were suspended in recent weeks for anti-Semitic remarks, sparking a major crisis within the party. Labour chief Jeremy Corbyn reluctantly called for an independent inquiry while initially denying that Labour had an anti-Semitism problem.

Ken Livingstone denounces Israel in a May 4, 2016 interview (Memri screenshot)
Ken Livingstone denounces Israel in a May 4, 2016 interview (Memri screenshot)

Khan harshly criticized former London mayor and veteran Labour member Ken Livingstone for claiming last month that Adolf Hitler was a Zionist, calling the comments “appalling and disgusting.” Livingstone has repeated the claim several times and last week declared that the creation of Israel was a “catastrophe.”

“There should be no place in the Labour Party for anyone with those views,” Khan tweeted late last month when the row erupted. “Racism is racism.”

The crisis had threatened to affect the mayoral race as Khan tried to reassure Jewish voters.

“I accept that the comments that Ken Livingstone has made make it more difficult for Londoners of Jewish faith to feel that the Labour Party is a place for them,” said Khan last week. “And so I will carry on doing what I have always been doing, which is to speak for everyone. If I should have the privilege to be the mayor I will show Londoners the sort of mayor I can be,” he said before his win on Friday.

London's new mayor Sadiq Khan and his wife Saadiya attend the official signing ceremony in Southwark Cathedral, London, Saturday May 7, 2016.  (Yui Mok/Pool via AP)
London’s new mayor Sadiq Khan and his wife Saadiya attend the official signing ceremony in Southwark Cathedral, London, Saturday May 7, 2016. (Yui Mok/Pool via AP)

Khan is London’s third mayor after Labour’s Livingstone (2000-2008) and Conservative Boris Johnson (2008-2016).

In his acceptance speech, Khan promised to be a “mayor for all Londoners” and said his late father, who emigrated from Pakistan in the 1960s, would be “so proud.”

“I never dreamed that someone like me could be elected as mayor of London. And I want to say thank you to every single Londoner for making the impossible possible today,” he said.

He promised to work to provide more affordable housing and transport, to reduce pollution and encourage more and better paid jobs.

“I want every single Londoner to get the opportunities that our city gave to me and to my family, the opportunity not just to survive but to thrive,” he said.

Street fighting man

Khan’s journey to City Hall is like a modern fairytale.

Born in London in 1970 to parents who had recently arrived from Pakistan, Khan was the fifth child out of seven brothers and one sister.

He grew up in public housing in Tooting, an ethnically mixed residential area in south London, and slept in a bunkbed until he was 24.

His modest background plays well in a city that is proud of its diversity and loves a self-made success story.

Khan regularly recalls how his father drove one of London’s famous red buses, and his mother was a seamstress. One of his brothers is a motor mechanic.

He is a handy boxer, having learnt the sport to defend himself in the streets against those who hurled racist abuse at him, and two of his brothers are boxing coaches. He also ran the London Marathon in 2014.

At school, he wanted to study science and become a dentist. But a teacher spotted his gift for verbal sparring and directed him towards law.

He gained a law degree from the University of North London and started out as a trainee lawyer in 1994 at the Christian Fisher legal firm, where he was eventually made a partner.

He specialized in human rights, and spent three years chairing the civil liberties campaign group Liberty.

He represented Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam movement, and Babar Ahmad, a mosque acquaintance who was jailed in the United States after admitting providing support to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Death threats

Khan joined the Labour Party aged 15 when Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher was in her pomp.

He became a local councillor for Tooting in the Conservative-dominated Wandsworth local borough in 1994, and its member of parliament in the 2005.

He still lives in the area with his lawyer wife Saadiya and their two teenage daughters.

Prime minister Gordon Brown made him the communities minister in 2008 and he later served as transport minister, becoming the first Muslim minister to attend cabinet meetings.

In parliament, he voted for gay marriage — which earned him death threats.

His London mayoral election campaign focused on providing affordable homes for Londoners and freezing transport fares.

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