If polls are spot on, London may see its first Muslim mayor

Mr Sadiq Khan, the Labour Party candidate for London mayor, is leading in opinion polls for the May 5 election.
Mr Sadiq Khan, the Labour Party candidate for London mayor, is leading in opinion polls for the May 5 election. -- PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
Conservative Party candidate Zac Goldsmith (left), who is from a prominent German-Jewish family, and Labour candidate Sadiq Khan, the son of Pakistani immigrants, at a mayoral debate in London last week. Mr Khan has said that electing a Muslim mayor
Conservative Party candidate Zac Goldsmith (left), who is from a prominent German-Jewish family, and Labour candidate Sadiq Khan, the son of Pakistani immigrants, at a mayoral debate in London last week. Mr Khan has said that electing a Muslim mayor would send a message that Londoners value diversity.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Labour's Sadiq Khan leads Tory rival Zac Goldsmith in opinion polls

In less than three weeks, London could make history when its denizens cast their votes: The capital city could have its first Muslim mayor if the polls and punters prove to be right.

Should Mr Sadiq Khan, 45, be elected, he will not be the first Muslim mayor of a European city. The Dutch port city of Rotterdam has been run by the Morocco-born Ahmed Aboutaleb since 2009.

But that vote of confidence will come at a significant time; when Europe is still reeling from the terrorist attacks of Paris in November and Brussels last month and struggling to deal with extremism, amid rising Islamophobia.

Mr Khan himself, the son of Pakistani immigrants, knows all too well the battle he is fighting.

Early in his campaign, he had said that electing a Muslim mayor would send out the message that Londoners value diversity and would support an ethnic minority of a different faith.

"I am a Londoner first and foremost, but it would show the haters in Iraq and the haters in Syria what sort of country we are: a beacon," he had said.

Born to a working-class family in Tooting, South London, Mr Khan grew up in a family of eight children in a three-bedroom council flat. His father was a bus driver and his mother a seamstress.

He studied law at the University of North London and later practised as a human rights solicitor before being elected to Parliament in 2005 representing the ward he grew up in on a Labour Party ticket.

He had already made history by being the first Muslim to attend Cabinet under former prime minister Gordon Brown in 2008. He served as Minister of State for Communities, then Transport Minister.

The next mayor to run city hall will control a budget of £17 billion (S$32.8 billion) and be responsible for housing and transport policies, promoting London's economy and planning for the police and fire services as well. If current mayor Boris Johnson's push for a devolution deal goes through, the mayor will be handed even more powers, such as over transport, housing, the courts and taxes.

Mr Johnson has often said since election to his second term as mayor in 2012 that he would not stand for a third term. Despite also frequently claiming he did not plan a return to Parliament, he was elected to the safe Conservative seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip in last year's general election - enhancing rumours that he has his eye on eventually becoming prime minister.

Nine men and three women have their eyes on the mayor job this time. But as their campaigning enters the last mile, the competition is looking like nothing but a two-horse race.

As far as family background goes, Mr Khan's closest rival, Mr Zac Goldsmith, could not be more different.

Born into the prominent German-Jewish Goldsmith family, the 41-year-old, said to be worth £300 million, was educated at Eton College and later edited for The Ecologist, owned by his uncle. His sister Jemima was married to Pakistani cricketer and politician Imran Khan for nine years until 2004.

He entered the House of Commons representing Richmond Park in 2010 under the Conservative Party, and is best known for championing green issues, including threatening to resign as MP should the government go ahead with its plans to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport.

Young, telegenic and a social liberal, he was the Tory camp's hope of winning over some of the Labour and undecided voters in a city that has been leaning more and more left in recent years.

But even with the crowd-pleasing Mr Johnson backing him, Mr Gold- smith's campaign seems to be waning with one misstep after another.

After accusing Mr Khan of "divisive and radical politics" which some read as a veiled reference to Mr Khan's Islamic faith, Mr Goldsmith continued his onslaught last week by denouncing Mr Khan for giving "platform, oxygen and cover to people who are extremists".

Besides promising to ease London's housing crisis, make transport better and more affordable and commit to being pro-business, the two have also vowed to get tough on crime and extremism.

"Keeping London safe" is a refrain from both camps, although Mr Khan seems especially intent on driving home the point about his resolve to tackle terror, saying it is his No. 1 priority.

If the polls are spot on, Mr Khan will run city hall after May 5. A poll by major survey firm YouGov last month put Mr Khan seven points ahead of Mr Goldsmith.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 19, 2016, with the headline 'If polls are spot on, London may see its first Muslim mayor'. Print Edition | Subscribe