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Social justice, equality to steer new London mayor Sadiq Khan's policies

London Mayor Sadiq Khan during his swearing-in ceremony at Southwark Cathedral on Saturday. He is working towards lower transport and housing costs for his constituents.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan during his swearing-in ceremony at Southwark Cathedral on Saturday. He is working towards lower transport and housing costs for his constituents.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

UK capital's first Muslim mayor wants diversity but needs to overcome commercial interests and latent racism

There's little doubt that Mr Sadiq Khan's pitch as an everyman who understands the plight of the average Londoner was key to his, and the Labour Party's, success in London's mayoral elections last Thursday. Now that Mr Khan, 45, has charmed voters with his working-class roots, what can we expect from the capital's new champion in the next four years?

Policies that promote social justice and equality - key tenets of the Labour Party - are high on the agenda of this human rights lawyer-turned-politician.

Mr Khan's late father, a Pakistani immigrant to Britain in the 1960s, supported the family driving the No. 44 bus from Victoria to Tooting in south London, while his mother sewed clothes for a living.

He and his seven siblings grew up in a council flat in Earlsfield, in south London, and attended state school. Seven of them, including Mr Khan, made it to university.

There's little doubt Mr Khan is ambitious and hard-working. After earning a law degree from North London University, he qualified as a solicitor.

In 1994, the same year he married his wife Saadiya, also a solicitor from south London, he was taken on as a trainee by Louise Christian, a veteran human rights lawyer. He began serving as a Labour councillor in Tooting that year.

In 2005, he became Labour MP for Tooting, and served as Minister for Communities and Minister of Transport in Gordon Brown's government.

 Labour activist Ng Mee Ling, 63, told The Straits Times: "Sadiq personally wants to see diversity in faith, in education, in jobs, and for delivery of public services to flourish so that everyone from all economic backgrounds, race, gender, faiths and creeds benefits from the successes of this great city. And that no one is left behind because of the lack of access to opportunities."

Malaysia-born Ms Ng was elected to Lewisham council (in South-east London) in 1986, making her the first ethnic Chinese councillor in Britain. She  canvassed for Mr Khan in the mayoral race.

Whether he can deliver on his promises, and please all Londoners, remains to be seen.

The mayor controls policies on London's transport, policing, environment, housing and planning.

For starters, Mr Khan has promised to freeze transport fares for the next four years. Transport for London (TfL), which manages Greater London's transport network, estimates a five-year fare freeze would cost them £1.9 billion (S$3.7 billion), four times the £450 million projected by Mr Khan for his four-year freeze.

TfL chief Mike Brown has described Mr Khan's projections as "perfectly legitimate" because they're based on different assumptions regarding inflation, passenger numbers and fare hikes.

This crowd-pleasing move, say Mr Khan's critics, will only result in higher council taxes. Mr Khan believes, as a former Transport Minister, he has the skills and experience to trim the flab at TfL.

To address London's crippling rents and housing shortage, Mr Khan plans to push developers to build new homes, of which half must be affordable housing.

He told the Guardian newspaper: "The council home gave my parents the security of knowing that in 12 months' time a landlord wouldn't come to ask for a 10 per cent increase or for them to move out. It was affordable, so they could both put money aside to be able to afford to buy their own home." 

The proposal is in contrast to how properties are developed at present: developers market their flats as safe havens to wealthy foreign investors in Asia and the Middle East.

Business magnate Lord Alan Sugar, writing in The Times, said of Mr Khan's proposal: "Commercially, it doesn't work. Yes, you can introduce this new regulation, but the effect will be that no development takes place."

Still, Mr Khan's election is significant not just for what he's promised. A London mayor of Pakistani descent is a potent symbol for aspirational ethnic minorities all over the country. Being a practising Muslim, however, cuts both ways in an ethnically diverse population grappling with issues of immigration, integration and identity.

On the one hand, his is the progressive face of Islam that is welcomed by moderate Muslims and the secular West. In 2013, he was one of five Muslim politicians who voted in favour of same-sex marriage laws in Parliament. He subsequently received death threats from hardline Islamic groups.

Ms Ng said: "...he's said his Muslim daughters can wear anything and he wants them to do well in education and in life... This is hugely symbolic and sends a powerful message..."

Mr Khan has two daughters, Ammarah, 14, and Anisah, 16. He told the Evening Standard that the hard-won freedoms of his daughters should not be eroded by a new climate of fundamentalism.

On the other hand, a YouGov poll recently found that 30 per cent of Londoners were uncomfortable with a Muslim mayor. And, allegations - from the rival Conservative Party - that he appeared numerous times on the same platform as extremist Muslim clerics when he was a human rights lawyer, has only stirred fear and suspicion in a city on high alert for terrorist attacks by home-grown militants.

Mr Khan has branded these smear tactics as divisive and Islamaphobic. But doubts linger among some Londoners and Conservatives.

He has been reluctant to play the race and religion card. In an interview with the New York Times, he said: "I'm a Londoner, I'm European, I'm British, I'm English, I'm of Islamic faith, of Asian origin, of Pakistani heritage, a dad, a husband."

Critics aside, his election has been hailed worldwide as an inspiring example of tolerance, democracy and meritocracy. Mr Khan said: "I am so proud that London has chosen hope over fear and unity over division. I hope we will never be offered such a stark choice again."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 09, 2016, with the headline 'Social justice, equality to steer new London mayor's policies'. Print Edition | Subscribe