London’s mayor Sadiq Khan tries to unite a city divided by war in Gaza

Mr Sadiq Khan is preparing for London’s mayoral election in May, when he hopes to become the first to win three terms. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON – Mr Sadiq Khan has seen a lot in his seven years as London mayor: Brexit, a pandemic, terror attacks, a tower block fire tragedy, five prime ministers and a cost-of-living crisis.

Yet it is a war more than 3,500km away that could have the most profound effect on this diverse city of almost nine million people, and his own legacy.  

The fighting between Israel and Hamas, now in its seventh week, is shaking Muslim and Jewish people, who have lived side-by-side in London for generations, to their core.

“This is the worst I’ve known it,” the mayor said in an interview with Bloomberg, remembering his role as minister during the 2008 – 2009 war in Gaza. “I remember then the impact on communities across the country – this is worse than that.” 

Many Jewish people are leaving London on weekends to try to avoid pro-Palestinian demos and marches – where some protesters have carried anti-semitic placards – while Muslims fear attacks on public transport, according to groups in both communities.

The overall number of hate crimes recorded by London police in October was up nearly 46 per cent compared with the same month in 2022.

Mr Khan is caught in the middle.

He knows Londoners with relatives killed in the Hamas attack in Israel on Oct 7, and Londoners with family members killed by Israel’s air strikes in Gaza, the territory controlled by Hamas, which is designated a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.

The mayor also knows Londoners who have experienced anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hate.

“I can’t pretend that some people don’t make wrongful assertions because of my faith,” said Mr Khan, who is Muslim.

Easing community tensions is his number one priority, Mr Khan said.

Yet his call for a ceasefire – a step beyond Labour Party leader Keir Starmer’s call for “humanitarian pauses” – stirred controversy.

It was welcomed by many supporters of Palestinians and criticised by some Jewish leaders for showing a “worrying lack of understanding”.

Mr Khan said he backed Israel’s right to defend itself, but military escalation would only increase human suffering on all sides.

A four-day truce began on Nov 24, the first pause in fighting since the war began.

In this fraught atmosphere, Mr Khan is preparing for London’s mayoral election in May, when he hopes to become the first to win three terms.

Opinion polls put him on course for victory, despite a lack of tangible projects to his name and claims from his Conservative opponent Susan Hall that he has prioritised “woke” cultural issues over more practical problems, including knife crime.

“Critics would say he’s more interested in the politics of being mayor than in the policy,” said Professor Tony Travers, a public policy expert at the London School of Economics.

“I think, though, it has to be put against this backdrop of an extraordinary series of events. One of his main attributes has been to work with and be seen to work with London’s various communities.”

Mr Khan was first elected London mayor in May 2016, a month before Britain voted to leave the European Union.

In 2017, the city was hit by a wave of terrorist attacks.

That same year, 72 people died in a fire that engulfed the Grenfell Tower apartment block in west London – one of the worst peacetime tragedies in Britain.

And during coronavirus restrictions, the murder in south London of Ms Sarah Everard sparked a national movement calling for greater protections of women.

The Covid-19 lockdowns delayed the 2020 mayoral vote, but Mr Khan was re-elected 12 months later as the capital struggled with a severe post-pandemic slowdown in its economy.

Mr Khan is less of a showman than his two predecessors – Labour’s Ken Livingstone who became London’s first mayor in 2000, and Conservative Boris Johnson who took over in 2008 and used it as a springboard to become prime minister 11 years later.

Still, Mr Khan makes waves with controversial policies close to his heart – like imposing charges on high-polluting vehicles – and getting into public spats with senior figures, from former home secretary Suella Braverman to former US president Donald Trump.

The son of a Pakistani bus driver who grew up with seven siblings in a state-subsidised apartment near Tooting, south London, Mr Khan promised to be a “mayor for all Londoners” when he took office.

He set up regular events to celebrate different festivals and cultures – including on Trafalgar Square – as well as meetings with leaders of all faiths, creating ties that have helped him in times of crises, according to allies.

“You can’t just turn the taps on at the time you need to do that, you need to build that trust,” said Dr Nick Bowes, former policy director for Mr Khan at City Hall who is now managing director of policy research group Insight at the London Communications Agency. 

Before entering politics as MP for Tooting in 2005, Mr Khan was a human rights lawyer – on one occasion, challenging a ban on Mr Louis Farrakhan that prevented the Nation of Islam leader from travelling to Britain because of fears his anti-Semitic views would stir up unrest.

When the Labour government lost power in 2010, Mr Khan ran Mr Ed Miliband’s successful party leadership campaign and became shadow London minister and later shadow justice secretary.

After Mr Miliband quit in 2015, Mr Khan turned his attention to City Hall, with some questioning why he did not want the top job.

“I’d be able to do what I want to (as mayor), whereas being leader of the opposition is a far tougher proposition,” he told The Guardian newspaper at the time.

Following the Hamas attack in October, Mr Khan gave the go-ahead for City Hall to be lit up in the colours of the Israeli flag.

Did that spark criticism?

“Yeah,” he said. “Let’s be frank, these are issues that are contentious – people equate supporting Israelis with the policies of Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu, and we’ve got to disentangle the two.”

Senior Rabbi Miriam Berger of Finchley Reform Synagogue in north London said Mr Khan “really gets” the Jewish community and its “multiplicity of views and ideas”.

Muslim Council of Britain secretary-general Zara Mohammed agreed that Mr Khan had worked hard to tackle hate crime.

“No one’s ever going to achieve it fully, but he’s definitely making strides towards it,” she said.

Yet Mr Khan continues to face abuse from all sides.

“You should go on my social media,” he said. “The reality is, you can’t please people all the time.” 

His faith is a “privilege” because it allows him to better understand what people are going through, Mr Khan said.

But the last few weeks have taken a toll.

“It’s hard, of course it’s hard,” he said. “You don’t switch off at 7pm, 8pm when you leave the office. These issues are so emotive and so passionate you can’t box them up.”

The pro-Palestinian marches have proved a flashpoint.

Mr Dave Rich, director of policy at the Community Security Trust, which supports British Jewish people, said the demos were causing a “huge amount of upset and distress” and that while he respected the freedom to protest, “I think we are reaching a point where that balance has shifted too far”.

A rally in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza in London on Nov 25. PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr Khan said letting people “vent” in peaceful ways is vital to democracy, adding that he has worked with police to ensure the safety of the rallies.

Officers are under pressure to clamp down harder on displays of anti-Semitism.

“Protest is the thing on the pressure cooker that lets the steam out,” he said.

Had he considered joining one?

“Over the last seven, eight years there have been a number of marches I’ve wanted to join, but I’m not a commentator, I’m the mayor of London.”

Away from the conflict, London’s air quality is one of Mr Khan’s key programmes.

His expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) – a daily £12.50 (S$21) charge on vehicles that do not meet emissions standards – to the city’s outer boroughs triggered widespread anger among residents, as well as a public disagreement with Mr Starmer after Labour failed to win a key by-election in a north-west London seat in July.

Mr Bowes said Mr Khan sees the cleaner air policy “as an issue of social justice because it’s the poorest who suffer most”.

But it is the cost of ULEZ, along with the perception of rising crime on London’s streets, that Conservatives have seized on ahead of the election.

Dozens of teenagers have been killed in the capital since Mr Khan took office, with attacks outside schools and underground stations, sparking demands for action.

Knife crime among under 25-year-olds had fallen during his tenure, along with homicide and gun crime, Mr Khan said.

He put this down to a “public health approach”, including support for schools and mentoring programmes, which aims to address the root causes.

“I’m not in any way defending any one act of crime, but it’s important to understand the complex causes,” he said, pointing to the government’s austerity programme that led to cuts in the number of police officers and youth services.

Still, according to a survey by pollster and Conservative peer Michael Ashcroft in November, most adults in London believe crime is getting worse,

There is confusion among Londoners over who is to blame, however –  the national government, local council or City Hall. 

While Mr Khan has a say over who is appointed police commissioner and sets the priorities and budget for the Met Police, he is ultimately limited by the funding he gets from the government.

He is also not responsible for day-to-day policing decisions.

Likewise, he is in charge of much of London’s transport network, including the underground, buses and bike hire scheme, but governance over schools, social services and waste is devolved to the 32 London boroughs.

In contrast, the mayors of New York and Paris have far-reaching powers including over welfare, schools and health and much bigger tax-raising functions, and both come with major political cachet.

Mr Khan hopes he can achieve more if Mr Starmer becomes prime minister.

It would be the first time Mr Khan, as mayor, has ever worked with a Labour prime minister, and he said he was “so incredibly excited” about the prospect.

London mayor Sadiq Khan hopes he can achieve more if Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (above) becomes prime minister. PHOTO: AFP

The reality of that relationship, though, will be tempered by the tough economic climate.

Britain’s growth forecasts were cut this week, and living standards are not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2027-28.

“The cupboard is bare, so if Labour were to win the election there isn’t lots of money to make a difference,” Prof Travers from the London School of Economics said. “Often relationships within political parties are more challenging than those across the aisle.”

As a young lawyer, Mr Khan worked on some cases with Mr Starmer, a barrister at the time.

The mayor insisted his decision to defy Mr Starmer over a ceasefire had not caused problems between them.

“I’ve known Keir for 25 years,” he said. “There are far more things that unite us about Middle East policy than we differ on. It’s perfectly possible to disagree agreeably, we’re still best mates.”

Would he ever return to Parliament?

“No,” he said quickly. “There’s a former mayor of Denver (Wellington E Webb) who once said if the 19th century is the century of empire, the 20th century is the century of nation states, the 21st century is about cities and mayors. I’m where the action is.”

For now, he is working on keeping London together in the wake of a far-away war.

“We’ve got to remind ourselves that once this conflict is over – and it will be over – we’ve got to go back to being friends, neighbours and colleagues,” he said. “My concern is people may say things or do things that make it more difficult afterwards.” BLOOMBERG

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