From paperboy to mayor: the Sadiq story

Yes we Khan: the Labour son of a bus driver has replaced old-Etonian Boris Johnson. © PA

Yesterday Sadiq Khan began work as the new mayor of London, and the most powerful Muslim politician in Europe. Much has been made of his humble background. Is that what won him the election?

He describes himself as ‘a Londoner’, ‘a father, ’a Muslim’, ‘a Fabian’ and ‘a long-suffering Liverpool fan’. To those labels, Sadiq Khan can now add another: mayor of London.

Khan’s victory in last week’s election made all kinds of history. It was Labour’s greatest electoral victory since 2005. His 1.3m votes gave him the largest personal mandate ever enjoyed by a British politician. And he is now the most powerful Muslim politician in the West.

Not bad for a bus driver’s son from Tooting. Indeed, Khan’s upbringing is hardly typical among politicians. Born to Pakistani immigrants, he grew up with his seven siblings in a cramped council flat. In his spare time, he worked as a paperboy and on building sites. He learned to box, and often used his skills on bullies who hurled racist abuse at his family.

Noticing his combative personality, a teacher suggested that Khan study law. Inspired, he trained as a solicitor, and ended up specialising in human rights. His clients included Babar Ahmad, who stood accused of providing material support to terrorists.

In 2005, Khan was elected MP for his home constituency of Tooting. In Parliament, he made a name for himself as a talented campaigner. He masterminded Ed Miliband’s shock victory in 2010’s Labour leadership contest. As shadow London minister, he guided the party to a strong performance in the capital in last year’s general election.

Now, three decades after taking on racist bullies in the schoolyard, Khan has won his biggest fight. On Thursday, he trounced his Conservative rival Zac Goldsmith, the Eton-educated son of a billionaire businessman.

Ironically, Khan’s humble background may have actually helped him on his way to City Hall: early on in the campaign, his team decided that his rags-to-riches story would go down well with voters, and mentioned it at every turn. Is this what won him the election?

Zero to hero

His story is inspiring, admit some. More important, though, are his political brains. Khan identified Londoners’ main concerns – transport, housing – and addressed them with clear, popular policies: the fare freeze, the ‘London living rent’ (see Q&A). He skilfully positioned himself as a centrist, embracing business and denouncing Islamic extremism. ‘Labour has to be a big tent,’ he said. His victory proves that this approach works.

True, Khan’s policies were appealing, reply others. But look at how they were presented. On his election leaflets, they were always linked back to his life story: e.g. ‘The council estate boy who’ll fix the Tory housing crisis.’ His rags-to-riches tale gives him credibility in an age when most politicians just go from riches to more riches. Therein lies his success.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to be a politician? Why, or why not?
  2. Is it acceptable to vote for a politician simply on the basis of their personality?


  1. List three jobs that you would like to have. For each, give a reason, and write one thing that you would need to change about yourself before getting that job.
  2. Identify three issues which are big where you live – it can be your constituency, city, even country. For each, suggest two new policies which address that problem.

Some People Say...

“London is the greatest city in the world.”

Sadiq Khan

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m a Londoner. What’s going to change?
Quite a lot, if Khan’s promises are to be believed. The mayor’s main policies address public transport and housing. He has vowed to freeze transport fares throughout his four-year term. Low-income tenants stand to win: a ‘living rent’ will ensure that they spend no more than a third of their salary on rent. Londoners and first-time buyers will get first dibs on new homes – tough luck, landlords.
I’m not a Londoner. Why should I care?
Because Khan’s election is also symbolically important. At a time when the likes of Donald Trump and Daesh (Islamic State) are stoking ethnic and religious divides, it’s heart-warming to see a city that is only one-eighth Muslim elect a Muslim mayor. This show of tolerance sets an example for the country – and the world.

Word Watch

The Fabian Society aims to promote socialism and support the Labour Party in the UK. Since its founding in 1884, it has had a huge influence on British politics: for example, it was instrumental in setting up the Labour Party in 1900, and in its modernisation in the 1990s.
A district in South London with large Indian and Pakistani communities.
Babar Ahmad
During the election campaign, the Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith tried hard to paint Khan as a friend of Muslim extremists. For example, he argued that Khan had helped Ahmad fight extradition to the USA. This attack backfired when Khan pointed out that Goldsmith had also supported Ahmad’s case.
Shadow London minister
In Parliament, each government minister has a counterpart – or ‘shadow’ – in the main opposition party. The shadow minister’s job is to criticise the government minister and offer alternative policies.
City Hall
The HQ of the Greater London Authority, which is led by the mayor.
Big tent
This comment was seen as a swipe at Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who is liked by Labour activists but unpopular elsewhere.

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