It’s the bunk bed, stupid

By Jade Azim / @JadeFrancesAzim


There are two ‘radicals’ that Sadiq Khan -the new Labour Mayor of London- is not, and one that he is.

The first ‘radical’ pushed upon him was the dog-whistle, euphemistic one that emerged from his rival’s campaign. Goldsmith and team tried to smear –clearly unsuccessfully- a liberal Muslim as an extremist. To London’s credit, this fell on deaf ears. Or rather, there were no dogs to hear it.

The second ‘radical’ pushed upon him was that of those claiming credit for the victory to Khan’s left. Despite months of accusations that he turned his back on the Labour leader – a symptom of the campaign distancing itself from the leadership in anticipation of attacks from the Conservatives- many were out to cannibalise the campaign’s victory for the agenda of defending Corbynism itself. But the radicalism of Corbynism was not what defined Khan’s platform either.

The radical that Sadiq is, is the one that I know best: the boy in a bunk bed, well beyond his age. Sadiq shared a bunk bed with his brother well into his mid-twenties. And he made something of himself. He now wants to do the same for others. That is radical. It is certainly radical to me.

A while back, I wrote a blog on ‘what radicalism means to me’:

When I was a kid, I shared a bunk bed with my brother till I was about fifteen. He was nearing eighteen […] I would go over my friends’ houses and look at their fully-decorated rooms, green with envy, and then go back home, grab a piece of paper and sketch out my dream room. This became such a mesmerising vision for me that at one point I wanted to be an interior decorator! I was so obsessed with that stupid bedroom. All I wanted at the age of fifteen was my own space to retreat to. I wanted to pin up posters and buy books like my friends did. One day, that finally became a reality. My aspiration to have my own bookshelf and lamp and carpet and bed had been fulfilled. I was ecstatic I was able to have sleepovers and do all the things I had missed out on when I was younger. I’d never been more grateful. For all those years, the most radical thing to me was having my own bedroom.

I was fortunate enough to escape the confines of a bunk bed far earlier than Sadiq, but I can still recognise the potency of that particular story. For me, radicalism meant something that for many others is not radical at all. But that doesn’t make it lesser; the goals of a working class child are exactly the goals the Labour Party should have.

Radicalism, in a leftist context, is not defined by distant abstracts; it’s highly personal and subjective, particularly for those from working class backgrounds. It starts on dinner tables and in DIY projects. It is why I personally have found myself becoming increasingly detached from Labour and its politics: it all too often has tackled issues that are simply not ‘issues’ for the people it claims to represent. Going on detours about the Falklands, or spending conferences talking about Trident. A politics of the working class, a true socialist politics, is responsive to the salient and important problems of the present. It presents to its electorate a radicalism for their lives. Presenting solutions to problems that many of us involved in politics may indeed view as moribund and mundane, but for others are imperative.

Many people are talking about Sadiq’s campaign as one that was inherently centrist. Perhaps that’s true: but he defined the centre, and he shifted it to a Labour place. Which was with the people.

The issues of housing and transport were at the centre of many Londoners’ lives. They were at the centre of Sadiq’s too. The salience of these issues does not make them any less radical: owning a home in the capital is, indeed, the most radical thing on this Earth. What Sadiq did was offer leftist solutions to these common crises to achieve the radical goals of better homes and better transport, benefitting the capital’s poor more than anyone else.

What was even more effective was that he found success by rooting them in his own experiences. His bunk bed.

He repeated this backstory with distinct discipline, a key sign of success being that the press lobbies were mocking him as the ‘son of a bus driver’. But he was clearly right to do it: people trusted in his policies being life-changing for them because they recognised his past. They recognised it just as I recognised the story of the bunk bed.

And his past –and where he is now- is a radicalism in and of itself: social mobility seems like such a far-fetched concept for many of us that seeing a council estate boy turned London mayor is a complete revelation. That is the politics of hope: seeing a success story and believing it can be repeated by yourself.

It is a vindication of those that suggest working class, and BAME, representation in Labour itself is one part of the puzzle to building our trust among a majority of the public. A relatable leader. With relatable policies they can entrust with them to deliver.

The truest Labour politics is one that responds to its voters, and earns their trust by connecting to them on the issues that are personal to them. We win when we recognise politics is personal, and radicalism is subjective. Just as Sadiq did last Thursday.

It’s the bunk bed, stupid.

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