In the first of a series of interviews with candidates standing in to be elected on June 8th, we speak with Gorton’s Labour candidate Afzal Khan about his campaign, his background, and why so few young people engage with politics
I meet Afzal Khan on a rainy Wednesday afternoon at his office in Hulme. He shares this office, which is part of a local Methodist church, with the local Labour Party. With election campaigning in full swing, it is a hub of activity, with phones ringing and printers whirring almost constantly. As he sits down on a sofa in the corner, Khan jokes that he might fall asleep during our interview. With his candidacy announced in late March, the current MEP has been campaigning for nearly two months.
When did you join the Labour Party? Why?
I joined mainly because I was unhappy with the councillors where I lived. They were Liberal Democrats. The thing with Lib Dems is that they’re dishonest — they’ll go to one street and promise one thing, and then promise another on the next street. I don’t have time for them. I have the Liberal Democrats to thank for me joining the Labour Party.
Was it difficult for you to become involved in politics?
I wouldn’t say it was difficult — personally, I was never really that bothered about it. Once I got going, the Lib Dems wound me up enough to continue. I have always supported the Labour Party, but I was never motivated to get involved when I was young.
Why did you decide to run for MP? Why in Gorton?
I genuinely love Manchester. I was born in Pakistan, but I was made in Manchester. From 2000-2016, I was a local councillor; in 2005, I was Lord Mayor. I’ve been involved in all kinds of things in this city, particularly in equality and education. Currently, I’m a Member of European Parliament, but I’m still based in this area. It’s almost continuity for me.
The second thing that has motivated me now is Brexit. I’m a very strong Remainer. I believe our country’s interests lie within the European Union, not outside.
The result has torn me. As an MEP, I’ve experienced first hand so many ways in which we benefit from the EU. The world is moving in one direction and this country is now moving in the opposite. Many generations will pay the price for this. The battle is in Westminster now. I feel that, with my experience, there’s something I can do. This decision was made for me.
I worked with Sir Gerald [Kaufman] for twenty years. He was a friend of mine and an amazing constituency MP. All of these things came together at the right time for me — that’s why I’m running.
What is Gorton’s biggest issue? How would you fix it?
I don’t think there’s any single issue as such. We’re not without problems though. At the heart of it, I think, is the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition and their austerity policies. Year after year, they made deeper cuts.
We all need public services, especially those who aren’t so well off. Because of these cuts, everyday little things — bin collection and the roads, for example — are issues that need to be looked at. We’ve had 2000 jobs cut in the police; as a former police officer, that is particularly worrying to me.
Education is something I’m passionate about. I was adopted, and I left school with no qualifications. I joke that I left school with nine no-levels! I went back as a mature student, doing night classes.
I want young people to have the same opportunities that I did, and education is the way to do that. The idea of having one job for life is an old one — no one can do that anymore. People will have four, five, ten jobs — I certainly have! I’ve been a labourer, a bus driver and a police officer.
Education is a foundation for many other things. In Gorton, every single school is facing cuts, totalling £2.4million. That means fewer teachers, bigger classes or fewer facilities, and none of those options are right.
Housing is another issue. When I started as a councillor in Gorton, if somebody needed a council house, we could sort it out in a couple of weeks. Now, the waiting list is a few years. I blame the Tories — it was Thatcher’s idea to sell off council houses, as well as preventing us from building more social housing.
Manchester is growing in size, but the number of council houses is shrinking. I like what Labour is offering — a million new homes, half of which will be social housing.
Everything I’ve spoken about is a basic need. It’s not right that we don’t have them at the moment. I’m sick and tired of austerity policies not working. The Tories are making the vulnerable more vulnerable, the better off even better off. That’s not what politics is about.
As an immigrant to this country, have you always felt welcome?
Honestly, yes. Having been all over the world, I think Britain is a pretty good place to be. Manchester is a very diverse place with lots of different people, and I saw all of that when I was Lord Mayor. We’re not perfect and of course there are issues, but overall the British are very accepting.
Do you feel your background has influenced your politics?
We are all products of our life experiences. Mine has been pretty tough. I was adopted [from Pakistan by a Manchester family] because of poverty. I was separated from my family, my culture and my language at a critical age [Khan was 11 at the time].
That’s why I feel so passionately about poverty and social justice — I wouldn’t have gone through that had my family not been poor. I have never been motivated by money, probably because of my childhood.
Do you have a role model?
There are loads of people I think are incredible — Nelson Mandela is an inspiration — but I’d have to say the person I look up to the most is Muhammad Ali. From a very young age, I’ve been a very big fan of his. I watched all of his fights. He was a character! He was very strong, both physically and mentally. Muhammad Ali stood up against what he thought was wrong and was willing to go to prison for that. People wrote him off in ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ but he bounced back and knocked George Foreman out.
Why do you think many young people are apathetic towards politics?
It’s a vicious circle — young people feel they are not being listened to, so they don’t vote, so they’re not listened to. I’ve been part of the campaign to lower the voting age to 16. Had young people been fully engaged, I doubt Brexit would have happened. They understand the world we are now living in better than older people. Politics affects everyone and everything — it’s very important.
You have been the Lord Mayor of Manchester and are the current MEP for the North West of England. What did you learn from these experiences? Which was more enjoyable?
Both opened up the world for me and gave me local and global connections. We tend to live our lives with tunnel vision, and both helped me to stop doing that. Being Lord Mayor was a unique privilege. I got to see so much of Manchester that I never would have seen otherwise.
I learned more in one year [about Manchester] than I’d learnt in my previous 25 years there. I knocked Nick Griffin [of the British National Party] out of office when I became MEP. That alone was worth it!
You applied for selection as Labour’s candidate in the 2012 Bradford West by-election. That election was won by George Galloway, who is now standing independently in Gorton. What do you think of him?
I used to like George Galloway… from a distance. I campaigned with him against the Iraq War. When he stood here, I started to look into him more closely. I’m not sure I’m impressed with him anymore. Why hasn’t he been able to hold a seat?
Is he trying to compete with Nigel Farage in who can lose more? The people of Bradford West put their trust in him in 2012 but he lost massively in 2015. That to me says that he’s just a showman, not a grafter. He only attended 11 per cent of his Parliament meetings — that is appalling.
I took my seat [as a councillor] from a Liberal Democrat and turned it into a safe Labour seat with 84 per cent of the vote. George Galloway has accused me of being a Blairite, even though I campaigned against Iraq and have spoken at rallies for Jeremy Corbyn!
How do you feel about Liberal Democrat candidate Jackie Pearcy’s comments about Labour? She said the party are “too busy fighting amongst themselves to provide a decent opposition”.
You already know how I feel about the Liberal Democrats! Jackie Pearcy is from a party that was willing to get into bed with the Tories and dished out millions in cuts, and she didn’t try to stop it [as a Gorton councillor]. Their nine MPs were split in the Brexit vote, so they’re hardly a united front.
The results of the last Labour leadership election were decisive; the overwhelming majority of members support Jeremy Corbyn. Since then, I think Labour has been moving in the right direction. After reading our great manifesto, I feel quite excited for our future.
How do you view the relationship between politicians and the media, especially in the current political climate?
The media undoubtedly has a role to play in politics. I value freedom of the press. However, I’m uncomfortable with how the media in this country is run.
Ownership of the media is shrinking to a very small number of people. That’s unhealthy for a country — we should have diversity in names and opinions.
My deeper issue is that our media is led by negativity. The cultural shift to pure sensationalism is doing readers and consumers more harm than good. Generally, in our society, we need to be fairer to others.