His critics say he is overly fond of photo opportunities and flip-flops on key issues. His fans applaud his stance on air pollution and Remain. Either way, when Sadiq Khan became mayor of London three years ago, even he wasn't prepared for the amount of racial abuse he now receives. Rachel Sylvester of The Times reports.

When Sadiq Khan's father arrived in Britain from Pakistan in 1968, there were signs in pubs and boarding houses saying "No blacks, no Irish, no dogs". As a boy, the London mayor was called a "P***" and learnt to box so he could defend himself against racist bullies. In recent years, though, the prejudice has not only intensified, it has also evolved, and he now receives a torrent of Islamophobic abuse. "When I was growing up it was all about race. What's happened over the past 20 years is religion has become more of a factor," he tells me. "You will see the far right not talking about ethnicity so much as talking about faith. We've got to be vigilant. I worry about us being complacent. We mustn't assume that the curve of progress always goes one way. There are regressive forces at play."

The first Muslim elected mayor of a Western capital is inundated with vile letters, emails and tweets that come pouring into his office every day. In one 3-month period last year, City Hall reported 17 people to the police and there were 65 examples of hate speech received through the post or on email, as well as 237 threats on official social media accounts. Some of the content is so disturbing that his staff are offered counselling to help them deal with the impact of what they read. "It can be deeply upsetting if you're somebody who's been hired to work in the public liaison unit to open letters," he says.

There are not just verbal insults. Three years after he was elected with the biggest personal mandate of any politician in British history, the mayor receives so many threats to his security that – unlike either of his predecessors – he has round-the-clock police protection. On one occasion, a far-right group brought a gallows to an event he was speaking at. Both the Christchurch mosque shooter and the Finsbury Park attacker referred to him by name. "It happens on a regular basis," he says.

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Khan has always been reluctant to highlight discrimination, because he does not want to be seen as a victim, but he says the level of aggression has escalated so dramatically over the past couple of years that he has decided to speak out. "I don't want to use the race or religion card, but I'm going to talk about it because there are now people going from name-calling, trolling and threats to terrorism," he says. "I will not be cowed or bullied by these people, but you can't escape the fact that those close to me are worried. It can't be right that one of the consequences of me being the mayor of London and a Muslim in public life is that I have police protection. Is that the price you should have to pay? What sort of message does it send to [members of] my children's generation who want to get into politics?"

We meet in the mayor's office at City Hall, which has stunning views overlooking the River Thames. Boris Johnson had a bust of Pericles in pride of place, but Khan has a giant photograph of Muhammad Ali and a model of a red London bus – "I'm not sure if you know this, but I'm the son of a bus driver," he jokes. There is a Pride banner on his desk and the walls are lined with artworks commissioned following the Brexit vote. One poster reads "London Is Open"; another is made up of street names in the capital – India Street, Brussels Road, Morocco Street. "We put them up in Tube stations after the referendum to reassure people that we are still going to be pluralistic and open-minded," says the mayor. Khan campaigned to Remain and, like the city he represents, is fiercely anti-Brexit.

When he was elected, a month before the EU referendum, London was still basking in the optimism of the 2012 Olympics and the Labour moderate came to symbolise a mood of tolerance and pragmatism. "The sense of pride my family had was not that their boy became the mayor of London but that people had voted for somebody who is Muslim at a time when my religion has got a bad rep," he says.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan high-fives revellers lining Regents Street during Pride in London parade. Photo / Getty Images
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan high-fives revellers lining Regents Street during Pride in London parade. Photo / Getty Images

Since then, however, the capital has been hit by multiple terrorist attacks, the Grenfell Tower fire and a worrying surge in knife crime amongst young Londoners. On the day we met another 15-year-old schoolboy was stabbed to death. At the same time, liberal metropolitan London has become a growing source of resentment outside the capital. "There is a disconnect between London and the rest of the country," the mayor admits. "Part of it is justified – we have been quite arrogant as a city in the sense of, 'You should be happy with the crumbs we give you ...' But we don't make the country more equal by making London poorer."

Politics has also become darker and more divisive. Khan is convinced that Brexit is partly to blame for the increasingly angry mood. "There's been a rise in Islamophobia, antisemitism, homophobia. I wouldn't want to blame those who voted to leave the EU ... But there is a link between the referendum happening and there being a spike in hate crime," he says. "The referendum campaign allowed things to come to the surface and normalised things that should not be normalised ... People have got the impression, wrongly, that it's OK to use the p-word or the n-word or the y-word when it comes to Asians, black or Jewish people. It starts with name-calling; it can lead to criminal damage and graffiti [and] ultimately to the situation where Jo Cox is murdered or a terrorist can come to London and try to divide communities."

What worries him is that mainstream politicians are beginning to legitimise extremists. "Public discourse is important," the mayor says, pointing to Boris Johnson's comments about the burkha. "When you've got somebody who held this office and was the foreign secretary calling women who are law-abiding, peaceful Londoners bank robbers and comparing the clothes they wear to letterboxes, it normalises a view that should be on the periphery and it gives permission to people who are on the fringes. It ain't just Tommy Robinson using this language now, or having these views – it's people in mainstream politics." Although he describes Sajid Javid (another son of a Pakistani bus driver) as a friend, he was appalled by the home secretary's tweet describing a sexual grooming gang as "sick Asian paedophiles". "I think he got that really wrong. We've got to be very careful about making generalisations based on ethnicity ... It plays into the far-right agenda. Don't be surprised if the far-right use the home secretary's words on leaflets as propaganda."

Sadiq Khan, Theresa May and Sajid Javid on the first anniversary of the London Bridge terrorist attack. Photo / Getty Images
Sadiq Khan, Theresa May and Sajid Javid on the first anniversary of the London Bridge terrorist attack. Photo / Getty Images

The Conservative Party's "dog whistle" mayoral campaign in 2016 – described by Labour MP Yvette Cooper at the time as a "full-blown racist scream" – backfired but Khan has never received an apology from his rival Zac Goldsmith. "Others who are experts in elections were quite clear it was an Islamophobic campaign, but you can't simply blame the candidate or those responsible for the strategy. Theresa May said I was 'unsafe' to run London at a time of heightened terrorist threats. She's now the prime minister; she's never apologised for it, never resiled from those views."

Khan speaks calmly, never once raising his voice, but he is clearly angry. Occasionally, he bangs the table with his hand to emphasise a point. "I've got very good friends who are Conservative – it's not true to say we've just got to live with our own tribe and not mix. But there are rules of engagement: they should be Marquess of Queensberry, but what's happened now is they're Fight Club. And that's a slippery slope because there are no rules."

The way in which the Conservative Party has failed to deal with allegations of Islamophobia "is a worry", he says. "If you look at the definition of institutional racism, it's unwitting prejudice that is demonstrated by the policies and the views." But Labour, he insists, also has "serious questions" to answer on antisemitism. "These are two great parties that have done amazing things in relation to racism and inequality – what sort of message does that send out? Don't be surprised if both parties are utterly smashed in the European elections."

Khan has never been close to Jeremy Corbyn. A few years ago, he was described as "hostile" in a briefing note written by the Labour leader's allies and he has deliberately distanced himself from the national party. "It breaks my heart that my party is perceived by Jewish friends of mine as being antisemitic. It upsets me deeply that a party I joined because of its anti-racist credentials is seen as a racist party. If you're antisemitic you are racist; we can't have a hierarchy of racism. Racism is racism."

He was shocked to learn that Corbyn had written a foreword to an antisemitic book. "It gives an impression to Jewish people that the Labour leadership has a blind spot when it comes to antisemitism, that they will take a stand when it comes to racism against people of colour, Islamophobia or homophobia, but antisemitism is not as serious," he says. "I can't escape the fact that the Labour leadership has been poor – and I'm being generous – at dealing with very serious allegations of antisemitism. It's got to come from the top. You've got to exert moral authority."

That is not, in his view, something Donald Trump has ever shown. The US president accused the London mayor of doing a "terrible job", tweeting after the London Bridge atrocity, "At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and mayor of London says there is 'no reason to be alarmed!' "

"He singled me out. He didn't single out the mayor of Paris or Brussels or Manchester or New York or Boston after they had had terrorist attacks in their cities – the obvious question is, why?" Khan says. "What's the difference between me and them?" He hates the idea of a Trump state visit. "When I think about the list of things that we as a country disagree with Donald Trump about – whether it's his views on Muslims, his views on immigration, his views on women, his views on aid – the idea that we have the red carpet being rolled out and a state banquet is objectionable."

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and Sir Mo Farah with east London schoolchildren running the daily mile. Photo / Getty Images
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and Sir Mo Farah with east London schoolchildren running the daily mile. Photo / Getty Images

Khan has always been a political street fighter. With six brothers and one sister, he was used to jostling with his siblings for his parents' attention and admits he is "very competitive". Educated at state school, he had a Saturday job on a building site and still lives in Tooting, around the corner from the estate where he grew up. "My dad would work all the hours God sends driving the buses. My mum, in addition to raising the children, would do piece work sewing clothes – you'd get 50p a dress. We had hand-me-down clothes with patches on the knees. We didn't realise there was a thing called foreign holidays. But we never felt poor. I can't remember going hungry, except when I was fasting. There was no poverty of aspiration; my parents instilled in us a confidence that you can do anything."

Married to a solicitor, Saadiya, Khan was a human rights lawyer before standing for parliament in 2005 and becoming a minister under Gordon Brown. Having been close to Ed Miliband, he nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership, but voted for Andy Burnham in the 2015 election, then backed Owen Smith in 2016. Burnham, now the mayor of Greater Manchester, describes Khan as "an everyman politician. He's as comfortable in the boardroom as on the football terraces, in Liverpool as in London, in a church or synagogue as in the mosque." Having worked with him in government and now as mayor, he says, "There's always been a toughness to Sadiq, a streetwise quality, a slight edge. He's never been anyone's mug. His family faced challenges and there's a strength to him that's impressive."

Critics say he is more interested in photo opportunities than action. Boris Johnson once referred to him as "#uselessSadiq". He is sometimes accused of being a flip-flopper – he has been both for and against the third runway at Heathrow, and backed then scrapped the Thames garden bridge. One Labour MP says, "He's been a big disappointment. I voted for him and he's not using the London job in the way he should. He's too cautious." The Crossrail project has been beset by delays and the mayor has been criticised for failing to meet targets for building affordable homes.

While his predecessor has bikes and buses named after him, Khan's most eye-catching initiative has been designed to improve air quality in the capital, with drivers of older, more polluting vehicles charged to enter central London at any time. He knows first hand how dangerous pollution can be, having been diagnosed with adult onset asthma five years ago. "I'm 48 and I have quite a healthy lifestyle, but when I trained for the marathon I started feeling wheezy. If we were living in the Fifties we would see the smog, but you can't see this stuff. It's an invisible killer. Children will have smaller lungs, they will be underdeveloped and stunted; adults can get a whole host of health issues from asthma to dementia, heart disease [and] cancer linked to the poor-quality air. There's a public health emergency."

Greta Thunberg is, he says, a "hero" and if his daughters, who are now 19 and 17, had been younger he would have let them join the climate strikes. But he thinks the Extinction Rebellion protesters went too far. "The idea that you target public transport, which is arguably the greenest form of travel, is counterproductive. I don't think it's constructive to stop emergency vehicles crossing bridges. I would rather people be citizens than consumers, but we were worried about the fact that we'd got officers doing 12-hour shifts in the centre of London, being moved from Marble Arch to Parliament Square, when I would have liked them to have been policing communities with high knife crime."

The mayor's opponents say he has not done enough to stem the spiralling street violence. He was criticised when he suggested it could take ten years to turn the problem around, but he doesn't regret saying this. "Dealing with the root causes, you can't do that overnight. We need to be honest with people." He says he is doing all he can with the resources he has, but he admits he fears for his own children's safety and won't go to bed until they are home at night. "We've had, a stone's throw from my house, a young person who lost his life because of knife crime. I was at my mum's house two weekends ago – there was a stabbing on her road. It affects me personally." He writes to the families of every victim of a violent crime in a public space offering to meet with them. "These are families who will never be the same."

The police, he says, must be more confident about using stop and search powers, with body-worn cameras used to reassure the public. "When I was growing up, my mates would routinely be stopped and searched. It wasn't always courteous; it was often aggressive. And I think that tempered a generation of black and minority ethnic Londoners' views of the police, which is unhelpful," he says.

Sadiq Khan and wife Saadiya Khan. Photo / Getty Images
Sadiq Khan and wife Saadiya Khan. Photo / Getty Images

He insists, though, that the city will never "arrest" its way out of the knife-crime crisis. "There are complex reasons for the increase in violent crime, from poverty to social alienation and lack of opportunities. There are real issues around mental health and school exclusions." He has set up a violence reduction unit which aims to bring together police with teachers, doctors and social workers. "The police are like the accident and emergency department – you have to stop people ending up there."

The mayor draws a parallel between efforts to prevent radicalisation and attempts to divert young people away from crime. "We've seen schoolgirls in London going to Syria to become brides of terrorists. With knife crime, too, we've got to make sure young people are resilient." As a Muslim father, Khan admits he is anxious about the influences on his daughters. "You can be somebody who is integrated and a Londoner but brainwashed in your bedroom through the internet. So as a parent, in addition to all the other concerns we've got in relation to doing well at school, body image, being groomed in a sexual way or picking up a knife and joining a criminal gang, you also worry about are they going to be radicalised or groomed in an Islamist terrorist way."

He is constantly fearful of another terrorist attack. There has, he says, been a "shift not a spike" in the threat. "We've got to be ready and vigilant all the time." Privately, many Labour MPs admit that they do not trust Corbyn on national security and would prefer never to see him in No 10. Khan disagrees. "Of course I want him to be prime minister," he says, but there is an important caveat. "Since I became mayor I've been surrounded by really good advice not just from the police but also from the security services [and] counterterror experts. What I hope is any leader, when they get the top job, takes on board that advice."

Sadiq Khan with his We are all Londoners bus. Photo / Getty Images
Sadiq Khan with his We are all Londoners bus. Photo / Getty Images

That's unlikely to happen on the economy. Some wealthy people are already making plans to leave the capital in the event of a Labour victory. Khan – who has tried to position himself as "the most pro-business mayor the city has ever seen" – strikes a markedly different tone on economic policy from the national party. Although the Labour leader has said the "super-rich are on borrowed time", Khan insists, "I don't think wealth is bad, not at all. It's really important to recognise the massive contribution made to our city over hundreds of years by people who are wealthy. But you've got to make sure everyone plays by the rules, whether they're Uber or a plumber in south London."

On Brexit, he disagrees with Corbyn's policy of constructive ambiguity and wants to see a second referendum on any deal. "There are lots of things the Labour government did between 1997 and 2010 that I was extremely proud of, but the big things that we got wrong – the Iraq war and not building enough council homes, for example – were all things where the Labour Party membership was in a different place to the leadership. Any leader should listen to what their members are saying. On this issue, eight out of ten Labour members are in favour of the British public having a final say."

Would he ever consider defecting to Change UK? Although he is close to many of those who left Labour to form the Independent Group ("A lot of them are mates"), he says no.

Some see him as a potential leader but he insists he has no desire to go back to Westminster. What he really wants is a second term as London mayor in 2020. "The joke I've said so many times that people have started to believe it is, I intend to be there for the next eight terms," he says. "People have always said to me, 'You can't do stuff. You'll never become a lawyer. You'll never become a partner. You'll never become an MP. You're never going to beat Zac Goldsmith.' The famous phrase in my family is 'head up, chin down'. You're always going to get somebody having a pop at you and it's about having resilience. One of the things I've tried do as mayor is say to people [like me], 'If I can do it, so can you.'"