It was Zarah Sultana’s 26th birthday on the day she was selected as the Labour candidate for Coventry South. But there was no time for cake or a party. With 2019’s snap election on the horizon and Labour close to victory in the constituency after eroding the Conservatives’ majority two years earlier, there was work to be done.
Sultana won the seat by a close margin of 401 votes, but the win was tainted. Jeremy Corbyn's Labour party lost, handing the Conservatives their biggest majority since the 1980s. She knew that things were going to be different. She could never have predicted quite how different they would be.
“As I hired staff, as I sorted out the office in Coventry, as we finally moved into an office in Westminster – just as we thought things were getting a bit more normal, then the pandemic hit,” Sultana tells me over Zoom from Coventry. “I think the most difficult thing is trying to talk to a constituent who's gone through difficulties and show emotion via a camera. In real life, there's that a human feel to it. Now you're just trying to console someone through your webcam.”
Sultana will not be the only MP whose constituents have faced unprecedented hardship over the last year. In February, UK unemployment reached its highest level in five years, with young people more likely to face job losses. Universal Credit applications have soared as those on lower incomes are hit hardest by the pandemic. The events of 2020 exaggerated inequalities that already existed in society, bringing to light many of the issues Sultana campaigned on.
“It just really, really upsets me,” she says. “It makes me really angry. What I fear is that we are entering another kind of austerity, we're just not going to use the word ‘austerity’. But when we're keeping things like a public sector pay freeze – that, essentially, is a real income cut. So, I think the language has changed, but the real life effect on people hasn't.”
Sultana, now 27, grew up in Birmingham. After the 2010 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition raised university fees, she became involved in left-wing political activism, and was elected as a member of the National Executive Council of both Young Labour and the National Union of Students while studying International Relations at university. She is the second-youngest Labour MP, after Nadia Whittome, as well as one of the few Muslim women of colour in the House of Commons. This is perhaps most notable when she sits in Parliament opposite a prime minister who called veiled Muslim women “letterboxes” and “bank robbers.”
Does Sultana ever feel patronised? “I get that from both sides, actually,” she tells me. “It's not just the Tories. Of course, there is more heckling and more personalisation that comes from that side. But I've experienced it from my side, too.”
For Sultana, it’s important to prove that breaking the conventional mould of an MP isn’t an issue. In fact, it can be a good thing. “When I first went to Parliament,” she says, “I heard stats like there are more horses on portraits than women, and I also discovered that there isn't a single canteen that gives halal or kosher food. Those were messages like, ‘Hey, you don't really belong here.’”
“I think it’s important that I don't feel comfortable [in Parliament],” she continues. “There are people who probably want to be there for a very long time and that's OK, but I see myself as someone who really wants to make a change.”
Still, she has discovered that people have certain expectations of MPs when it comes to age.
“I get that as a criticism when people say, ‘Oh, aren't you a bit too young? Have you had enough life experiences?’” she says. “I've worked in retail for four years, and I feel like I have to justify a lot of those things, where I'm like, ‘Wow, I have worked low paid jobs. Actually, I have been unemployed. Actually, I've been a student who has been affected by debt and all these issues.’”
The value placed on certain jobs has been a frequent topic of debate during the pandemic. The term “low skilled worker” – often used in reference to “points-based” Tory immigration policy – came into stark light when, at a time of national crisis, it was the bus drivers, supermarket workers and carers who put their lives at risk to provide essential services. As a result, many died.
“You know, there's a type of job that people value more than anything,” says Sultana. “If you're a carer and you've spent a long time caring, I think there will be people in politics who will tell you that you don't have that ‘real life’ experience because what they're looking for is someone who has probably worked at Deutsche Bank for ten years.”
A grounded perspective on the issues that impact many Brits, particularly those on low incomes, is how Sultana gained the trust of her constituency. From public sector cuts to a disregard for university students, Sultana’s decision to fight such issues is also why she got into politics.
“My political experience was really shaped by the free education movement in 2010,” she says. “And I feel like that fight never really stopped. The fight that we saw in 2010 for free education is literally the same fight. Now, we are seeing students who are being seen in a very extractive way by their universities. They're just seen as revenue, rather than human beings who deserve the best support welfare.”
If you haven’t heard of Sultana before, you’ve probably seen her videos on Twitter, Facebook or TikTok. Taken from her appearances in Parliament, they show her speaking on topics that range from Yemen aid cuts to violence against women. In one video, currently at over 8,000 likes on Twitter, Sultana calls for university fees to be cancelled in the 2020 academic year. Holding up her own student loan statement – a reminder of her youth and unique position in the House – she recites how much interest has been added to her loan: “It says, in the last year, interest added was £2,022.65”
“So, I ask the Secretary of State,” she continues, “can he look me in the eye and tell me that it is fair that working class kids who want an education are forced to take on this colossal debt, while his government is led by a man who went from the playing fields of Eton to a free education at Oxford?”
With 128,000 followers (not far behind some Conservative cabinet members), Sultana sees social media as an important campaign tool.
“I've got used to questions just not being answered because that's politicians politicking,” Sultana tells me. “And politics often can be a performance. I think it's still really important to ask those questions and make the minister or whoever's answering uncomfortable as they think about what I'm asking them.”
Sultana appears adept at dealing with the performance of politics but her leader, Keir Starmer, is perhaps not quite as successful. Despite the persistent failures of the Conservatives over the last year – from the billions given in private contracts to Tory party friends, to Britain’s COVID death rate and MPs refusing to feed hungry kids – Labour is not ahead in the polls. Many put this down to Starmer’s middle-of-the-road approach to politics, which has both lost young, left-wing Labour supporters and failed to appeal to enough Conservative voters.
With Labour six points behind the Conservatives according to a recent Opinium poll, does Sultana think that Starmer is doing a bad job?
She is diplomatic. “I think there were times that we should not have pushed the policies or positions that we did,” she says. “And I'm hoping that as Keir continues in his leadership that he is mindful of those things and holds the government to account.”
Sultana's assessment of Starmer’s struggle to steer the party feels prescient a week later. After police violently intervened in a peaceful vigil for Sarah Everard, Labour decided to oppose the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Previously, it was going to abstain on the vote. Sultana had already planned to oppose it.
I ask her to define Starmer’s leadership style. Sultana is slightly lost for words. “It’s a tricky one,” she laughs.
She pauses. “I would say he hasn't been critical enough. And I would say that when we've seen things, for example, clips from [Channel 4 TV show] Gogglebox, [where] people are saying, ‘We don't know what the party stands for’, or they're unable to distinguish us and the Conservatives – I think we should all be concerned.”
Despite the challenges facing her party, Sultana manages to act with ease in Parliament – a space institutionally unwelcoming to someone like her. To have been elected as an MP in her twenties, and to assume office during a pandemic is a huge feat. Does she ever just sit back and think, “Wow, this is a bit mad”?
“I think it hits me not when I'm in the chamber, not when I'm doing anything in terms of the speech or questions,” Sultana explains. “I think it really hits me when I get emails or Instagram DMs from people who are young – especially young women – and they're like, ‘I was never really interested in politics, but I came across your video and TikToks and now I'm really interested.’”
She pauses, welling up with emotion. “It's hay fever!” she jokes, wiping her eyes. “My period app told me I’m due in a few days.”
We laugh, but it’s certainly an emotional subject, especially at a time when the pandemic continues to worsen the economic divides in British society.
“That really fills me with hope,” says Sultana. “If I achieve one thing in my time as an MP, and it's showing other people who come from a working class background, who don't fit the mould of what a politician should be, to believe in themselves too, then I think that's a job well done.”