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Zarah Sultana MP: 'When I See Conservatives, I Think About All the Harm They've Caused'

The newly elected young Labour MP tearfully told us it's "devastating" looking across at the government benches.
23 January 2020, 11:00am
Zarah Sultana MP
Zarah Sultana MP 

Last week, Zarah Sultana – Labour's newly elected MP for Coventry South – decided to ignore the convention that maiden speeches in Parliament remain uncontroversial. Instead, the 26-year-old MP made something of a splash with her debut performance.

"In ten years' time," Sultana said from the benches, "at the start of the next decade, I want to look teenagers in the eye and say with pride, 'My generation faced 40 years of Thatcherism and we ended it. We faced rising racism and we defeated it. We faced a planet in peril and we saved it.' We have our work cut out, but together we can do it."

It was her assessment of recent political history that got people talking, rather than her call for a Green New Deal, her scathing comments on austerity or her attack of Boris Johnson's bigotry. Some saw it as an inspiring call to action, others (including some Labour colleagues) reckoned it was a dismissal of the Blair and Brown years of Labour in power.

I meet Sultana on Parliament's terrace a few days later. She seems unfazed by all the attention. "My point wasn't that under Blair Labour didn't do some great things in government," she explains. "I just think we need to have a bit of nuance."

Growing up in Lozells, Birmingham in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Sultana says she saw first-hand the positive changes that came with the last Labour government. "Blair oversaw Sure Start centres, the national minimum wage and council house building which changed people's lives," she says. "But at the same time we didn't see the reversal of anti-trade union laws, and we saw more privatisation. Deregulation of the city wasn't reversed; he was responsible for tuition fees, the Prevent strategy and PFI. We didn't turn our backs on neoliberalism." (Blair has said as much himself. "My job was to build on some Thatcher policies," he said in 2013.)

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When we talk about the greatest inequalities in society, Sultana says, we have to accept they didn’t just come about in the last nine years. She went to the local comp, the daughter of an immigrant from Kashmir, in an area that saw race riots and was full of deprivation. "It was only after starting sixth form at a grammar school that I realised not everyone had the same experiences growing up," she explains. "Where you come from, I realised, is what dictates your opportunities."

As we head back inside to take cover from the rain, Sultana talks about how surreal it feels to be a member of Parliament. Offices are yet to be designated to MPs, so she and her newly-appointed team are living out of lockers and working wherever they can find a table. Selected in her seat just two days after the election was called, and thrown quickly into a chaotic six-week campaign, there was never quite time for it all to sink in.

And now, with a leadership election underway, it remains unclear what part she and her views will play in the party's future. She nominated left-wing candidates Rebecca-Long Bailey for leader and Richard Burgon for deputy, and her political outlook is very much reflective of the Corbyn project.

It was while studying politics at school that she became interested in politics and activism – watching with keen interest the tuition fee debates on TV in Parliament, and the protests outside. She joined Labour in 2011 as a result, and got involved in campus campaigns and the National Union of Students. After Corbyn's successful 2015 leadership bid, she began to engage more with the party.

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So how did it feel when, watching the exit poll on the 12th of December, she realised that Labour would suffer a heavy defeat but she would still be elected? "Of course I was happy, but really sad at the same time. It was upsetting to accept we weren't getting a Jeremy Corbyn Labour government and those manifesto promises."

Over the Christmas break she took some time to contemplate – she calls it "mourning" – while trying to work out how to best focus her efforts over the next five years.

"When I look across the House and I see Boris Johnson as Prime Minister," she continues, "a guy who has called Muslim women 'bank robbers' and gay men 'tank topped bum boys'? This is a party that has caused absolute carnage in our communities. It breaks my heart." She stops for a moment. I look up – she is crying. "When I see all of these people, I think about the harm that they've caused. It feels like they got away with it, which is just devastating," she says, wiping away her tears. Sultana smiles: "Or maybe I'm just hormonal."

Another defining feature of Sultana's maiden speech was her clear commitment to anti-racism and intersectionality. "I know my Muslim brothers and sisters, my Jewish comrades, my friends in the Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities, and people of all faiths and none," she said, "are safer when we unite to defeat the far-right."

It was an important signal. During her election campaign, tweets she'd posted as a teenager came to light – one that used the word "Jew" in a derogatory way, another comparing the Holocaust to recent conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine. It made for uncomfortable reading.

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"It made me so uncomfortable too," she says. "I've been on a journey since then through the labour movement and my trade union. I've been on an anti-fascist delegation to Auschwitz, joined other Muslims and Jews in an inter-faith conference. I've learned about what language is acceptable and what is unacceptable and why."

Given Labour’s failure to tackle the issue of anti-Semitism within its ranks head on, Sultana's comments were seen as part of a wider problem during the campaign. But listening to her speak of how, since her teenage years, she has learnt about the Jewish community and its history, and of anti-racist movements, it seems clear – to me, at least – that these were comments made in ignorance and teenage immaturity.

During her campaign, Sultana spoke to Jewish students on her local campus, to members of the Jewish community in her constituency. "I just wanted to explain that I was really sorry," she tells me.

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"When I'm looking at what's happening across the world now," she continues, "the people who are targeting Jews have a similar hatred for Muslims, for LGBT people. Because that's what white supremacy is. Over years and years, I have gone on to understand this better.

"I see my liberation as directly tied to the liberation of Jewish people. And the person who was tweeting those things wouldn't have expressed a liberation in that way that I do today," she continues.

Sitting in the chamber for the first time during Prime Minister's Questions, next to Hilary Benn, Sultana had to pinch herself to believe what was happening. "It was weird – I'm used to seeing Parliament on TV," she says, "and this is a place that isn't built for people who look and sound like me." But, she says, there isn't time to waste dwelling.

"Things will pass inside here," she says. "The Tories have a huge majority. We'll have to be more organised outside Parliament to fight for workers' rights, action on climate change and helping those who need support in our local communities. And I'll be part of that, but with fewer Labour voices in here, I'll speak up for the causes that can't be forgotten. I feel a huge sense of responsibility."

@MikeSegalov / @christopherbethell