Nadia Whittome MP: “Many young people feel like politics is something that’s done to them”
Generation Covid: to end our week of stories, the Labour MP for Nottingham East and the “baby of the House” talks archaic institutions, the power of movements and why the UK needs an irreversible shift in wealth and power.
It’s been a tough, revelatory couple of years for Nadia Whittome to say the least.
In 2019, at just 23, she was elected as Labour MP for Nottingham East, earning her the title “Baby of the House”, the unofficial name bestowed upon the youngest member of Parliament. She paints a moving, animated portrait of her constituency.
“We’ve got an amazing cultural scene – Nottingham punches massively above its weight in terms of the arts and independent music,” she says. “Do you know Sneinton Market? It’s a big vibe. We’ve also got the new Art Exchange, a POC-led community space which is really amazing, and lots of great independent nightlife.”
Whittome’s dad moved to her home city from Punjab in the ’70s, setting up his cornershop right outside what she now calls her constituency. Talk about a full circle moment. It makes her position “all the more special, to be rooted in a place and understand what the local campaigns and problems are”. One of her constituency’s biggest problems is the fact that Nottingham has lost about £100 million in government funding a year since 2010, affecting its most vulnerable members.
In the face of that, Whittome’s doing everything she can to help her community.
Sat in her small, neat office in Westminster’s Portcullis House, directly opposite the comparatively grander Houses of Parliament in central London, Whittome’s sipping on a carton of blackcurrant Ribena – her go-to soft drink. “It’s annoying that they come in a carton, because it doesn’t do my rep any good,” she points out good-naturedly. “Baby of the House and all that… Well, as long as I’m not in public!”
So she’s warm and personable, yes, but Whittome’s political rise is down to more than relatability. Since being elected, she’s carved out a reputation for being merciless in the face of rampant inequality and government incompetence, especially over the pandemic, which began just a few months after she won her seat.
Few politicians are more acutely aware of the issues young people have faced before and during that time: Whittome cut her teeth community organising at 16, first campaigning against the bedroom tax and then in favour of migrant and workers’ rights, having witnessed the conditions many of her peers were living in at the time.
Perhaps that’s why her anti-establishment streak resonates so deeply with young voters. She’s able to get on a level with her constituents, having fiercely campaigned for climate education in schools and supported groups such as Black Lives Matter and Sisters Uncut, the latter of whom rallied against the draconian police crackdown bill last year.
What makes Whittome all the more remarkable is that she also donates around £19,000 of her £82,000 salary to charity. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister apparently complains that his £157,000 isn’t enough.
In the throes of the pandemic, Whittome went back to work at Lark Hill care home, where she worked part time while studying at Nottingham University (before deciding to drop out). She was eventually fired from Lark Hill for calling out the government on the lack of PPE provided for carers – a few months later, the trust that runs the home released a statement acknowledging PPE shortages after all.
When on-the-ground activism and politics collide, the result is someone like Nadia Whittome. To mark two years since the UK’s first lockdown, we sat down with her to find out how she helped her young constituents weather the storm, what her hopes for the future are and the best advice Diane Abbott ever gave her.
Hey Nadia! The last two years have been crazy for us all. How have you found them, both as a new, young MP working through Covid and in general?
It’s been such a baptism of fire, even outside of that two-year window. Being selected and elected… It was never expected there’d be a vacancy to be a Labour candidate for Nottingham East, much less that a grassroots, left wing, community candidate would win. Then the next day, a general election was called and, shortly after, the pandemic happened. After that, I returned to work part-time at my old workplace, Lark Hill, as a care worker. Then there was everything that happened with not having enough PPE and being very publicly sacked…
And sort of redeemed…
Yeah. On the one hand it’s the absolute honour of my life to represent my community. All I want is the absolute best for Nottingham, I want to amplify people’s voices, amplify the demands of campaigns that are growing in Nottingham. On the other hand, [Parliament] is so archaic and there have been some very strange moments.
I was in the children’s mental health debate a couple of weeks ago, and [Conservative MP for Tatton] Esther McVey stood up and was saying that the reason why children’s mental health has deteriorated is because of lockdowns, which she was against, while the opposite party was for them.
There are a few things to unpack there: lockdowns have had an impact on people’s mental health, particularly that of children and young people, but a lot of that impact could have been mitigated. We wouldn’t have even needed to have as many lockdowns if the government had acted properly in the first place.
Then there’s the point about mental health services, which have already been underfunded for the last decade or more. The conversation [in Parliament] was about parents taking time off work for their children’s mental health. My mum stopped work when I was 13, right at the beginning of the Tory coalition government, partly because of her health and partly because of mine. It was Esther McVey who cut our benefits. I was so angry!
How do you deal with things like that when they hit so close to home? Is it possible to make any immediate, meaningful change in terms of policy?
I get a lot of hope and nourishment from my community. I’m at home for half the week and in London for the rest. At home, I recalibrate. Being [in London], you see up close the flaws that these institutions have and the structural barriers to making change. I don’t have hope in those institutions changing, but I do have hope that we can change them. So I look at what’s achievable.
In the short term, we need properly funded services, to reverse benefits cuts, a proper living wage of £15 per hour, rent caps. Back in December 2019, I started working with Teach the Future, a group of school students who want climate education on the national curriculum. It’s shocking that it isn’t integrated already across the curriculum, right? So as Parliament’s youngest MP, I started working with them and eventually brought a bill for climate education to the House of Commons.
I managed to get support from the three most relevant select-committee chairs, two of whom are Conservative MPs. That’s a very achievable demand, but those are the small wins. We haven’t completely won it yet, but the education secretary went some way towards making announcements about climate education. I’m confident we can get them to go further.
So we can win those kinds of things through Parliament, while the Tories have an 80 seat majority. The long-term demand is that we need to fundamentally transform our economy. We need a Green New Deal which tackles all of these joint crises, like the climate crisis and the pandemic, the crisis of poverty and inequality, the rise of the far-right, male violence. Through more parliamentary representation, we can win more often.
In the meantime, power is held by movements rather than individual people or MPs – like the A‑Level and GCSE students who protested over their results [last summer] and took to the streets. They convinced the government to U‑turn. And there are people who also put pressure on the Labour party, like with the policing bill – it’s pretty widely known that Labour wasn’t going to wholeheartedly oppose that. People staged protests outside Scotland Yard, outside Parliament. I was very proud to be there in the crowd, supporting them.
That kind of thing is what forces change.
Do you think it’s fair to say that the pandemic has significantly politicised young people?
Yes, but I also think that young people have always been political. Our generation’s lives have been defined by insecurity, whether that’s insecure work for ourselves or our parents, insecure housing, or the cost of education. I many young people feel like politics is something that is done to them rather than something they can engage in. I certainly felt like that until I started organising in my community, but even then, you feel a lot of despair. That’s all part of activism – it’s a lifetime’s work. But also change can happen really quickly, sometimes surprisingly fast, like Jeremy Corbyn being elected as leader of the Labour party.
Did any of your young constituents approach you with experiences from the pandemic that particularly stand out?
There was a double standard we saw being used against young people, with tabloid headlines about them going out and partying, being fined. Young people I’ve spoken to in my constituency, students in particular, felt very vilified and demonised at a time where they were already experiencing their mental health plummeting. They weren’t able to access support in the community or through their university. If they were school age, they’d lost out on six months of school.
People also suffered bereavement, really close relatives dying. The trauma of that, I think, is going to be felt for a very long time by those individuals and in society. I met some young people who’d lost parents to Covid and are calling on the government to launch a public statutory inquiry. I’ve been calling for that since the beginning.
You see the real life impact that policy decisions have, and you see the institution that is making or not making those decisions. There’s an organisation in my constituency called The Wolfpack Project, which is for young people combating loneliness. I met with them during lockdown and they were telling me about the difficulties people were having. We also did a lot of work with university students.
I helped organise two big online events which saw people from education and health unions and universities themselves come to speak and answer questions, but also give practical support and advice. A lot of things that we dealt with aren’t always caused by the pandemic but were exacerbated by it, by a lack of financial support and funding for services. A lot of those are mental health cases.
Would you say mental health services are the ones that have suffered the most over this time?
I think it’s hard to say. Services across the board have been cut for over a decade and suffered again during the pandemic. I know that Young Minds did a survey which said that 67 per cent of young people thought the pandemic would have a long term, negative impact on their mental health.
What we need is ringfenced mental health funding. Mental health beds have been cut by 25 per cent. Waiting lists are extremely long and people are waiting months or even years for an appointment. That was the case when I was at school with the David Cameron government. It’s getting even worse now.
What’s something you’ve seen in the last couple of years that’s given you hope and joy?
Joy is really important. There are a couple of amazing quotes by [19th century anarchist political activist and writer] Emma Goldman about the right to joy and beautiful, radiant things. She said: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution.” I hold that in my mind.
And also, Diane Abbott once said to me: “They don’t call it the struggle for nothing.”
I think it’s about both of these things. It’s a lifetime’s work, it is a struggle, but also it’s important to nourish ourselves, not to burn out, not to lose hope. It’s been a really tough couple of years. For me, some of that has been documented in the media, taking a leave of absence for PTSD.
But there have been big moments of hope, too. Even when the government has let us down, our communities have come together and we’ve supported each other, whether through mutual aid groups or WhatsApp groups, people checking on neighbours they perhaps didn’t have a relationship with before, people volunteering to be part of the vaccination programme, rent strikers – Nottingham rent strikers mobilised and ultimately won loads of money. Grassroots campaigning for free school dinners, the GCSE and A‑Level results U‑turn. Osime Brown’s deportation was stopped and I was proud to be just a small part of that campaign.
People really banded together. There was a lot of solidarity.
What would your advice be then, for young people who feel politically helpless and homeless?
There’s so much happening. I’d encourage them to join the Labour Party, even if you don’t like it right now. This is a movement. It’s not like going into a shop and buying one type of cereal before it changes its ingredients so you don’t buy it anymore. We can change inside the party. When I joined in 2013, I was 16. I joined it because after being involved in community groups, I believed Labour was the only political party that could be a vehicle for real change. I still believe that.
I’d say get involved in a trade union – we’ve seen a third of 18- to 24-year-olds being either furloughed or laid off during the pandemic. There are community unions as well, like Acorn, the housing union for renters’ rights. There are other social movements like Black Lives Matter – that was extremely hopeful over the pandemic, as was the toppling of the Colston statue and those who did that being vindicated in the courts. Stop Cambo was another massive cause for hope. We haven’t quite stopped Cambo, but we’re closer than we ever thought we would be.
Then The Paid to pollute case highlighted all of the billions in subsidies and tax breaks the government gives to oil giants. Sisters Uncut are also great to get involved with.
What have you learned about yourself in the last two years?
I’ve had quite a lot of shit times, right from childhood. It’s made me pretty tough and I think that whatever the challenge, my resilience never ceases to surprise me. You can be soft and tough at the same time, and you don’t have to compromise one for the other. The two can coexist.
What do you think the future looks like for young people right now?
It’s only with a movement that we can achieve these wins. They’re not going to be handed to us, they’ve always been fought for and begrudgingly accepted by politicians, rather than altruistically given to us by benevolent old men. We need an irreversible shift in wealth and power from the one per cent to the 99 per cent. It’s about how our services are run at all levels.
People need to have a voice beyond simply voting in elections. They should be able to decide how their workplaces are run. And I truly believe that the planet can be left in a better state than how we found it for generations to come.