Zarah Sultana: I want Labour to be much bolder”

To kick off our general election coverage we sat down with the youngest Muslim MP to ever be elected to discuss Labour's future, Diane Abbott, and holding her own party to account.

Zarah Sultana is looking remarkably fresh for someone who has been door knocking in the rain all week. Calling in from campaign HQ inside Coventry’s Communication Workers Union office, she apologises for the chaos as her team prepares outside for another day of canvassing ahead of the general election.

Like many, the snap election took Zarah by surprise, but she’d been preparing in advance anyway, so it’s not completely chaotic. Though there are a lot of things that need to be done before 4th July,” she adds, eyes widening slightly as she glances at the date on her laptop screen.

And although the most followed British politician on TikTok has received a flood of racist and misogynistic online abuse since the beginning of her career, nothing has stopped Zarah, 30, from pursuing the topics she feels the most strongly about – even if it means defying her own party.

From the very beginning, she’s been insistent on fighting for what she believes in. In her first question in parliament in 2020, she brandished her student loan, challenging the Tories on colossal student debts” and asking then PM Boris Johnson why she and so many of her peers had to suffer, while a man born into privilege continued to perpetuate inequality. Since then, Zarah has also co-sponsored a Green New Deal, campaigned for free school meals, and rebelled against her party in calling for an immediate ceasefire to the fighting in Gaza at the start of the conflict.

Born in the West Midlands, the politician and self-confessed ARMY (BTS fan) first became involved in politics at the University of Birmingham, when the Cameron – Clegg coalition’s decision to triple tuition fees drove her to join the Labour party in 2010. As she wrote in Gal-Dem in 2020: When I thought about politics, this is what I knew: illegal war, deindustrialisation, austerity and defeat.” Zarah’s career began soon after when, in 2011, she was elected onto the National Union of Students, with nearly £50,000 of student debt hanging over her head. In 2019, at the age of just 26, she was voted in as the backbench MP for Coventry South.

As Labour moves firmly towards the centre ground in the run-up to the General Election, the party’s candidate for Coventry South has made it her mission to hold both the opposition and her own party to account. Not only for fellow Labour voters from the left of the party, but for her own conscience.

Hi, Zarah. We’re getting close to the election and Labour’s polling firmly in the lead. If the party comes to power, how will it overcome the challenge of cleaning up after the Tories?

It’s no secret that I’m from a very different wing of the Labour party to Keir [Starmer] and I want the Labour party to be much bolder than what we’ve seen so far. I have often said that we need to take inspiration from the 1945 Labour government when the country was rebuilding from the war – its answers at that time weren’t to just tinker around the edges. Communities and trade unions demanded transformative change. That’s where we got the welfare state, the NHS, mass council house building programmes and redistributed wealth from. I want our Labour policy today to seek inspiration from that. Inequality is so stark and visceral in our communities because of the extent to which public services have been decimated.

So I want the party to adopt bold policies, such as scrapping the two child limit that would immediately lift 300,000 children out of poverty, looking at the minimum wage, reversing all anti-trade union laws that have come in from Thatcher and since, and free school meals for all – universality is a core principle here.

You’ve received a huge amount of online abuse since you were elected in 2019. What makes you carry on as a politician?

I was the youngest Muslim to ever be elected and I saw a responsibility to speak up for issues that affect young people. We know that young people have been completely and utterly failed by the political system: insecure jobs, rising rents, climate chaos, mounting student debt. So for me, I’m just very conscious of the fact that there are very few young people in parliament. In parliament, I’m constantly having to show my pass, much more than my white counterparts. I’ve even been confused for being a member of the house services and I think that speaks to how underrepresented young women of colour are within the institution.

But what keeps me going is remembering why I’m in politics in the first place, and that is because I’ve seen what austerity has done to our communities: the libraries that I went to growing up are closed, the teachers that taught me are now struggling more than ever, people are finding it impossible to get the health care they need and so having this platform is a role, responsibility and duty that I am very honoured to have.

And you see the impact. A couple of days ago I was in Superdrug and two women of colour stopped me to say that they watch what I put out on TikTok and how they can relate to someone in Parliament – being told that you offer hope is incredible. There’s nothing quite like it.

I think at every point I stay true to my principles and my beliefs, knowing that millions of people also share them. And whilst it’s been difficult being one of the most rebellious Labour MPs in the last parliament, it’s been so worth it.

I wonder what 16-year-old Zarah would make of me. Would she be incredibly pissed off? Or would she think, actually, you’ve held your ground?”

I guess you’re not really a pick your battles kind of person, right?

I think it’s because I’ve grown up seeing politicians make decisions that have really upset me and I’ve questioned whose interests they were in. When I think about the Iraq war, or austerity, or the policies that allowed a hostile environment to exist for migrants, I think of politicians actively making those decisions when they vote. And I wonder what 16-year-old Zarah would make of me. Would she be incredibly pissed off? Or would she think, actually, you’ve held your ground.

There was a young protester at the Labour manifesto launch recently who told Keir Starmer his plans were the same as the Tories. If it were you standing on the podium, what do you think you would have said to her?

I would have said that young people deserve to feel like they’ve been heard, that they’re not this tokenistic extra that we just think about when we need our pictures to look more exciting – young people have always been on top of the most pressing political issues.

We know that the climate crisis is the existential threat we face, particularly for young people, and that’s why for me, it was the central focus of my very first maiden speech in Parliament. Everyone knows the scale of the challenge but it takes a bold and radical government because if we don’t have the policies that create those millions of sustainable jobs to tackle poverty and inequality, I deeply worry about what others on the right will do around eco-fascist policies. I think the future can be quite scary. We’re seeing the political success of the far right in Europe and we’re not too far away from that ourselves. People often think we don’t have our Le Pen or Orbán figures in the UK but we do. We’ve had Boris Johnson, Suella Braverman, Nigel Farage and Rishi Sunak himself has also really stoked this sense of division too.

We have to offer a politics of hope, a politics of solidarity and a politics of actually investing in our communities”

If Labour came to power, how would they keep the rise of Reform at bay?

It’s frightening that Reform are polling higher than the Tories but that doesn’t surprise me because the Tories have veered so much further towards the right themselves. The way that Labour has to deal with that narrative is by making the case against what they’re saying. So when they blame migrants or trans people or Muslims, we have to say, this is not the root cause. The reason why you can’t get a doctor’s appointment or council housing is because of political decisions that have been made by consecutive Tory governments and we will do our best to try and undo a lot of that hatred and division.

I look at the last Biden-Trump election and I can see that people need change, otherwise they’ll go for Trump again who will come back with even more viciousness. So I think we have to look at what’s happening elsewhere in the world and offer a politics of hope, a politics of solidarity and a politics of actually investing in our communities.

And take the US as a warning…

Absolutely. The election isn’t the one to worry about in very many ways. Unless the polls are wildly inaccurate, the Labour Party will be in government. But you have to be thinking about the election after that and then the next election. And that’s why you can’t just blame the Tories and say, well, we’ve inherited a really terrible financial situation. That is completely true but that’s not going to hold up for long before people expect a change to happen and for them to feel that in their lives and communities.

There are so many people who look up to you as a politician. Who are the people that you look up to?

For me politically, it is people like Diane Abbott. I think of what she has and continues to go through and how she holds her head up and continues to persevere. It’s not easy when you’ve gone from being the first black woman MP to still being treated in a way that has to be called out, including the way she’s been treated by the Labour Party.

I just think she’s incredible. I often go to her and say, I don’t know how you do it, this is really challenging and she just tells us: there are more women of colour than when she first got elected in 87 and that is already a huge sign of progress. We’ve got each other and we just have to get through it because it’s not about us as individuals, it’s about the causes that we care about and the communities we represent. So that for me is something that I continue to derive inspiration from and she’s someone I continuously look up to.

Another inspiration is my granddad who worked in the West Midlands factories. I don’t think he could have ever imagined his granddaughter being an MP. So when I think of that migratory family history and the challenges they faced it’s massively inspirational and grounding at the same time.

I see myself as someone who will continue to hold a Labour government to account”

Some young voters have been disappointed with Labour’s stance on Gaza. How have you come to terms with the leadership’s choices and what would you say to those young voters?

I have found it incredibly difficult. I have been in meetings where I’ve tried to make the case that not only is having an ethical, morally correct position on Gaza the right thing to do, but an electorally right thing to do as well because young people, ethnic minority communities and progressive voters are outraged at what they are seeing. They are seeing more than 35,000 Palestinians being killed and they are watching this on their phones. They have seen the ICJ say that Israel is plausibly in breach of the Genocide Convention and so when I look at Parliament and all of our political parties, including the Labour Party, I think we have to do so much more because there is an aspect of complicity in all of this and what makes it utterly horrifying is that our government has been aiding and abetting in these crimes.

We know that British made weapons are being used in Gaza. The government is still licensing arms to Israel and it goes against all of our moral and legal obligations. Young people see a government that says, Oh, the violence must end, the death must end: and at the same time, they are not condemning in the strongest words what’s happening and are continuing to licence arms sales.

So I think people recognise that and for me, when I speak to young people who think the Labour Party has not been in the right place, I say that we’ve been able to move the Labour Party into a better position. The Labour Party is now advocating for an immediate ceasefire – that was not the case back in February but there’s still so much more work to be done.

And I see myself as someone who will continue to hold a Labour government to account. There needs to be more voices in parliament that are highlighting our complicity and advocating for a world where the UK adopts a position of pursuing peace and justice, rather than fanning the flames of war, which is often what parliament feels like.

A lot of young people are choosing between voting Green and Labour. Why should they stick with Labour?

The argument that I make is that the Labour Party is going to be in government. And if you look at Parliament, and the people that are speaking up about these issues, not just Gaza, but on public ownership, renters rights, investing in our NHS and getting rid of privatisation, you will find the same MPs often are the ones speaking about these issues and that tradition has always existed within the Labour Party. I’m fully aware that Labour will have its own set of challenges. But I think it allows us to have an opportunity that we haven’t had for 14 years.

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