Zarah Sultana is shaking up left wing politics
Youth activist Athian Akec sits down with the trailblazing 26-year-old MP holding the Tories to account.
Zarah Sultana is blazing a trail in Parliament. The 26 year old Labour MP is making a name for herself as a radical, left-wing voice holding Boris Johnson and the Conservatives to account on everything from knife crime to the climate crisis - and since the Coronavirus pandemic has demanded the government provide support for the self employed, suspend rent payments and make the social security system a real safety net. In a sea of news clogging our social media feeds, dominated by the Labour leadership election and Coronavirus panic buying, her first speech in parliament calling for “an international Green New Deal to transition from disaster capitalism to a new society created on the principles of equality, freedom and justice” quickly made a splash gaining over 700,000 views on Twitter.
The Coventry MP, whose grandfather moved to Britain from Kashmir in Pakistan in the 1960’s, describes her upbringing as one in an area “in inner-city Birmingham where there's low employment, rich community and a great sense of community spirit.” Although she's now a beacon for politically engaged young people, this wasn't always the case. In fact, when she was younger Zarah said she felt disillusioned and disconnected from the political system. "When I looked into Parliament I could just see politicians who were more than happy to throw refugees, migrants and asylum seekers under the bus," she says. "It just looked like, a bunch of people who blame knife crime on black culture”.
But within that landscape there were moments of hope, moments where politicians connected with her and inspired her to try to make a difference herself. "I was inspired when Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader," Zarah tells me. "It showed me that things could be different. That we don’t have to pander to anti-immigration rhetoric”. But with Corbyn ousted and a new leadership under Keir Starmer, the young MP is also keen for her party to keep their messaging clear. "Labour must never peddle racist myths about immigration," she says firmly. "it's not migrants who are running down wages. It's not migrants who are dodging tax."
If the rhetoric is powerful, then that's the point. In her first speech to Parliament Zarah made it crystal clear how her background affected her work as an MP: siding with those who face the brunt of this government’s policies. "I am a working class Muslim woman," she said in an emotional speech that was shared widely on social media, "and I know that the Bullingdon boys will never be on my side or on the side of the shop stewards in Coventry, the cleaners in Carlisle, the migrant workers in Manchester or the teachers in Tottenham”. It was an introduction for the world to who Zarah is as a politician and a citizen; one that represents, and embodies, the radical left wing politics of a generation who faced underfunded schools, insecure housing and rising tuition fees.
Zarah believes that part of bringing about change in the country is changing the face of Parliament. Far from the detached Bullingdon boy stereotype that permeates British politics, she believes MPs need to be “rooted in community”, especially when it comes to issues like knife crime. “It’s not about MPs being like 'this is what your community needs'," the 26-year-old says. "It’s more about the listening to the community and the people affected actually saying these are our issues and how they can be solved”.
“More people from ethnic minority and working class backgrounds should enter parliament to challenge people who make policies and have political power and hold them to account”. Zarah’s journey into politics, however, hasn’t always been plain sailing: after becoming a parliamentary candidate she was forced to apologise for tweets she made as a teenager, including one that used the word "Jew" in a derogatory way. Rather than shying away from her past mistakes, the politician faced up to them head on. Reflecting, in a previous VICE profile, she said "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."
Zarah, in her short time in Parliament, has also gained a reputation for shining a light on how businesses lobby MPs. Far away from the eyes of the public, Heathrow airport, who for long have lobbied government for a third runway, are sending MPs gifts, in what one Conservative MP said is an attempt to win over “swing votes''. In response to a package sent to her by Google - who despite making a £1.4 billion profit last year only paid £65 million in tax - Zarah tweeted “thanks for your gifts Google, but i’d rather you paid your fair share of tax”.
MP’s are often described as being totally disconnected from the issues affecting voters. In the current Parliament, while only 7% of people have been privately educated, those who attended fee paying schools are vastly over-represented at 24%. Zarah couldn’t be more different. Aside from attending a state school Zarah has faced issues that are debated in Parliament in real life. As such they exist not in an abstract way, not just as an ideology to be debated. “Knife crime is something I’m familiar with in particular," she notes. "People I went to school are no longer alive because of it”.
Zarah is frustrated at the government’s handling of the knife crime epidemic - which has spiked in the last few years with 44,000 incidents reported between June 2018 and June 2019 - which focuses almost only on increasing stop and search. She believes it's a racist, inefficient, policy. The statistics lay bare the extent to which this is true, with Black people 40 times more likely to be stopped-and-searched than their white peers. "Police resources aren’t the only answer," she says. "We need a public health approach”.
The Liverpool supporter’s political inspirations are socialist through and through. "When I think of my political inspirations in the UK I have to fall back on people like Dianne Abbott," Zarah says. "There was a time when she was the only black woman MP. And now when we look at the progress that's been made and she’s been fighting racism and all these structural barriers for 30 years and has held true to socialist principles. I can only stand in awe. And then there are people like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Ilhan -- the new generation of socialist politicians, the ones who have made politics exciting and real again."
Zarah Sultana is a name you’ll be hearing a lot in 2020. As the climate crisis reaches a tipping point, knife crime continues to rise, and the demand for radical voices grows, the marginalised, along with all those who sit at the sharp end of this government’s policies, will turn to politicians like her to represent their interests.
I’m 17 - the challenges facing my generation are profound. Our schools are being underfunded, our housing is insecure and over the horizon is the existential threat of climate change. Parliament has to reflect us all. Those of us from working class backgrounds all across the country should have political representatives who can identify with the struggles we live with and know how they can be solved. We urgently need a Green New Deal, to tackle the climate crisis, the end of austerity, to end the needless suffering of too many and investment in public services, to restore our social safety net. Without the presence of progressive politicians that won’t happen.