Zarah Sultana: “You won’t break my soul”

Zarah Sultana: “You won’t break my soul”
We caught up with the Labour candidate for Coventry South as she fights for re-election to talk about her first term in Parliament, the future of the country and whether football is coming home.

It’s a warm morning in Hillfields, Coventry. The square next to the area's library is surrounded by shuttered shops, and overlooked by a monolithic tower block. It’s hard to know if the shops are closed because of the time (10am) or in a more permanent fashion. Across the uneven paving slabs of the square, a man brandishing a bottle of beer who could equitably be described as “completely shitfaced” tries and fails to start a fight with a pigeon.

The area, a 10-minute walk outside the city centre, is run down. It looks and feels like so much of the country – tired after 14 years of unrelenting cuts, squeezes and crises. Forgotten for far longer. As the pigeon fighter admits defeat in his attempts to draw any potential avian sparring mates into battle, more people gather by the library.

Among them are activists from Coventry, some who came to the city -– the 18th most populous in the country – for one of its two universities. There are trade unionists, including Mick Whelan, General Secretary of the ASLEF union; people who have travelled from London, Manchester, Nottingham and more to be there, and Zarah Sultana, the woman who, until five short weeks ago, was the Member of Parliament for Coventry South and is currently campaigning to keep her seat.

Sultana was just 26 when she was elected with a 401 vote majority, ("390 until the Tories demanded a recount and found 11 more votes!") in 2019. As I detailed in our 2021 interview with the cover star of Huck 75, Zarah wasted no time standing up for both her constituents and many disaffected and left behind people the country over. Her acerbic maiden speech, in which she called out 40 years of Thatcherism, gained national attention, and the ire of both the Conservatives and the right wing of the Labour party.

After a tumultuous Parliament that took place against the backdrop of a historic pandemic, a cost of living crisis, war, Genocide and Brexit, the now 30-year-old is, like many of the same crop of MPs I speak to, still trying to catch her breath a little.

“Sometimes it feels surreal that five years have passed,” she tells me as we sit down to talk at her campaign headquarters. The office is in the Communication Workers Union (CWU) building in the city centre (“Big up [General Secretary] Dave Ward, Big up CWU”) and includes maps of the constituency pinned to the walls alongside Euros fixtures dates. A table by the door is filled with sweets and crisps, which have become a “problem” for all those working in the space, as activists, organisers and staffers run around coordinating the hundreds of people descending on the constituency campaigning to re-elect Zarah.

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“I did not see this election coming,” she tells me, “even on the day when everyone was pretty sure it was going to happen, I refused to believe it because I felt like I’d been here before. It wasn’t until I saw Rishi getting absolutely drenched in the rain with ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ playing in the background doing the worst launch ever that I thought ‘Oh shit, it’s really happening.’”

Sultana wasn’t worried though. In many ways, they had been planning for this day for years. Later, as we careen around the Coventry ring road to an afternoon canvassing session, she will excitedly tell me about the young activists who they managed to hire as organisers after crowdfunding funds a couple of years previously. The team launched the fundraiser in March 2022. Through it, Zarah raised £13,000 for Coventry Foodbank (for the first year and a half, Zarah pledged to donate a proportion of it to the foodbank) and raised enough money to hire local community organisers (as well as paying for leaflets etc) who have been in-post, learning key organising and movement skills, and reaching out to those across the constituency for years in the run-up to this moment.

Coventry is in the top 30 most deprived places in the country. One in three children in the city grow up in low-income households and almost an 1/8th of the city's entire population has used food banks since October 2021. But also encompassing two universities, the city centre and affluent spaces towards the south of the city, it’s a broad, sprawling constituency that has a complex set of needs.

“I got elected thinking I was always going to be out in the community,” Sultana explains. “That we would have all of these big town hall-style events, and make them really engaging. I wanted people to feel like their MP was super accessible, present and listening and then, a couple of months into the job, the pandemic hit. Very quickly, everything changed.”

It wasn’t just the pandemic that had a seismic impact on politics. It's safe to say that the last four years have also been a period of quite substantial change in the Labour Party. The 2019 election night resignation of left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn, the ascension of Keir Starmer and his subsequent “changing” of the Labour Party have seen the party tack towards the centre – a position far from that of Sultana, who is a member of the Socialist Campaign Group (SCG) of MPs on the left of the party.

Huck 75 Cover shoot, Dan Wilton, 2021

“My position in the party as a member of the SCG, as someone on the left, has meant that the way I relate to the party has also had to change, which has been challenging, but I’ve held my ground.”

She tells me that there are things that, “as a politician, I’m not willing to compromise on.” Whether it’s “workers’ rights, the NHS, Migrant rights, marginalised communities like those from immigrant backgrounds, the Trans community, the LGBT community, all of those communities that need solidarity in the face of division and hatred, which is whipped up by the most powerful people in the country.” It’s fair to say that Sultana has put her money where her mouth is across a variety of issues, manoeuvring inside and outside of Parliament across her first term in office to speak up and out on a whole host of different topics.

“Being able to speak up in those moments means that five years on from being elected, whatever happens in this election and going forward, I sleep knowing that I did everything I could in challenging the government and in being present in social movement spaces, because that's where I've come from. I feel proud knowing that I tried and did everything I could.”

Elections are a strange phenomenon. Outside of the very obvious frantic nature of them – particularly those called as a surprise – they also force us as a collective, and elected officials as individuals, to reckon with the period since the last grand exercise in democracy. I ask what moments, inside and out stick with Sultana.

“In terms of what we’ve been able to achieve as an office, the casework we’ve done, the thousands of emails we’ve replied to, I’m really proud of,” she tells me. “A couple of weeks ago we went to MotoFest, which is a huge annual event in Coventry, and someone came up to me whilst I was looking at these vintage cars. He said, ‘Hi, are you Zarah? Your team helped me with my case with the Home Office and you saved my life.’ I was taken aback because that’s so huge. He now works at Jaguar Land Rover and I’m just so glad. You can never really get better feedback than that.”

Of course, for every person that Sultana and her office are able to help, there are some who they cannot. We talk about what it means to be a prominent young woman of colour in politics and conversation turns to the fall of Kabul in August 2021.

“Loads of people were seeking evacuation from Afghanistan when the Taliban came back into power and it felt really heavy, because it felt like I wasn’t doing enough,” she breaks down in tears as she remembers the harrowing images of people scrambling to get help and leave the country, along with the calls for her to help constituents and their loved ones. “I remember my Mum saying to me, you are doing everything you can,” she wipes her face and tries to compose herself as she talks.

It’s moments like that, and more recently throughout the continuing horrors happening in Gaza as “pictures of kids blown up, bodies hanging on fences, headless babies, people trapped in the rubble”, that it’s easy to feel completely powerless, even as an MP. “The solutions are national. The solutions are structural, and it takes more than one office and one MP to do it particularly when you’re dealing with a political system that does not value everyone's life as equal.”

“As a woman of colour, as someone who's Muslim, as someone who cares really passionately about these things, I don't have the privilege or the luxury to kind of stay quiet because these issues that we speak up about ultimately it's about life and death,” she tells me when I ask how she deals with the pressure of the public nature of her role. “When we talk about migrants' rights, if we don't defend, for example, people's right to seek asylum, people die. When we don't speak up about the right to have a dignified benefit system, a welfare system and a strong NHS, people will die if we don't have those protections in place, and that's the way I see it. I really do see politics as serious as life and death.”

I ask how she copes under such pressure – with such responsibility how does one keep their head? One such way is her parliamentary colleagues Bell Ribeiro-Addy and Apsana Begum. The fellow ‘19ers were members of Parliament for Streatham and Poplar respectively and are also seeking re-election. Both drove up from their own campaigns to spend the afternoon in Coventry. As they arrive in a sun-drenched street near to the city’s Gosford Green during a canvassing session later in the day the trio excitedly embrace - genuine glee to see one another painted across their faces. A post-canvassing photo on the Green sees each of them give speeches to the dozens assembled detailing how much they value and rely on one another.

Outside of Parliament, Sultana finds other ways to keep herself grounded. “You've got to be able to step back when things feel really heavy,” she tells me. “I didn’t watch a lot of classic movies growing up so I’m catching up on them. I recently watched The Matrix – which was incredible – Jurassic Park, Star Wars. I grew up with the Lord of the Rings but recently went to the BFI to watch all of them back to back. There were loads of people in there and by the end it did smell a bit like the boy's P.E. room but it was amazing! I love going home, spending time with my family, eating my mum’s food, watching football.”

On the subject of football, with re-elect Zarah Sultana posters peppered along streets with Euros bunting, it’s impossible to forget this election is being fought against the backdrop of the Euros. Is it coming home I ask?

“Do you know what? I always believe it is coming home, and I think once we get past the group stages, and past the round of 16, I will fully believe it but right now, I’m watching the games and I’m a bit worried,” she tells me. “I do believe, cos it just takes a bit to get there, right? The performances haven’t been convincing but we’ve got the talent! It’s just about the delivery. Saying that, In Southgate We Trust. And also In Jude Bellingham We Trust.”

Sultana assures me that, amongst the hours spent on the streets chatting to voters, the team have found time to watch the football. What then of music? When we spoke back in 2021 we went deep on her love of BTS and Sultana followed up the interview with a set of songs in a bid to recruit me to the Army. I ask how she’s been holding up with BTS on hiatus? Her face darkens as she exhales and stretches.

“I’ve been going through it actually. It’s been really difficult,” a smile draws itself across her face. “No, we’ve obviously got Brat summer which I’m excited for. I heard that one Lorde verse which banged so hard but I actually need to sit down and listen to it. I’ve been door-knocking constantly and haven’t had time to enjoy it.”

We talk about the new Billie Eilish record “I love 'Birds of a Feather' but need to listen to it properly!”, about beefs and working it out in the remix. Over lunch, we stick Brat on as we eat and bop to it as we wolf down some food. As the interview draws to a close, with another canvassing session imminent, I ask if there’s anything that Zarah wants to touch on that we haven’t had the chance to speak about yet.

“Young people,” she answers, without hesitation. “I think about young people a lot mainly because I've got two universities in this constituency. When I get stopped in the street it is disproportionately by young people. I think politicians need to treat young people who are very passionate about a number of issues with more respect.”

We talk about the stat that only 40% of 18-34-year-olds are planning to vote and the threat that presents to democracy. “It tells you that they do not feel that the mainstream political parties are addressing their priorities or their interests. It links to apathy but also it links to questions about what we are trying to build and in whose interests we are serving, unless you inspire and encourage young people to get involved and vote it’s going to present a huge long-term issue.”

It has been a bruising five years for anyone involved in politics, but particularly for someone like Zarah: young, Muslim, a woman, outspoken and unrepentant about it. In 2021 she told me that, when she imagined her time in Parliament, the Beyoncé song “I Was Here” plays over it in her head (“I’m so embarrassing”). I ask her what Beyoncé song would sum up her first term in its entirety.

“You won’t break my soul.”

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