At just 27 years old, the MP for Coventry South has established herself as one of the British Left’s next great hopes. But how did she arrive here?
Elected in 2019 at the age of just 26, the MP for Coventry South has spent her short time in Parliament establishing herself as one of the British Left’s next great hopes, standing tall as a frequent and vocal scourge of the status quo. But how did she arrive here?
As December 2020 rumbled into view, Twitter was abound with people sharing their end-of-year stats from Spotify. Labour MP Zarah Sultana was no different. She posted a screenshot of her most-played artists, along with the caption: “It is what it is innit.” The graphic that accompanied the tweet painted quite the picture.
At number four of her top five sat Lewis Capaldi. An embarrassing entry for a middle- aged suburban mum, let alone a 27-year-old woman. Next was One Direction, a band popular with 12-year-olds a decade previously. Placed above them was Taylor Swift, a woman who – in my humble opinion – had a standout year and represented an honourable addition to the list. But beating her to number one spot was Korean boy band BTS. People responded to the tweet with gentle digs. “You’re so basic I love it,” read one. Another, slightly less forgiving, noted: “Your politics over your music then.”
A couple of months later, I sat down with Zarah over Zoom. I started the call with the intention of talking cold politics, but arrived swiftly at the subject of music. For Zarah, though, there is a key link between the two. “We have to be unashamedly us!” she says, referring to her Spotify list. “I think that is a radical act. Capitalism profits on our insecurities. My whole algorithm is telling me to get a nose job or a lip filler and actually, it’s really radical embracing myself – and equally embracing my music taste.”
It is what it is innit 😌 pic.twitter.com/UejcKcGfk3
— Zarah Sultana MP (@zarahsultana) December 2, 2020
A little later, I dropped her a text asking for some BTS recommendations so that I could expand my musical horizons. She responded with an exhaustive list of tracks (including deep cuts, covers, and songs from members’ solo projects), along with a brief explanation as to why each one was important to her. She finished her message with a determined sign-off: “I’m not prepared for any other situation than you joining the BTS army.” It was the kind of text you expect from a close friend when you finally show interest in a band they’ve been banging on about for an eternity. The kind of text, I think, that says a lot about who Zarah Sultana is; how she thinks and operates.
Elected in 2019, Zarah was part of a small intake of new Labour MPs in what was a disastrous showing for the party. She, along with the likes of Nadia Whittome, Charlotte Nichols, Olivia Blake and, from the Tories, Dehenna Davison, make up the few members of Parliament born in the 1990s. In a short space of time, she’s established herself as one of the most recognisable and prominent voices on the left of the party – and for good reason.
Zarah was born in 1993 in the West Midlands and was raised in the Lozells area of Birmingham. By her own admission, the house she grew up in wasn’t particularly political. Her dad worked as an accountant at the nearby University of Central England (now Birmingham City), while her mum was a homemaker. Both were members of the Labour Party – but, she says, “that didn’t really mean anything”.
Her politics, however, began to form at an early age. The secondary school she attended was considered “rough”, even though their exam results were usually good. To illustrate, she recounts a story: a senior police officer from the West Midlands Police force, who had never visited the school, told the city council that “every kid in that school will be able to tell you which gang they’ll end up joining”.
Around the same time, in the nearby Alum Rock area of the city – “a predominantly Asian, Pakistani and Muslim area” – CCTV cameras were installed. Local residents were told they were purely for “traffic control” measures, but it later emerged authorities were using them to spy on them. “The war on terror wasn’t just this foreign policy thing happening in Iraq or Afghanistan, it was very much on the streets of the UK,” Zarah says. It made her realise how those in positions of power viewed her community: “Because of our postcode, because of our skin colour, because of our class.”
“I remember feeling, at some point, this sense that I didn’t belong here anymore,” Zarah continues. “I never had that when I was in primary school, but in secondary school, in my early teens, something started to make me question my Muslimness and my Britishness.”
It wasn’t until her A-Levels that many of these nuances came into sharp focus. Her state comprehensive was 10 minutes walk from her house, while the grammar school that she transferred to for sixth form was 10 minutes in the other direction. Despite the fact they were so close, the difference between them though couldn’t have been more stark.
“There was a process of ‘otherisation’ from the beginning, because me and my friends were already the outsiders who’d gone to the poor school. I had never come across people who had swimming pools, never come across people who’d said, ‘Why do we tax people to pay for poor people’s healthcare?’. It shook me to my core. All I kept thinking was, ‘Where am I?’”
It was in this particular space that Zarah started to consider her class position, as well as the role the British education system plays in that. “I began to understand the disparity in resources afforded to different schools, the difference in messages given to these grammar school girls, the opportunities given, the careers spoken about. It was a whole new world. That’s where it really popped off for me. Going through that system made me see how things just weren’t fair – and I got angry.”
After finishing her A-levels, Zarah accepted a place at the University of Birmingham to study International Relations with Economics. She thought that it would feel like Birmingham the city – diverse – but found herself as one of few ethnic minorities on the course, amid a huge intake of students who had attended private schools. Despite the fact it was her home town, she felt immediately out of place.
However, it was also at university that she started becoming actively involved in politics, organising on campus around issues like Palestine, free education and anti-racism. The experience was electrifying. However, by the time she had finished her second year, she was facing a mental health crisis brought on by severe burnout. In response, she took a year out, resolving to return to her final year and concentrate solely on her studies.
“I remember saying to my dad, ‘I’m going to cut everything out, I’m not going to do this politics thing anymore,’” she remembers. “He replied saying, ‘You say that, but you’re not going to be able to stick to it – because you care. He was right.”
After university, she was elected onto a position in the National Union of Students, which served as a jumping- off point into electoral politics. In early 2019, she was fifth on the Labour MEP list for the EU elections but failed to get elected. Later that year, though, she was selected as the Labour candidate for Coventry South, just 19 miles southeast of her native Birmingham. At the general election in December of that year, she was elected to Parliament with a slim majority of just 401.
Once an MP, Zarah found herself navigating the Parliamentary Estate – a complex warren of buildings laid out alongside the River Thames. Architecturally, it is foreboding and overwhelming: to try and make your way through it is a daunting task. This becomes even more of an ordeal, though, when you consider the makeup of those elected to serve within it.
At a glance: as of 2019, over 65 per cent of MPs are men, around 90 per cent are white, and the average age is 51. Around 93 per cent are straight, while 29 per cent went to a private school – compared to just seven per cent of the population. Of the 650 seats in Parliament, only 18 are held by Muslims.
Before getting elected, I didn’t realise how much billionaires and big business lobby MPs.
They don’t do it because they’re generous.
They do it because they want a government that works for them, not for you. pic.twitter.com/ET3HDfxUBp
— Zarah Sultana MP (@zarahsultana) February 25, 2020
Overwhelmingly, the people elected to represent British people do not actually represent the makeup of the country. For Zarah, however, it’s clear that everything she’d experienced on her journey to the House of Commons – every moment of otherness, of navigating hostile spaces – had prepared her for Parliament.
“Going from a comp school, to a grammar sixth form and then a Russell Group university, you piece together how the world works,” she says. “And then arriving at Westminster you find that it really is the epitome of class privilege. It’s full of people who believe they were born to rule. People who talk in a particular way. People who dress in a particular way. People who see others in a particular way… Experiencing the world as I have gives you a certain thick skin. When you’re in places people don’t expect you to be, [where] they expect you to behave in a certain way, it just makes you not really give a damn.”
Just under a month after she’d arrived, Zarah made her maiden speech in the chamber. Over the course of eight minutes, she criticised the horrifying impact of “40 years of Thatcher” before railing against austerity and calling for a Green New Deal. The speech drew criticism from across the house, including from some on the Labour benches.
Little over two weeks later, she posted an Instagram video of herself throwing leaflets promoting a Tory candidate into the bin, accompanied by a caption quoting Skepta’s ‘That’s Not Me’. Soon after, she shared a tweet revealing gift packages she’d received from Heathrow airport, sarcastically thanking them before condemning the plans for a third runway. In a later article published in The Metro, she lambasted the lavish gifts and receptions that MPs were often treated to by big business.
She has been a consistently refreshing voice in Parliament, one that has pointed out the deep corruption within the institution, often via her social media channels. In this sense, she engages with these platforms in the same way that most 20-somethings do, drawing from the same cultural references. It’s partly why, on numerous occasions, she’s been referred to as the British equivalent of Democratic politician Alexandria Ocasio Cortez: someone who also happens to be on the left of her party, with strong ties to the radical grassroots.
It’s clear that for Zarah, being an MP has never been about securing an illustrious title. “People always ask me why I’m so outspoken and why I don’t just sit comfortably and try to be there for a long time,” she says. “But everything I’ve done, in terms of campaigns and activism, hasn’t been to be an MP. It’s because I was angry at the system and what was happening to young people, to working-class people. I can’t really relate to wanting to make a career out of anger and frustration.”
The more you interact with those at the top of British politics, the more you realise how unenviable it is as a position; how inherently lonely it can be. Zarah can certainly relate. “You have highs and lows and I have times where I think, ‘Should I just walk away?’ Thankfully, that hasn’t happened, but I think the reason why I’ve continued is because I don’t know what else to do. I’ve tried being a student, getting angry, I’ve tried demonstrating, I’ve tried all of these things. Now, I’m trying being an MP to see if I can help change things.”
Just three months into Zarah’s tenure as an MP, the UK went into its first national lockdown. Shortly afterwards, the leadership of the Labour party changed hands and Zarah found herself with a leader in Keir Starmer that she found, as each day passed, reflected her politics less and less. She has since defied the whip on a number of occasions.
Her time in Parliament has seen her fiercely campaign across a whole host of issues including trans rights, migrant rights, free school meals and the climate crisis – to name just a few. She has been a vocal critic of the current leadership and remained staunch in her views, which much more closely resemble those of the Jeremy Corbyn Labour Party she was elected under.
The right to protest is under attack from the Conservatives’ #PoliceCrackdownBill.
This evening I joined women in Parliament Square to say: We will not be silenced. We don’t accept more police powers.
— Zarah Sultana MP (@zarahsultana) March 15, 2021
It’s perhaps for this reason that she, unlike many of her contemporaries from the 2019 intake, has not yet found herself promoted within the party. But this has done little to dampen her ambitions. “Wherever I am in the future, I’m sure I’ll be holding a banner or a fist in the air, or shouting down Tories in the chamber,” she says. “Should opportunities reveal themselves in the party, I’m never one to not check things out.”
Zarah represents a new class of politician. One forged in the fires of Blairism, the war on terror and austerity. A capable political operative who remains relatable – not through any concerted effort, but by merit of being part of the generation she speaks to. She’s a politician that doesn’t have to try and vocalise the thoughts, feelings and fears of a demographic largely unrepresented in British politics – because they are her thoughts, feelings and fears.
Ben Smoke is Huck’s Politics & Activism Editor. Follow him on Twitter.