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Q&A: Shabana Mahmood MP

“There are some very well-to-do people that did some stupid stuff in my city.”

What's the mood like now in Birmingham?

People want to send a clear signal that they're proud of their home city. They want to draw a line under what happened. Obviously in the Winson Green area, where the three deaths occurred, people are still shocked -- it's going to take time for it to sink in, once the media and everybody else have gone away.

Were you worried about a violent retaliation after the deaths?

There was a very real concern. I am clear that the intervention of Tariq Jahan was instrumental in preventing any further trouble. When he said, "I lost my son. Step forward if you want to lose your sons. Otherwise, calm down and go home" -- that was really powerful, particularly because he was able to talk directly to some of the young men who were angry and distraught. Obviously they had enough respect for his message and his loss to listen and behave in a responsible way. He is an absolute hero.

Is part of that dignity something which is implicit in Islam?

He's behaved in a way that is an example not just to Muslims but to all of us. It is in keeping with the respectful, dignified spirit of Ramadan, a peaceful month for people to reflect and to foster their connection with God. I can't pay enough tribute to him.

Having grown up in Birmingham, how did you feel when the trouble broke out?

I was completely devastated. I saw, with my own eyes, kids who were 14 years old, girls as well as boys, with a bag of booty that they'd just looted from the mobile phone shops in the city centre. Some of them would have been well-behaved kids or people who had not been in trouble with the police before and now they're going to wake up to serious criminal records that will potentially affect the rest of their lives.

Many things have been blamed for the riots -- what's your view?

I don't think there's any one reason. There are some very well-to-do people that did some stupid stuff in my city. Trying to process all of that requires a lot of soul-searching. I'd be a bit worried about trying to pigeonhole it, when actually it's a combination of lots of very different factors -- poverty, education, drug and gang culture, alcohol, and all the rest.

What about Cameron's diagnosis of a "sickness" in society?

Some of the behaviour of some people was sickening -- I would describe it in that way. But we've got to be careful not to come at it from ideological perspectives. We need to be out there talking to people to try and make sense of it all.

What's your strategy now?

I'm home and I'm going to be here for the rest of the summer. In one of the meetings we had on Wednesday with local residents, lots of whom had been on Dudley Road when the murders happened, there was a lot of anger -- people raised concerns about the police presence in the area, the response time, the delay in getting an ambulance to the scene. That's a dialogue I'm going to carry on having with the local community and the police, because if there are lessons to learn, they need to be learned.

What do you think the role of the family is in all this?

Once the disorder started, one of the first things I called for was for parents to phone their kids and get them home and out of the trouble. We need to have a dialogue about parenting and family more generally, but not everybody who was involved comes from a broken home. One of the things we should keep in mind through all of this, particularly when you talk about a lot of the ethnic-minority communities in Birmingham, is the strength of the family. In the Asian community, the extended family networks are really strong.

Do you think immigrant communities have a stronger sense of solidarity than British-born communities?

I think there are cultural elements that bind together different communities. In the South Asian community, there's the religious binding, but beyond that people consider themselves almost relatives when they all hail from the same part of the same region of Pakistan or India or Kashmir. In the African-Caribbean community, churches are very strong, they're rooted in their community and they're good at getting people together.

You were one of the first Muslim women to be elected as a member of parliament. What role did your family play in that?

My family are key to everything I've ever done in my life. My parents are incredibly supportive, and have always wanted me to achieve to the best of my ability. There was no question of my brother getting more of a chance in life than me. I have a twin brother and we're both the eldest, so whenever an opportunity came along it had to be for both of us. I came to the decision that I wanted to run for election, and my family rode in behind me straight away and were out there campaigning for me.

Did you encounter opposition from your wider community to the idea of you running?

I didn't get as much flack as I thought I might. The community elders got behind me and thought it was a breath of fresh air.

Why did you want to go into politics?

I've always been a political person. I grew up in a Labour family, and both my parents are longstanding Labour Party members. My dad's a real activist and is currently chair of Birmingham Labour Party, so this is what I've grown up with.

Where did their politics come from?

My dad arrived in this country as a teenager with his family in the 1960s, and at that time Labour was the only party that made them feel they had a stake in British society. And then there was a strong belief in social justice because we found opportunities in this country that would not have been available to us in the village that we hail from in Kashmir and then Pakistan. It's that sense that everyone should have the same opportunity to make the best of themselves. That's what I've grown up with and that's what I want to see made available to everyone in my constituency.

You represent the area you grew up in. Was that important to you?

I'm a Brummie, and representing a Birmingham constituency -- having lived here my whole life, having gone to school here -- is really important to me. Serving the community that I've grown up in and that I want to see do better is my reason for being in politics.

Have you ever experienced Islamophobia?

Unsurprisingly for someone who is both Asian and Muslim, I have suffered racism and Islamophobia, name-calling and that kind of stuff. But equally, putting myself up for election, I might have expected more. Over the entire the campaign I received only one abusive email and one abusive text message. On the campaign trail, no matter who I was talking to, I was given a good reception.

For the most part, our communities in Birmingham are strong and live together peacefully, but we could focus on doing more to let our different communities get to know one other. That's how you understand that people's fundamental concerns are the same -- they want to get on in life, they want access to good education, good health. Those are the things that unite pretty much all of my constituents.

Is there anything you regret?

I try to live without regrets.

Is there a plan?

There's no big plan, but once I decide to do something I'm a real planner.

Are we all doomed?

Hell no. What would be the point, if we weren't optimistic? Every day I meet people who make me feel positive.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times