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24 May 2022

Can Zarah Sultana save the Labour left?

The 28-year-old socialist MP on her viral fame, social media abuse and Keir Starmer’s leadership.

By George Eaton

In recent years, the Labour left has had little cause for celebration. The Corbyn project ended in the party’s worst general election defeat since 1935. Keir Starmer went on to win the leadership by a landslide and marginalised the left with ruthless speed. 

But consolation has been provided by Zarah Sultana. Since her election as MP for Coventry South in 2019, Sultana, 28, has become that rare thing: a genuinely viral politician. On TikTok, the Socialist Campaign Group co-chair has 315,000 followers (the highest of any MP), on Instagram she has 205,000 (the third highest) and on Twitter she has 252,000 (the highest of any post-2015 MP). 

For a backbencher who has never stood for the party leadership or held a shadow ministerial position, such reach is extraordinary. Sultana has thrived by capturing the political imagination of an alienated generation (in one viral video, she held up her student loan statement in the House of Commons and observed: “In the last year, interest added was £2,022.65”). Commentators are fond of asking “where is the British AOC?” – in reference to New York socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – but too few have noticed the homegrown star under their noses. 

I met Sultana in her parliamentary office, whose walls feature images of her political heroes: Malcolm X, Angela Davis, the pioneering British Black Panther Olive Morris (who died of cancer aged 27), and the late Liverpool manager Bill Shankly. What radicalised her as a teenager?

“I was very much shaped by where I grew up,” Sultana said. “I’m from inner-city Birmingham, an area called Lozells.” (Her grandfather migrated to the city from Kashmir in the 1960s.) “Growing up, I felt as though I was being defined by my postcode. At school, teachers would say you just have to work hard and get good grades, only for senior police officers to go to Birmingham City Council – despite never visiting my school – and say ‘I could go to any kid in that school and tell you which gang they’ll end up in’. And I just felt powerless to change that narrative.”

In common with much of what sociologist Keir Milburn calls “Generation Left”, Sultana was politicised by the Iraq War and the austerity unleashed by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. 

“I was studying for my A-levels, watching politicians triple university tuition fees and cut the Education Maintenance Allowance, despite mass protests, and feeling like nothing is going to change.” 

Sultana was inspired to join Labour (her father was a member) and at the University of Birmingham, where she studied international relations and economics, was elected to the National Executive Council of Young Labour and the National Union of Students. But it wasn’t until Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader in 2015 that she wholeheartedly embraced the party. 

“It felt like this was a Labour Party that didn’t want to throw immigrants under the bus, that actually wanted to democratise and bring people in, and that was fun and exciting to be part of.”

Sultana is part of a crop of young socialist women of colour – Nadia Whittome, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Apsana Begum – who have been likened to the US “Squad” of congressional radicals in the Democratic Party. 

“It’s always something that I feel really flattered by,” Sultana said. “Because looking at AOC, Ilhan [Omar], Rashida [Tlaib] and Cori Bush, the way that they articulate their politics, the way that they are very proud of their backgrounds and the fact they’re very unapologetically socialist, you can only admire and respect that.

“But I’ve never called us the Squad; we’re just a group of friends and we have very similar experiences. It’s a sisterhood and we’ve been through a lot, getting some of the hate that we do and being there for each other.”

As a Muslim woman of colour, Sultana receives a disproportionate level of abuse on social media. She is frank about her experiences, and what she believes needs to change. 

“I wasn’t surprised by the fact I got abused. But I was surprised by the level and just how much of it comes at certain times. And I find that it often correlates with interventions, or tweets, or statements about migrants’ rights and about racism.

“People say we need to police social media more, we need to get rid of anonymity. But I get abuse through the post or through email, when people aren’t trying to hide their identity. I don’t believe it comes from a vacuum, there is a huge role that people in public life play. I always find myself going back to the fact we have a prime minister who’s got away with really derogatory remarks about single mums, about black people, about gay men, about Muslim women, and doesn’t feel the need to apologise or feel any remorse.”

During the 2019 election campaign, Sultana faced calls to resign as Labour’s candidate after social media posts from 2015 were unearthed, including one in which she boasted she would celebrate the deaths of Tony Blair, Binyamin Netanyahu and George W Bush. Sultana apologised at the time, but how does she respond to those who now refuse to engage with her?

“It’s about understanding that people are on a journey,” she said. “When you’re young, you often don’t represent yourself in the best light and in a way you wouldn’t when you’re older. I have no regrets about apologising and I would apologise again if it was brought up because that’s not how I would represent those views. I can be critical of Netanyahu and Tony Blair without phrasing things in that way.” 

Sultana has long polarised opinion within Labour. In her maiden speech she declared: “I want to look teenagers in the eye and say with pride – my generation faced 40 years of Thatcherism and we ended it.” Though Margaret Thatcher herself described New Labour as her greatest achievement, Sultana was accused of implying there was no difference between a Labour government and a Conservative one. Other MPs from the 2019 intake were warned by senior party figures: “Don’t do what Zarah did with her maiden speech…”

How does Sultana view Starmer’s leadership to date? “There are things that I definitely wouldn’t approve of, in particular the shift from the pledges that were made during the leadership race… The focus on attacking the left hasn’t been constructive. To have a Labour prime minister in Downing Street, the electoral coalition that you need is young people. It’s ethnic-minority communities, its Muslims and its progressives. And the local election results in England suggest that we are perhaps losing prospective Labour voters to the Greens and to the Lib Dems. And that’s something that I think the leadership should pay a lot of attention to.” 

As for those on the left who argue that Labour is no home for socialists, her message is clear. “I am a firm believer that to address the crises we face, we need to win state power. And as socialists, the vehicle for that is the Labour Party. If people on the left abandon Labour, how are we going to rapidly decarbonise? And as a Liverpool fan, our anthem is ‘at the end of the storm, there’s a golden sky’. And that’s very much politics as well. You have to go through the storm.” 

Though she is the second-youngest MP (after Whittome), Sultana is already spoken of by her admirers as a future Labour leader. Would she like to stand?

“I would like to be re-elected as the MP for Coventry South by a stronger majority because I only have a majority of 401. And that’s it. I’m a simple girl. That’s what I want.”

This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.

[See also: Could Jeremy Corbyn win an election as an independent?]

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This article appears in the 25 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Out of Control