What happens on the call stays on the call!” laughs Shabana Mahmood, Labour’s new national campaign coordinator. Since Keir Starmer promoted her – following Labour’s defeat in the Hartlepool by-election on 6 May – senior party staff and the chief whip Alan Campbell have been attending daily 8am strategy calls with Mahmood and her deputy, Conor McGinn. “There’s no break at the weekends,” she adds (they start at 8.30am on Saturdays and a more sympathetic 10am on Sundays), and attendees have hinted that the new regime does not hold back.
“We’ve approached it with gusto! No more shall be said, though,” smiles Mahmood, 40, the Birmingham Ladywood MP who started out as a rising star of Ed Miliband’s frontbench, where she chiefly shadowed Treasury roles after becoming one of the first female Muslim MPs upon her election in 2010. “I can dish it out but equally I can take it. I always want [party staff] to know I’ve got their back.”
A former barrister who dreamt as a child of becoming the protagonist of the Nineties TV series Kavanagh QC (“I didn’t clock that it was an old white man – I really wanted to be him!”), Mahmood relishes debate. “It’s meant to be a two-way process; I’m not combative for the sake of it.”
Dressed in a dark blue salwar kameez and silver trainers, Mahmood sits in an armchair in her sparse Westminster office and serves cups of masala tea that she brews at home and pours from a flask. Alongside meeting Labour MPs in-person like this one-on-one, and over Zoom, she plans to visit Scotland, Wales and the English regions. “I feel very strongly that I should walk the floor of all the party’s offices,” she says. “I want them to know physically I’m here and I will die in a ditch for them.”
Mahmood passed her first test on 1 July when Labour won the Batley and Spen by-election by 323 votes. A veteran of campaigning since her childhood in Birmingham (where her father chaired the local party for a decade), volunteering on the Ealing Southall by-election in 2007 and being seconded to the Rotherham by-election in 2012 (both Labour holds), she was a key figure credited for the result.
“The ground game made all the difference,” she says. “I took a lot of heart and spirit from it – we’ve had some wobbles in the last few years, but I’m more sure now that the Labour Party’s unique superpower is its people.”
As campaign coordinator, Mahmood replaced the deputy party leader Angela Rayner, whose botched demotion characterised Starmer’s chaotic reshuffle. “It’s not awkward between myself and Angela,” Mahmood says. “I flew under the radar in that reshuffle.”
When Starmer offered her the job, “I was a bit light-headed as it was Ramadan and I was fasting,” she recalls. She had left her phone at home while delivering food to relatives and friends; her sister eventually answered after it rang incessantly. “It’s quite a stressful conversation to have, to make a big life decision… Every conversation I’ve had with a Labour leader about a shadow cabinet thing has always been a bit ‘hashtag awkward’!” (Mahmood resigned as shadow chief secretary to the Treasury in 2015 when Jeremy Corbyn became leader, saying they “strongly disagreed” on economic policy.)
Rumours of a potential leadership challenge from Rayner dogged the Batley by-election campaign. Was there a sense of crisis around the corner? “There’s no hiding that it’s been a period of political turbulence,” Mahmood replies. “Clearly, there were some hostile forces quite happy to brief about challenges. Angela shot that down, as did everybody else… I was irritated that it was happening. There was honestly no time for political speculation – sod off! I’ve got work to do!”
From the backbenches, Mahmood had been thinking hard about Labour’s future. She was a commissioner of the Labour Together report: a nuanced and thorough 2019 general election post-mortem and blueprint for rebuilding a winning voter coalition.
Mahmood warns Labour against “an assumption of bad faith” when targeting different demographics – the belief that “in order to go after this one group, let’s say white, working class, in Red Wall seats, we’re going to throw another group under the bus. We need to stop thinking everything we do is about throwing somebody somewhere under the bus! And instead think about how we build bridges between people, because we have no way back without doing that.”
She encourages a “generosity of spirit” towards voters. “I’ve had so many conversations that other people might feel are challenging on things like immigration, but I never feel that way – as long as you can establish that the person you’re talking to is acting in good faith, which the majority are. The number of bigots is actually very small, I feel like we forget that sometimes, actual baddies are very small in number.”
As Conservative ministers focus on “culture war” issues of identity politics, such as football players taking the knee, Mahmood urges Labour not to “pretend cultural issues aren’t going to come up”.
“The Tories think this is a good space for them, so it’s part of the political terrain,” she adds. Her preferred approach is to try and “find a way to call off the culture war”, but “it’s not about not talking about it or ignoring an issue. We have to be more comfortable navigating those spaces. The whole country has to get more comfortable talking about race… and as a Labour Party we have to get more comfortable talking about both difference and commonality.”
Labour’s challenge, she feels, is finding that “sweet spot” between being comfortable with difference, “navigating the spaces where people are different”, and persuading them that “we’re all basically still the same, too”. Britain’s “superpower” is its ability to “hold a lot of difference”, she says. “I’m a race minority, I’m a religious minority. We all do rub along quite happily, most of the time; we’re not a nation permanently in violent strife with itself.”
Mahmood, who is from a Kashmiri family, represents the part of Birmingham where she was born and grew up. Her father and grandfather moved to Britain in the 1960s after their home in Mirpur, Pakistan-administered Kashmir, was destroyed by the Mangla Dam. “Our blessed village, which my family remember very fondly, is under a lot of water,” Mahmood says. They still speak Mirpuri and follow Mirpuri traditions.
Based in a multigenerational household with her parents – who, during the Covid-19 pandemic, housed all four of their children, their daughter-in-law and two grandchildren – Mahmood is now “living the Asian dream” by buying the house next door. “It’s the perfect set-up for how family life should be organised,” she says. “Everybody is back, either in the homestead, next door to the homestead, or round the corner from the homestead. I don’t know if that’s an immigrant dream or an Asian dream, but it’s definitely living a dream!”
Rooted in the inner-city area of Birmingham Ladywood since birth, Mahmood says she “wouldn’t be an MP if it wasn’t for my own turf”. She laughs that she even “couldn’t imagine representing a different bit of Birmingham”.
As she stays on “permanent election watch”, Mahmood suggests Starmer will reset his reputation through his summer tour around the country. “This is almost like his first shot at a proper introduction to the public. It’s not as if the media’s going to gift us all that time, so we have to find our own way to make it happen.”
This article appears in the 14 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Apple vs Facebook