Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. World
  2. UK
28 January 2021

Nadia Whittome: “We either confront the culture war directly, or we lose it”

The UK’s youngest MP was sacked from Keir Starmer’s front bench and broke with her own Labour faction on anti-Semitism. She speaks to the New Statesman about forging her own path.

By Ailbhe Rea

It would be tempting to view Nadia Whittome, the 24-year-old Labour MP for Nottingham East, simply as part of a “new generation” of Corbynites in parliament, one of several young MPs from the left of the Labour Party to be elected in December 2019. “I’m a class struggle socialist,” she explains, citing among her main political influences the towering figures of the Labour left: Tony Benn, John McDonnell and, of course, Jeremy Corbyn. 

But the “Baby of the House” – a nickname the youngest MP in parliament has learned to put up with – doesn’t, as she says, “outsource her thinking”. In her first year in parliament Whittome, who is a member of the Socialist Campaign Group of left Labour MPs, has forged her own path by announcing she would take a “worker’s salary” and give the rest of her MP’s wages to charity. She returned to her old job as a care worker when the pandemic started and she has, at times, differed not only with Keir Starmer’s leadership, but with her own faction. 

When the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report into anti-Semitism in the Labour Party was published on 29 October 2020, it found the party was responsible for unlawful acts of discrimination and harassment toward Jewish people. That afternoon, Whittome released a lengthy “message to Jewish communities in Nottingham East” on her social media, expressing her “full solidarity” with Jewish Labour members and the wider Jewish community on what she acknowledged was a “difficult day”. She emphasised her “unequivocal” support for the full implementation of the report’s recommendations. 

It was praised by some as an example of socialism without anti-Semitism. But it outraged many in her own wing of the Labour Party, as much for what it didn’t say as for what it did: she made no mention of the suspension of Corbyn from the party earlier that day, following his remarks that Labour’s anti-Semitism problem was “dramatically overstated for political reasons” by opponents and the media. While Whittome’s grouping in parliament, the Socialist Campaign Group, called for Corbyn to be reinstated, she waited a day before releasing a further statement. It strained with the tension of breaking with someone whom she had “looked up to most of my life” and for whom, as she wrote, she has “a great deal of personal affection”. 

“I have sent Jeremy a personal message of solidarity and have also been honest with him in making clear that I cannot agree with his statement following the publication of the EHRC report and I believe he was wrong to make it,” she said. She later wrote an article for LabourList about anti-Semitism as it manifests on the left, understanding frustrations with Corbyn’s suspension while voicing concern that the way his suspension was being discussed in some quarters was causing Jewish Labour members to feel “unwelcome, and, yes, unsafe”. The article was praised by many and rebuffed by others on the left. 

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

[see also: Gossip about Labour’s obscure front bench has started – but it’s too early to write them off]

“It’s very difficult to take a nuanced position on these things that recognises several things can be true at once,” she reflects when we speak late on a Friday evening in December. “I think it’s also difficult to communicate that nuanced position, which is why I wrote my article.” She is curled up on her sofa, in the glow of a single lamp, holding the phone as we speak over WhatsApp video. “It’s true that ant-Semitism is a real and a serious problem in the Labour Party, and on the left, and that has historic roots that pre-date Corbyn’s leadership by decades and centuries, even. It’s also true that we need to implement the EHRC report in full. It’s true that what Jeremy said at the time” – she pauses – “was ill-advised. It’s also true that the way he’s been treated has been unacceptable, and would, to most people, appear to be lacking in due process, and natural justice. And when you say all of those things, I guess it makes as many enemies as it does friends.”

Her stance on anti-Semitism within Labour “has been informed by Jewish constituents, Jewish family members, Jewish socialists who I’ve organised with”, she adds. “We haven’t always agreed on everything, but I think that’s why dialogue is very important. The thing is that that dialogue needs to take place in an environment of political education, and in an environment that everybody feels safe and welcome to participate in.”

Content from our partners
Helping children be safer, smarter, happier internet explorers
Power to the people
How to power the electric vehicle revolution

She makes an effort to include those who disagree with her, but the line in the sand is always there: she doesn’t pretend to agree with Corbyn’s comments, and, some weeks later, after a Jewish Labour member said he felt forced to leave a discussion of Corbyn’s suspension at a meeting of Whittome’s local Labour party, she agreed with the constituent, saying the atmosphere of the meeting had been “wholly unacceptable”.

Whether about anti-Semitism or transphobia, she thinks “political education is sort of the fundamental answer to rooting out any kind of discrimination and bigotry”. “There’s no excuse for us not to be unapologetically anti-racist, against anti-Semitism, against anti-blackness, against Islamophobia. All at the same time. There’s no contradiction.” 

***

Whittome is a serious, softly spoken politician, as well as a joyful, self-deprecating 24-year-old. She and I are similar ages, so when we first speak during a busy working day, we find an unexpected novelty in our common ground, veering off on tangents while she sorts out technical difficulties and enjoys other interruptions (there is a long pause while she, off camera, chats to the postman). She is delighted at the idea that her thoughts on Boy Brow from Glossier, a make-up product beloved of young women of our age (“it’s my Christmas present to myself”), will be included in the pages of the New Statesman. We joke about her conformity with Gen Z stereotypes: she doesn’t watch TV or films, but spends a lot of time “bloody tik-toking”, she laughs. “That’s my relaxing.”   

Whittome made a conscious choice not to conceal her youthfulness. “It’s something that I gave a lot of thought to when I was first elected. And I thought, well, I am young. And I’m not going to cover up the fact that I’m young. I’m still going to enjoy my life. I’m still going to go on nights out. I’m still going to have a private life.” 

This is a political act. Whittome quotes the anarchist and early feminist Emma Goldman, who told an outraged comrade when he asked her to stop dancing: I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.

“That’s something that we should be fighting for,” Whittome says, “people’s right to joy. And that’s something that I remind myself of, that it’s not a good thing for me to be ground down. It’s my right to be happy. It’s everyone’s right to be happy.

Whittome is a “class struggle socialist”,​ she says, “but, at the same time, class isn’t two-dimensional”. “It’s not just white middle-aged men. Class is intersectional, and people’s experiences are sort of defined by their intersecting identities. The working class is black, minority ethnic, queer, trans, disabled, different genders, and it’s important that we understand that and that our socialism centres that, because people’s experiences as working-class people are made more difficult when they have additional barriers that they face. So take, for example, when some people feel very uncomfortable about talk like ‘white privilege’. They’re not saying everybody who has your characteristic is privileged, it’s saying that you don’t face an additional barrier in this respect of your life. So I’m cisgender, I identify with the gender that I was assigned at birth. That’s not saying I don’t experience any discrimination. It’s just that I don’t experience discrimination for being cisgender. I think people would do well to understand that.

“We shouldn’t be afraid of making these arguments, including in the Red Wall, or, well, the so-called Red Wall,” she adds, because that includes diverse constituencies and diverse communities of people. It includes youth strikers fighting against climate injustice. It includes anti-racist campaigners, trans people, gender-queer people, you know, they all live in the Red Wall as well. And I think our answers need to be rooted in giving answers to people’s material lived problems rather than pandering to the lowest common denominator. We don’t need to do that. We can unite a whole range of people when we speak to people’s shared experiences: their shared experience of powerlessness, and their shared values. Everyone wants to have a healthy life. Everyone wants to be able to provide for themselves and their families. Everyone has, I think, an innate sense of what’s fair and what’s unfair.”

[see also: Owen Jones: “I begged John McDonnell to stand for Labour leader”]

This is what Whittome thinks Labour needs to do to win the next election, an analysis that is, in some ways, supported by the Labour leadership itself: root the party’s arguments in the everyday experiences of people and their lives. There is also agreement over the need for a “coherent vision” (Whittome argues for a set of policies similar to those in the 2019 manifesto, but with a “thread to tie it all together”).

But she diverges with the leadership in her view of how to approach one defining issue. “We need to tackle the culture war head on,” she says. “We either confront it directly, or we sit it out and we de facto lose it.”

“Until the left has the courage to do that, we’re always going to be sort of chasing this populist right-wing narrative, she adds. “We need to win the argument on immigration. We need to clearly frame it as being a workers’ rights issue, explaining properly, as well, that it’s not migrants who drive down wages; it’s bosses.” 

These are cases that Labour should actively make in its lost heartlands, she argues. “Take trans rights, for example. I think it’s insulting to sort of portray voters in Red Wall constituencies as being backwards and reactionary.” The issue of rights for trans people “is a healthcare issue”, she says. “It’s an issue of domestic violence and sexual violence, of poverty, of disproportionate rates of poverty and homelessness. And it’s therefore a class issue. It’s not something that is separate to our socialism. It’s inherent to it.”

She is not unaware of differences of opinion on this issue within the parliamentary party. “I would urge people to really think about their words and the real-life consequences that their words have in people’s lives. To question who they’re helping with their words and who they’re harming. To question why they find themselves on the same side of a debate as Donald Trump supporters.”

Whittome was sacked from Keir Starmer’s front bench when the leadership whipped MPs to abstain on the Overseas Operations Bill, which she argues was “the wrong move”. The leadership insisted it needed to show that it took national security seriously, and that there was need for a provision on these issues in law. It was widely viewed as an attempt to send out a more socially conservative message, though Labour was still mocked by the Conservatives for abstaining. The bill, Whittome says, “was anti-veteran, it was anti-human rights and grave concerns were raised about it by senior military personnel, by legal experts, virtually all human rights organisations, the Royal British Legion. I’d say this is a general point: we need to provide very clear alternatives to the Tories’ solutions.” She voted against the bill, and found out live on TV, on ITV’s Peston, that she was no longer on the Labour front bench. (She was deemed “to have resigned” by the leadership by voting against the whip, Labour said.)

That is not to say Whittome is entirely at odds with Starmer’s leadership, and her position on how the left of the party should approach it is clear. “I think it’s important that we don’t go underground, that we’re collaborative, that we cooperate with the new leadership, and do not just hold the leadership accountable for the pledges that Keir made during his leadership election, but also help to strengthen and develop those pledges, too. I also hope that Keir appreciates the role of the left, because we need those bold, radical answers to the huge crises that face us. The climate crisis, Covid, the rise of the far right, soaring poverty and inequality. The left has an important place, whilst being loyal to Keir.”

***

I put it to her that she has developed a distinct voice on this and other issues in the past year. “Um, I… um… dunno… No one’s ever said it to me in those terms!” she laughs. Doesn’t she see it that way?  “No, I would agree with that, I think.” 

Whittome considers her words for a moment. “Unity is very important,” she says eventually. “But I didn’t come to parliament to be told by anyone what to do. I’m accountable to lots of different people. And there will be conflicts within those groups as well. People won’t always agree with me. And I won’t always agree with them. But that’s what politics is. It’s a constant struggle. It’s constant debate. It’s agitating and organising, and mobilising for the ideas that are important to you. You know, whichever tendency of the party or the movement that you come from. I think, yeah, I will take my own view. But I will also promise to always listen to everyone’s views, and always have an open conversation and a debate about it. And I don’t think that we should be squeamish about that in politics. We shouldn’t be scared of disagreement. It doesn’t mean that we’re not comrades, it just means that we disagree.”

The argument for voicing disagreements and opening up debate is one she is clearly nervous about making. And it is a tricky one to raise on the left of the Labour Party, which is typically characterised by loyalty and comradeship, and strengthened by a sense of being embattled, surrounded by enemy forces. She rephrases her comments later in the language of the movement: “Unity is important, but I owe it to my constituents and the movement that elected me not to outsource my thinking.”

She says she is interested in “more non-hierarchical forms of leadership”, in empowering others, beyond our “suited and booted politician”, to lead. “That’s probably something that’s quite generational,” she says. 

“I mean this in a serious way, not because I’m naive about the reality of politics, but because I disagree with it: I think that it’s not just the ends that are important. It’s the means as well. And I think that how you do your politics is as important as your political analysis.” It sounds like an oblique criticism of the top-down, often cut-throat way the left can sometimes organise. “Am I being clear?” she asks. Yes, I nod. I think so.  

She jokes that people of her generation, dubbed Gen Z, tend to think they’re special. But, she argues, “my generation and young millennials, as well, we’re generations that have been defined by insecurity”. She thinks it makes these young people “determined to build a better society than the one that we inherited”. “We’re brave,” she adds. 

Whittome had so much to say that we spoke twice – once during the working day, and again in the quiet of a Friday evening. When we spoke the second time, she wanted to add another figure to her list of political influences: Mrs Desai (as she is known), the trade unionist and prominent leader in the Grunwick dispute. “She’s inspired me for a really long time as a South Asian woman, of my grandparents’ generation, who I think showed a very backwards labour movement, in many respects, and showed society that Asian women aren’t docile and submissive. That they can lead strikes, lead workers in standing up to their bosses and win.” 

In terms of the substance of her politics, the influences of Tony Benn, McDonnell and Corbyn are plain. But in terms of style, it’s notable that this young Labour MP chooses an Asian woman who, in her view, taught the labour movement a thing or two. I suspect Nadia Whittome plans on doing the same.

[see also: Labour’s mutually destructive civil war should end now]

This article was amended on 29/1/2021 to say that Nadia Whittome was sacked from the Labour front bench, rather than resigned. (The Labour leadership argued that she was considered “to have resigned” by voting against the whip.)