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Labour MP Nadia Whittome
courtesy of Nadia Whittome

The UK’s youngest MP Nadia Whittome: ‘the time for mourning is finished’

The 23-year-old Labour politician, Nottingham East rep, and ‘baby of the house’ is already making waves, vowing to donate more than half of her annual salary

“This has to be the weirdest place in London,” says Nadia Whittome in a hushed voice, speaking over the phone from the cafeteria of Portcullis House — Westminster’s office building for parliamentary staff. “It really is like Hogwarts, but the Death Eaters have taken over.” It’s hardly surprising that things haven’t quite sunk in for the Labour politician, who was sworn in as the MP for Nottingham East just two days prior to our conversation. At just 23 years old, she is officially the UK’s youngest serving MP, or ‘baby’ of the house. But she’s also resolute on challenging Westminster’s draconian traditions: “a lot needs to change here,” she says, “but that’s what we’re here for.” 

It’s not just Whittome’s age that sets her apart from other MPs. Born and raised in one of Nottingham’s poorest estates and as the daughter of working class immigrants, she experienced the devastating impact of Tory cuts first hand. After studying law at university, Whittome was employed as a hate crime worker at a time when Nottingham saw a rise in racist attacks just after the Brexit results. “Being a young working-class woman of colour, I know what it’s like to live under a hard-right government, and to experience bigotry and prejudice,” she says.  

Seeing her area ravaged by austerity, Whittome says she was consumed by anger, which almost “tipped over into disillusionment”. She decided instead to fight back, first by campaigning against the bedroom tax when it was announced seven years ago, eventually deciding to stand as an MP when Chris Leslie resigned from the safe-hold Labour seat. 

“I want to share my platform, to amplify other people’s voices, especially people who are more marginalised than me” – Nadia Whittome

She is, in many ways, the antithesis of the Tory MPs sat opposite her in parliament, who she calls the “epitome of privilege”. “Some of them have never worked a day in their life. They don’t care about people back in estates like mine, who are struggling to put food on the table,” she says. While many of her Tory counterparts have been ‘parachuted’ into their seats – Boris Johnson included, who is scarcely seen in his constituency of Uxbridge – Whittome stresses the fundamental importance of constituencies being represented by “people who are in those communities, love those communities and call them their home”. A complete departure from the rise in career politicians, Whittome stresses: “the reason I stood is to represent the people of my own city”.

To support the people of Nottingham to her fullest, Whittome has pledged to donate over half of her £79,468 salary to charity, meaning she’ll take home an average workers wage of £35,000. It’s a decision that was met with some backlash: Melanie Onn – the former Labour MP for Grimsby – accused Whittome of “virtue signalling”. Whittome has been clear, however, that she doesn’t expect MPs to follow her example, rather, her intention was to “start a conversation about whose interests we represent in the Labour party”.   

Whittome joins the Labour party at a time when those conversations are expanding to encompass a more diverse set of voices than ever before. For the first time in history, the party is now majority female with 104 out of 202 MPs, and a record 41 Black, Asian, and minority ethnic Labour MPs. Whittome says that she has been approached by hundreds of young people of colour since running as an MP: “It’s certainly a boost for people to see themselves represented in parliament.” She recognises, however, that “representation alone isn’t enough,” adding: “I don’t just want to be and exist as a working-class woman of colour. I want to share my platform, to amplify other people’s voices, especially people who are more marginalised than me.” 

“It’s one silver lining,” Whittome says of the new intake of MPs, while reflecting on the devastating election results for Labour. Where did it all go so wrong for the party? “The election was dominated by Brexit, and won on a populist lie,” she says. It’s been widely suggested that Labour’s messaging wasn’t clear enough, particularly when compared to the Tory’s hollow refrain of ‘Get Brexit Done’. Whittome seems to share this hypothesis: “Our manifesto offered real change... but I think it wasn’t distilled into a succinct narrative.” “There’s no doubt that people’s lives would be improving if we had a Labour government now,” she continues, “I find it absolutely heartbreaking that we’re not in that situation.”

Reluctant to dwell on Labour’s losses, Whittome is focusing her energy on the task at hand, which is to “rebuild resistance and solidarity”. “The time for mourning is finished” she states plainly. “If we take our eyes off the road, the Tories will continue to ruin people’s lives as they have been doing for the past ten years. Giving up is not an option.”

Building a more inclusive politics starts now, “by giving working-class people in every region in this country – particularly in the Midlands and the north – tangible, real power in their everyday lives. We’re not going to get that from this Tory government, which is why we have to organise in our workplaces, communities, and on the streets”. 

Looking to the future of the party, Whittome – who has been a vocal advocate of Jeremy Corbyn – “utterly rejects” the idea that Labour needs to move towards the centre-left in order to win back voters, saying that the loss was “years and years in the making, built up from the days of New Labour.”

“What I’m looking for in the next leader of the party is a commitment to annual decarbonisation targets, putting power in people’s hands in the most local level, and a clear message of solidarity and anti-racism,” she says. 

“If we take our eyes off the road, the Tories will continue to ruin people’s lives as they have been doing for the past ten years. Giving up is not an option” – Nadia Whittome

“I’d like to see Clive Lewis run,” she says firmly, adding that the support for Labour among people of colour is “very strong” and “mustn’t be taken for granted”. Lewis – who announced his decision to run last week – has said that he wants to go further than Corbyn in democratising the party by giving power to Labour members.

For now, Whittome is still coming to terms with the attention levelled at her and the increased security that comes with it. “My mum’s terrified for my safety,” she says. “Her being proud of me isn’t a new thing: what’s new for her (since becoming MP) is the sheer anxiety.” “I don’t like it,” she says of the “close grip” now on her safety. “I’ll take the measures offered, but it’s not going to stop me being an open, accessible MP.”

“I’m just thinking about how my life is going to change,” she says, after a prolonged pause. “Like when I’m back in Nottingham for Christmas, can I not go on a night out anymore?” It comes as a somewhat startling reminder of Whittome’s age – something her firmness of belief and wealth of lived experience makes easy to forget. It’s hard to imagine that Whittome’s life will ever be the same, with her political career still in its embryonic stages and the enormous responsibilities ahead of her: there is, undoubtedly, far too much work to be done.