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Zarah Sultana at Rebecca Long-Bailey’s Labour leadership campaign launchPhotography Anne Laymond

26-year-old Labour MP Zarah Sultana on Tory cuts and crushing student debt

We speak to the Coventry South MP, whose now-viral maiden speech saw her deliver a blistering attack on the government

“I could literally hear them heckling me!” says Zarah Sultana, the newly-elected Labour MP for Coventry South, who is still reeling from events which unfolded just an hour prior to our conversation. “It’s fine though,” the 26-year-old says, steeling herself, “it’s got to be done”. By the time we speak, a video of the moment she’s describing – which sees Sultana brandishing a copy of her £46,000 student loan in the House of Commons – has garnered thousands of views.

“Can the secretary of state look me in the eye,” she is filmed saying, “and tell me it is fair that working-class kids who want an education are forced to take on this colossal debt?”, undeterred by the schoolboyish jeers coming from her significantly older Tory counterparts.  

It’s the second explosive, blistering attack Sultana has delivered to the chamber in the space of less than a week, just over a month into her new role. In her maiden speech – traditionally supposed to be a wholly uncontroversial affair – Sultana seized the opportunity to address some of the most urgent issues facing our generation – from rising rents, to stagnating wages, and the climate emergency – and to lambast the government for “wag(ing) war on working-class communities”.  

“When I was in the chamber delivering the speech, I didn’t really feel like it was going to be watched by other people,” Sultana recalls. But the video quickly went viral, and was met with an outpouring of support from all over the world. “The reaction has been incredible,” she says. Among those who tweeted their support was Naomi Klein, who congratulated the young MP on her “powerful speech”.

“I was like ‘OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD, the NAOMI KLEIN,” says Sultana, her voice ascending into a higher pitch with excitement. “I DMed her like ‘OH MY GOD, thank you, Naomi! I’m a total fangirl.”

Members of the Labour Party were also left rattled by Sultana’s call for an end to “40 years under Thatcherism”, with Stephen Kinnock and Neil Coyle accusing her of trashing Labour’s legacy. She “wasn’t trying to undermine the New Labour government – my family actually benefitted from New Labour”, Sultana explains to Dazed. “I was referring to the economic settlement that Thatcher created... which wasn’t reversed under Blair.”

Along with the likes of 23-year-old Nadia Whittome, Sultana’s presence in parliament represents a newly-elected, younger, more diverse set of Labour MPs than ever before, with a majority female party for the first time in history. And it’s not just in the UK, but around the world, that we’re seeing elected female representatives who grew up in an era of callous cuts to public services after the financial crash, as well as the acceleration of climate change, with a similarly progressive outlook. Among them are Finland’s PM Sanna Marin and US political stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib – who Sultana praises for “speaking truth to power”. 

“Growing up, I never thought I’d be here, because of the way I sound, or the way I look,” Sultana says. Growing up in a working-class Muslim household, she recalls one incident from childhood where a senior police officer, speaking to Birmingham City Council, said that all the children from her school would end up in gangs, even going so far as to suggest which gangs they’d join. “For me, it’s so important that young people, even kids, are able to watch parliament, and think this is important, this is interesting, this is relatable, and I could be there one day too,” she says.

What led Sultana to pursue a career in politics, she says, was an overwhelming sense of “things being decided in parliament that felt very detached from my ability to change it”. In 2003, she witnessed millions of people take to the street to protest the Iraq war, and in 2010, thousands of young people come to London to demonstrate the tripling of tuition fees. In both cases, the demands of campaigners went ignored by the government. In her local area, she remembers the shooting of teenagers Cherlene Ellis and Leitisha Shakespeare – which she was made to reflect on by writing a poem in school – and the Lozells riots of 2005, which represented “a breakdown of community trust”, all of which shaped her political outlook growing up. 

After studying International Relations at the University of Birmingham, Sultana was employed as a community organiser for Labour, working in a heavily Leave constituency in the west Midlands, which, she says, makes her “sympathetic to both sides” of the Brexit debate. “I voted Remain, but I have friends and family who have voted both ways and I can see how damaging the stereotypes are,” she says. “Ultimately, when it came to the referendum, what we can agree on is that things in this country aren’t working, and people had a different opinion on how to see investment in schools, hospitals, and our communities.”

“So many people have seen things cut back, for a decade, that people felt it was impossible for things to get back to better,” says Sultana, reflecting on Labour’s devastating defeat in the last election and the party’s manifesto, which many argued was filled with too many promises that people simply did not trust to be delivered. “We’ve got nurses going to food banks, and we’re saying that things don’t have to be this way, and actually our messaging has to be better in relaying that, that we know where the money is coming from.”

“The Tories are talking about decarbonising by 2050 – that’s absolutely sentencing people to death. It has to be on the political agenda” – Zarah Sultana

So how do we best tackle the austerity that has ravaged the country under Tory rule? “I think it’s about accepting that moderation won’t cut it, it’s about radical solutions,” Sultana says. Sultana states her belief that Rebecca Long-Bailey is the Labour leadership candidate to deliver on this, with her plans for what she calls “an aspirational socialist government” – or, the idea that we deserve better, and that better is possible for all of us. 

When it comes to the climate crisis – an issue Sultana has been consistently vocal about – she sees Long-Bailey, who was responsible for engineering Labour’s Green New Deal and who is proposing total decarbonisation by 2030, as the obvious candidate. “The Tories are talking about decarbonising by 2050 – that’s absolutely sentencing people to death. It has to be on the political agenda, and with Rebecca as leader, it will definitely be one of our flagship policies.” 

We know full well that the next five years will be crucial to the future of the planet, and the Conservatives will likely be in power for all of that. Labour will find it tough to keep the climate emergency on the agenda while up against such an overwhelming parliamentary majority.

Sultana admits that the mood on the Labour benches has at times felt “deflated”, and that it’s been “heartbreaking” to see the impossibility of implementing a manifesto that “would literally save lives”. And yet, she refuses to despair: “For me, being a Labour member means we can’t depend on parliament to save us, it has to shift to the grassroots, whether it’s the work of youth strikers or Extinction Rebellion, organising in our communities and in our workspaces – that’s where the power lies.” 

The message of shifting power from parliament to the hands of ordinary people is one well worn, and it feels long overdue. But with uncompromising trailblazers like Zarah Sultana rattling the elite and laying the foundations for a socialist government in our future, for the first time in history, it feels like it could just about happen. “In moments of darkness, you have to find hope, especially in the context of a climate emergency, in the context of one in three children living in poverty, in the context of the state of the labour market...” she says. “We have to work together to collectively build power outside of parliament.”