Zarah Sultana, the Labour MP for Coventry South, was elected to parliament for the first time in 2019 aged just 26. It has been a “whiplash experience”, she tells me. That description seems especially true of an incident in the chamber last week, when Sultana was given a big telling off. After describing ministers as “dodgy”, she was asked by the Deputy Speaker to rephrase her question. She refused. Again, she was asked to “moderate her language”, and refused. And a third time. On the fourth occasion, she was interrupted mid-sentence and a Bercow-esque bellow of “order!” came her way, followed by a particularly stern rebuke. Although Hansard initially recorded that she had withdrawn the remark, Sultana never did.
“I’d never felt anything like that before,” Sultana tells me. “I just was really not sure what I had done wrong.” She had declared in parliament the day before that “this is a corrupt government, led by a dodgy Prime Minister”, and got no scolding for her choice of language then. “This convention where you just have to be respectful, it’s like beyond respect – it’s like you are complicit, to some extent, in them getting away with it, because you can’t even call them out,” she says. “We’re calling them honourable – these people are not honourable. They’re not honourable at all. They are completely self-interested. And dodgy, I think, is the mildest term that I could have used.”
Sultana is not only frustrated by rules about unparliamentary language. When she repeatedly refused to withdraw her comment, the Labour frontbencher sitting in front of the despatch box at the time, Thangam Debbonaire, visibly cringed, apparently expressing embarrassment about her colleague’s handling of the situation. “I didn’t see it at the time, I had only seen it after people were posting the video online. And quite honestly, it was really hurtful to see that,” Sultana says of the reaction. She compares it to when Labour backbencher Kevan Jones heckled her, as well as Apsana Begum, during a House of Commons debate. “It’s just really hurtful when you see those things, because you expect support and solidarity from people in your party.”
I am interviewing Sultana chiefly to mark Islamophobia Awareness Month. The MP has spoken in parliament and online about the abuse she receives as a young Muslim woman. “I wasn’t naive coming into the job,” she says. “I knew that when… you’re visible in public life, there will be scrutiny and there will be criticism. And I expected that.” But, she adds, “I guess I was taken aback by the sheer volume of it”. She says the abuse is often racist, “so ‘you’re a foreign invader’, or ‘you Muslims’”, and “usually a combination of all of the above – the gender, the race, and then the politics”. She strongly disagrees with MPs who think banning online anonymity is the answer, though, as those sending her abuse are quite happy to put their names to it.
Coming back from bereavement leave earlier this month, Sultana tweeted an example of the abuse she receives. “I haven’t had a single word of solidarity from the current leadership,” she says. “Angela Rayner, Nick Thomas-Symonds, Louise Haigh, Kim Leadbeater, all of those guys got in touch – and I didn’t get anything from the leadership at all.” In fact, she adds: “I’ve never spoken to Keir.” Asking questions at parliamentary party meetings is the closest they have had to a conversation, the Labour MP says.
Would she like a one-to-one meeting with him? “I would be up for that. 100%. Yeah, absolutely. I think there’s a lot of things that we can work together on! And it’s not just a complaint list. When it came to the Batley and Spen election, I reached out to the party, saying, ‘hey, if there’s anything that I can do with young members, or the Muslim community, please let me know because I’m really keen to help out’, given what was happening and the dynamics of what was happening. That offer wasn’t taken up.”
Sultana believes that, as a young Muslim woman, she is treated differently not only by those who send abusive emails and letters, but also by her colleagues. “I learnt this lesson very early on,” she says. Sultana points out that her maiden speech referring to “40 years of Thatcherism” caused uproar, yet nobody blinked an eye when Lisa Nandy talked about “40 years of economic decline” during the leadership election and since then. Sultana was told that senior MPs were advising other 2019 newcomers: “you don’t want to do what Zarah did with her maiden speech”.
It is not only double standards she complains of, but also being patronised. “When I didn’t want to vote for a Tory in a select committee, because I didn’t want to vote for a Tory, it was misconstrued as me not understanding how select committees work, because I have to vote for a Tory, because it’s a Tory-only position. Because why would I understand that, right? Because I’m just young and stupid.”
Then there are the dynamics within the Labour Party. Only a handful of Labour MPs have been reported as being particularly under threat of deselection, yet two of this small number are Muslim women. “To me, if we’re just talking about optics – and it shouldn’t just be about the optics, it should be about the people who are affected – that just doesn’t look very good,” Sultana observes. Asked about the chances of her being triggered, she says: “I have no sense that I’m more under threat than anyone else… I’m really hopeful that I will have [members’] support.”
But she is concerned by the briefings against her. “The people providing those quotes [for articles about her potential deselection] were citing things like Prevent, and they were citing things like Palestine… as though it’s not a normal concern to have,” she says. “I was really shocked because someone’s obviously given a green light to this. And then the fact that it’s getting picked up by not just random accounts, but by the BBC and others. Adding to all the other stuff that’s going on, it’s just quite a nasty mix of things.”
Labour adopting a new code of conduct on Islamophobia including the all-party parliamentary group definition was a “really good first step”, Sultana says. Yet she believes there is much more work to be done: from looking at how Muslim MPs are treated to whether the party still backs policies such as reviewing Prevent. “Right now, it just feels like it is posting a tweet on Eid and saying the right things about the Tories not adopting the definition of Islamophobia. But then, when it comes to actual examples of where people are being treated differently because of their religion and their race, you’re not going to get a peep.”
If people see “what happens when you don’t fit the mould of what a politician should be”, there will be a “huge loss” of potential MPs, councillors and others, Sultana says. “That’s why I hope the party do take this a bit more seriously. A lot more seriously.”