Speaking Truth To Power: MP Zarah Sultana On Westminster’s Toxic Politics

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MP Zarah Sultana on Westminster’s Toxic Politics Thomas Duffield

From enduring heckling in parliament to receiving the most abuse of any MP on social media, in her own words, Zarah Sultana shares the harsh realities of life as a woman in Westminster, and how she's fighting for change.

I’m a woman, I’m young, I’m Muslim, I’m left wing. When people attack me, it’s usually for one – or all – of those reasons. Ever since I got elected in 2019, I’ve received abuse and death threats. Some have been investigated by the police. When the parliamentary authorities discovered I am the most abused MP on social media, I was shocked, but not entirely surprised. There are 650 MPs; women and women of colour are disproportionately impacted, but for someone who’s only been in the job four years and never had a front-bench position, the authorities found it alarming.

I’m not naive. When I got elected, I knew I would get targeted for my race and religion. Unfortunately, that seems to be a theme in public life. It’s become a normalised part of my job. On a daily basis, I receive messages saying, ‘Take your mob and go back home,’ ‘Typical P-word, you don’t deserve to live in the UK,’ ‘Evil b*tch, your time will come,’ ‘Leave England to the English; go home.’ There’s a lot of, ‘Go home to Pakistan; you need to be deported.’ In a way, I’m used to it, but it still hurts so much.

Since 7 October [when Hamas attacked Israel], it’s reached a new level. Whenever I’ve spoken up for a ceasefire in Gaza – which is supported by 66% of the British public [according to a February 2024 YouGov poll] – it generates a torrent of abuse. The sheer scale has taken me aback. Why am I being made to feel so bad about my race, religion and politics? At the same time, I also receive this outpouring of lovely, kind messages. They’re much higher in volume, but it’s the abuse that sticks. My therapist said our brains often process negativity as an existential threat. I’m on high alert, which takes up more of my brain space. Whereas the lovely, nice stuff, I move on from quicker.

I try to find a balance. I have to be resilient to deal with it, but I also need to take a step back when necessary. For me, that means spending time with family and friends. It’s binging Netflix or going to the cinema. It’s about going to spaces where I don’t feel unsafe.

When I’m out in public, the vast majority of my experiences are overwhelmingly positive. I can’t even begin to measure the number of kind people who come up to me. It’s what keeps me going. But when I am on public transport, walking along a street or in a supermarket, and someone makes eye contact with me, I quickly think, Does this person recognise me? Do they like me? Or do they not? If they don’t like me, what could happen in this scenario? That’s what it feels like on a daily basis. I am mindful of which route I take and what public transport I use. It becomes a normal way of operating. The vitriol I have received online has made me hyper vigilant offline, because at the end of the day, all it takes is one person. Two MPs have died in this role. Security is something everyone takes very seriously, because we all have the memories of Jo Cox and Sir David Amess.


I have a lone-worker device, which is available to all MPs. I use it to register where I am going and for how long. That information goes to a centralised system that is connected to the police. If I press the SOS button, I can be located instantly. There are strong security meas- ures in place. Parliament has wellbeing services, too; I use them and strongly recommend them, but the ways in which MPs are treated is a microcosm of a wider issue. My Muslim constituents feel let down. In remarks to police chiefs in February, while outlining crackdowns on protests, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak claimed the country was descending into ‘mob rule’. That same month, former home secretary Suella Braverman said Islamists are in charge of the country. And we have front pages that regularly scapegoat Muslims, trans people and migrants. Until that culture is challenged, until we address the fact that people in the highest office in this country attack our civil liberties and blame societal ills on marginalised people, all we’re doing is tinkering around the edges. We need systemic change.

I think all political parties need to look at where we’ve failed women of colour. No workplace should normalise abuse. Frankly, I feel there’s not much support from within the Labour Party, I just have to get on with it. It’s disappointing. We have serious issues internally. In the Forde Report [Labour’s report into allegations of bullying, racism and sexism in the Party], Diane Abbott was highlighted as someone who was being undermined and ridiculed within our own party structures. She’s had to endure so much. This place has failed her. A Tory donor called for her to be shot and said looking at her makes him ‘want to hate all Black women’. Hearing that repeatedly is the most vile experience I can imagine. But to have to listen to multiple people discuss it for the majority of a PMQs session [as happened to her in March], while she was denied the opportunity to speak was disgusting and dehumanising. I was sitting next to her. I felt horrible and helpless. That incident spoke to exactly what is wrong with this place. It is not what a functioning democracy looks like.

I was raging because Diane plays such a massive part in the story of young women like me, Apsana Begum [Labour MP for Poplar and Limehouse] and Bell Ribeiro-Addy [Labour MP for Streatham], who got elected in 2019. She was the first Black woman elected, so we’ve always seen Diane as a figurehead of the Labour movement. The place she has in our political history is unparalleled. She has shown me there’s just so much to do, but it can my constituency, Coventry South. Then solidarity from the day I was elected. Auntie Diane – she really is that for us! I worry women will be put off entering politics because of what they’ve seen hap- pen to her. It sends a damaging message. The work I and others have to do is to convince people it’s important we have a voice in parliament. We need more people from underrepresented backgrounds.

The vast majority of MPs are older, and they’re generally men who come from a certain social background. Many of them see this young woman of colour, who isn’t privately educated, who hasn’t spent her twenties and thirties in law or the financial sector, and think, Who is she to tell us we need to tax the rich, invest in our NHS, to not perpetuate racism and to have a foreign policy based on peace and justice? I think that’s how a lot of people – especially on the opposite benches – see me. They assume I will find myself out of place and they seek to reaffirm that idea. It’s sad to see so many young women and people of colour leave politics early. I’ve never contemplated quitting, because there’s just so much to do, but it can feel completely overwhelming at times.

I think what gets me through is my faith and speaking truth to power. I grew up being told that when you see an injustice, you speak up, even if your voice shakes – which mine sometimes does. There is a lot of solidarity in this place. That looks like regular tea and catch-ups, going into each other’s offices and unpacking, sitting together in the chamber as you all think, What the hell is going on here? That sense of sisterhood carries me through. There are loads of us here who have each other’s backs. I’ve known Bell Ribeiro-Addy the best part of a decade; we came up through the student movement together. Sometimes I ask Diane how she does it, and she just chuckles and says, ‘We’ve gotta get through it.’ There are a lot of little things that happen in a day that add up in a big way. Having conversations with the clerks and the canteen staff, catching someone’s smile, goes a long way.

And when I’m not in parliament, I fill my cup in community spaces – volunteering at the food bank and knocking on doors in my constituency, Coventry South. Then I come to Westminster and I’m able to speak up for what I believe in. That’s how you go forward. I know that when I’m in the chamber and I’m getting disproportionately heckled, that I’m also speaking to the people outside of parliament. It’s knowing who you represent; that’s my driving force.

I’m a person who was fundamentally shaped by the war on terror, the financial crisis, austerity, tripling tuition fees and gross inequality. I watched youth centres and libraries around me close down. I worked in retail for four years and my student debt was almost £50,000. I speak to people who are working and still relying on food banks. We have more food banks than McDonald’s restaurants! For me, it’s a moral duty to keep going as long as I can, until I see some kind of justice and equality restored in our society.

This job has awful lows and a side to it that is nasty and difficult, but it has really high highs, too. I get emails from people across the country, thanking me for speaking up on the issues they care about. You can’t beat the highs of finding out that someone’s been able to challenge the Department for Work and Pensions and get the right amount of benefits, which is going to make a massive difference to their lives. Or speaking up for a ceasefire and a Palestinian constituent thanking me and bringing me dates. We cried together; it left me speechless. That’s where I find value in using these corridors of power to challenge the status quo.

As an MP, I see my role as bridging social movements and the Labour movement. Whatever we have won as a society hasn’t come from the government saying it’s the right thing to do. Women’s right to vote, the NHS – it all comes from the grassroots campaigns, trade unions and communities. I’m lucky to be able to amplify the causes from those spaces. Right now, we face many crises: the damage of 14 years of austerity, the economic crisis, the environmental crisis. We have to keep fighting and organising and building.

I hope a Labour government is one that has ambitious policies and invests in our NHS, our schools and in our public sector. I hope it is one that uses its position in the international arena to advocate for justice and peace. That’s a bold and ambitious future, but politics is the business of hope. We have to believe things can change. We have to try.

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