March 17, 2020 10:38 AM

I want to inspire Asians to own their identity

Rosena Allin-Khan MP: "I want to inspire Asians to own their identity”

A CANDIDATE in the race for Labour’s deputy leadership has admitted the party “lost trust with voters” following its crushing defeat in the December general election.

Tooting MP Dr Rosena Allin-Khan is up against fellow MPs Richard Burgon, Dawn Butler, Ian Murray and Angela Rayner in the race, triggered by Labour’s huge loss last year.

Suffering one of its worst results since 1935, Labour lost dozens of seats which they had held for decades, including a number of constituencies in the Midlands and northern England, which historically tended to support the party.

The loss was down to a lack of trust, Allin- Khan believes. “People, quite frankly, didn’t trust us to govern,” the MP told Eastern Eye. “We had a manifesto which I believe was full of good things, but voters didn’t trust us to deliver it.”

The party’s stance on Brexit was an additional factor – “we didn’t seem decisive enough” – and the level of anti-Semitism in the party and the way it was subsequently handled “closed a lot of doors”.

“I’ve been up and down the country talking to individuals, wondering why Labour lost, and I’ve been told by activists that people didn’t think we had our own house in order,” she said.

Today, she said, the most common concern of voters is the NHS, the level of safety on the streets and housing. “We need to show that the hopes and dreams that people have for themselves are the ones that we (Labour) have for them,” the mother-of-two said.

Next month’s contest will also see the unveiling of a new Labour leader, after Jeremy Corbyn announced he would be stepping down following the general election last year. Keir Starmer, Lisa Nandy and Rebecca Long-Bailey are in the running to lead the opposition party.

Allin-Khan, however, will not be voicing her support for any of the candidates as she believes the party needs to “heal all divisions (and) unite” after it fared so badly in the election.

“When I’m working in A&E and I see kids coming in with lung infections because of mouldy housing or I see kids who have to go to food banks (…) they don’t care if Labour is left, right or centre,” she explained. “So, the most important thing to move forward is to unite and I can show that by not nominating someone for leader.”

On her role in the deputy leadership race, Allin-Khan said she was determined to use it as an opportunity to help “ethnic minorities own their identity and be proud of it”. “That is what I want people to feel I embody when they look at me,” she explained. “For me, being in this race, if that is the one thing I get out of this…that other young British Asians can look at me and say, ‘if she can do it, I can do it too’, then that is my job done.”

Allin-Khan admitted she had faced prejudice due to her mixed Pakistani-Polish heritage and has received criticism that she “isn’t fully Asian”. In response to the comments, the MP is keen to highlight her mixed heritage does not make her Asian background any less “important, valuable or special.”

“I identify with being an Asian woman, in the same way that I am proud to be Polish,” she said. “Some people in the Asian community wonder how Asian I feel because I’m mixed race, but I’m proud to wear my sari and embrace my heritage.”

Some have even suggested that she change her forename to Rosie and take her husband’s surname to downplay her ethnicity. However, Allin-Khan is proud of her roots and is keen to emphasise it.

“I went double barrelled because I didn’t want to lose the Asian part of my surname and that for me, is very important,” she said. “I am proud to say that this is who I am – a Polish and Pakistani, proudly British Muslim woman who loves the Labour party.”

Born and brought up in Tooting in a working-class household, Allin-Khan described her young life as “tough”. Her mother worked three jobs to keep the family financially afloat, and Allin-Khan recalled there only being one heater in the house that they had to move from room to room to keep themselves warm.

Allin-Khan failed her A-Levels, citing the difficulties at home as a factor. Despite the setbacks, she still had a desire to study medicine. However, she was told “it wasn’t for girls like (her)”, as it was financially prohibitive, and she didn’t come from the “right background”.

Allin-Khan, who still works part-time as a doctor, knew she had to keep fighting if she wanted to pursue her dream career. “I think my upbringing led me to believe I had no choice but to sink or swim,” she said.

After resitting her A-Levels, the then-24-year-old accepted a place to study medicine at Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge, which was funded by scholarships. “I really believe that where you start off in life doesn’t need to dictate where you end up,” the A&E doctor said.

Although she credited her own resilience for her success, Allin-Khan believes the Labour government gave her an opportunity to fulfil her potential when things looked bleak. “The Labour government turned my life around,” the 43-year-old claimed. “I redid my A-Levels, did a degree and went to Cambridge to study medicine and I’m afraid those possibilities aren’t going to be there for a new generation of kids under this Tory government.”

Allin-Khan, the MP for Tooting since 2016, admitted the biggest challenge of her involvement in politics is racism. She often faces abuse on social media and is mostly targeted for her Muslim beliefs.

“When I look at the order in which my abuse comes, it is Muslim first, then my Asian heritage comes second,” she admitted. “My gender is third. Without a doubt, the amount of abuse is a huge challenge.”

It is a concern that young BAME women may be deterred from entering politics due to the abuse other politicians have faced, she said. In response, Allin-Khan regularly engages with schools and community groups to encourage young people to “keep going and not to lose faith”.

There is also a level of racism in the House of Commons, she said, highlighting that she is the first Muslim person ever to make it on to the deputy leadership ballot. Although it is encouraging to see more women and ethnic minority politicians in parliament, Allin-Khan believes there is “still a ceiling on what we can achieve”.

Recently, Allin-Khan approached a “prominent BAME politician” to ask them to consider nominating her in the deputy leadership contest. However, the politician responded: “I’m only in the game of backing winners and you don’t look like you’ve got any chance of winning.”

“We can’t have that attitude towards people, and I’ve said in my grassroots revival plan that our BAME communities can’t be an afterthought when it comes to supporting people to hold public office,” she said. “We need to be seeing ethnic minorities at the top of our party, on the front benches.

“I’ve smashed that ceiling, but I plan to throw the ladder down and say people ‘come up behind, you can do this.’ But I know it isn’t easy.”

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