At the 2019 general election Faiza Shaheen came within 1,262 votes of a “Portillo moment”. The Labour left-winger had made it her mission to oust the former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith in Chingford and Woodford Green – her home constituency – but fell just short.
“The next few days, as I nursed a broken heart and tried to make sense of what happened, feelings of foolishness crept in. Who did I think I was to beat all the odds?” Shaheen recalls in her new memoir-polemic Know Your Place (out on 8 June).
Her aim, she told me when we recently met, is to counter the myth that “anyone can make it”. While Shaheen lost in Chingford, the LSE academic and statistician is regularly cited as an exemplar of social mobility. Born into a working-class Pakistani-Fijian family, she went on to study politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University and holds a PhD. But Shaheen – who has used ONS data to calculate there was a 0.3 per cent chance that someone of her background would go to Oxford – is tired of being celebrated as an exception. If she has “succeeded”, the corollary is that others have failed.
“This is a really important time to say to people, ‘I know you’re finding it hard and it’s not because of you,’ ” Shaheen, 41, says. “There are so many people – it’s not just working-class people, it’s middle-class people too – who have done the right thing all their lives, they have worked hard, they got whatever qualification they needed for their job, and they still can’t make ends meet.”
Many of the statistics cited in Shaheen’s book are grimly familiar: a 2019 Sutton Trust report found that while only 7 per cent of the UK population attended private school, 71 per cent of barristers, 61 per cent of doctors and just over half of print journalists did. Why does she believe that Britain is so socially immobile?
“I think the class system is a big part of that. It’s so entrenched. In recent years I’ve worked in different countries and, of course, there are class hierarchies but here it’s so entrenched through the education system and through networks.”
Yet in spite of these rigid inequalities, politicians of all parties have continued to trumpet the myth of social mobility. Rather than trying to make the concept a reality, Shaheen’s contention is that we should abandon it entirely. “We need to value different jobs – when there’s a shortage of lorry drivers everything stops. We need to have a different narrative of what success is in our society, who’s valued and who’s not. Let’s not call people ‘low-skilled’.”
Her message echoes that of Olaf Scholz, the German Social Democratic chancellor, who warned: “Among certain professional classes, there is a meritocratic exuberance that has led people to believe their success is completely self-made. As a result, those who actually keep the show on the road don’t get the respect they deserve. That has to change.”
But politicians have embraced the narrative of social mobility for a reason. Aspiration is a powerful force. What does Shaheen say to a working-class voter whose dream is to become a millionaire?
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“I hear that on the doorstep. Of course people want to have hope for their lives: life is hard without money and everyone has learned that yet again. Given the way our society is constructed, it’s not a surprise that people think, ‘Perhaps these problems could not be mine.’
“But there’s a way to connect that individual aspiration to community aspiration because so many people are struggling – ‘I had all these dreams and it hasn’t worked out for me’. It’s important to say that we focus too much on asking you to work harder and harder to overcome societal barriers that are the responsibility of government and policymakers.”
In the book Shaheen charts the racism and classism she has faced throughout her life. On election day in 2019 she was branded a “terrorist sympathiser” by two aggressive men outside the polling station; at Oxford she was asked, “How come you speak like you’re from EastEnders?”
“I was always prepared for it,” she says, when asked how she copes with this abuse. “From a young age we were made aware of it and given a lot of role models.” Shaheen’s father, a car mechanic, would show his children videos of Muhammad Ali and tell them: “When they call you ‘P***’, punch them like this.”
Today, Shaheen says, she remembers that “they’re going to win if I just give up”. It is such resilience that perhaps explains her decision to stand again in Chingford and Woodford Green (a seat Labour would comfortably win on current polling).
Her confrontation with Smith is personal as well as political: Shaheen’s mother, a lab technician, who died of heart failure in 2017, suffered the indignity of a benefits reassessment despite doctors declaring her unfit for work. Smith was the work and pensions secretary.
Shaheen is now regularly described by the media as the “only left candidate” to have been selected since Keir Starmer became Labour leader and imposed new selection processes (“some amazing people have been blocked,” Shaheen said). But the label isn’t one she entirely accepts.
“It’s weird because I work with all these governments around the world and I’m asked to be on these panels [Shaheen’s most recent policy report was launched by Jacinda Ardern, the former prime minister of New Zealand], so sometimes I get annoyed by this badge, ‘the left candidate’. A lot of what I say is not off-the-chart radical.”
Though politicised from an early age, Shaheen did not join Labour until after Jeremy Corbyn became leader (having voted for him as an affiliated trade unionist). Does she believe he should be permitted to stand as a Labour candidate?
“I think his statement was really stupid,” she replied in reference to Corbyn’s remark that the scale of anti-Semitism in Labour was “dramatically overstated for political reasons”. “I don’t know enough about whether he apologised or what the situation was, but Keir Starmer set it up to be a zero-tolerance thing [on anti-Semitism] and once you’ve done that it becomes impossible for that statement to sit alongside it.”
Some on the left now feel betrayed by Starmer, who has discarded leadership campaign pledges such as abolishing tuition fees and taking private utilities into public ownership. Does Shaheen?
“Umm, are you trying to get me kicked out of the party?!” she replied (only half-joking). “Maybe ‘I don’t want to get kicked out of the party’ is the answer, I don’t know what to tell you.”
She eventually gave a careful answer: “I’ve heard a lot said about how circumstances have changed. What I’m trying to do locally with my members is to be clear about where I stand. You’re not going to hear me taking lines from the Tories on immigration or talking about tagging refugees. I don’t believe in that. I still think public ownership is a good idea. I’m trying to be clear with people about what I stand for and be the type of person that is held to account.”
Having exceeded Labour’s national performance last time round, Shaheen is unsurprisingly hopeful of victory this time, but she warned: “People on the doorstep are very, very angry with the Tories, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re completely sold on Labour. We still need to win people’s hearts and minds.”
Shaheen favours policies such as universal childcare (“wealthy people put their kids into the same system, there’s more social mixing”) and tuition fees abolition to attract voters. Should she become an MP, she will attract exactly the kind of headlines she has critiqued: “the working-class Muslim girl who made it to parliament”. This is a conundrum she is already grappling with. “I do worry about that tension a lot. I don’t want to put people off because you have every right to be there. But you also have to be honest about how hard you have to work if you’re from a different background.
“Don’t know your place but remember the way in which we really change the rules of games is if we come together and say, ‘We’re not taking this any more.’ ”
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This article was amended on 7 July to remove a reference to Faiza Shaheen’s “late” father. We apologise for the error.