Rosena Allin-Khan Interview: Labour Deputy Leader Hopeful Says Growing Up In Poverty 'Puts Fire In Your Belly'

"I lived a life where not that much was expected of me. I was living under a Thatcher and then a Major government as a mixed race kid from a poor family in London."
Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Rosena Allin-Khan, the wildcard in the race to be Labour’s next deputy leader, is a Cambridge University-educated doctor.

But unlike many of her peers at the university’s prestigious medical school, her story is not one of private education and privilege.

Brought up by a single mum in a working class home in Tooting, Allin-Khan failed her A Levels - with two Es and a U - and at 18 never imagined she would go on to represent the London borough in parliament and realise her dream of becoming a doctor.

“It all felt pretty bleak,” she tells HuffPost UK. “I remember crying on the phone to my mum and feeling absolutely lost.”

Allin-Khan, who describes the task before Labour’s next deputy as a “roll your sleeves up” job in the wake of December’s devastating defeat, re-sat her exams but life was a struggle.

“My mum was a single mum and she had to work three jobs, so my brother and I always had jobs and it was quite tough,” she says. “So I was an ice cream scooper, I worked in Next shoes and accessories, I did silver service waitressing, I worked in a call centre trying to sell quality assurance manuals, I worked trying to sell weddings. You name it, I’ve done it.”

Allin-Khan, who is 42, describes her younger self as someone who “refused to give up” and thanks Labour health reforms for opening up access to Cambridge’s Lucy Cavendish College to graduates after 2000.

She admits battling confidence problems and applied only after months of regular appeals from her close pals.

“I had lived a life where not that much was expected of me,” she says. “I was living under a Thatcher and then a Major government as a mixed race kid from a poor family in London.”

She feels getting into medical school was her biggest breakthrough and recalls her mum “crowdfunding money from friends” so she could prove to university chiefs her daughter had cash to fall back on.

“She said I’ll be damned if you don’t get in because we don’t have money and so off I went to this interview with this pretend money in the bank,” she says, adding: “For me it was a lot of pushing through barriers.

“I was just never ever giving up. I was just so determined to do it, because I knew it was the way that I could transform other people’s lives. I really believe that.”

The mum-of-two, who is Muslim and wife to a Welshman, used her education to work in humanitarian aid and has a decade of experience working in conflict and disaster zones, such as Gaza and Lebanon.

A fan of extreme sports such as boxing and skiing, Allin-Khan, who is thought to be among Labour’s moderates, was asked by Jeremy Corbyn to serve as shadow sports minister and has used the role to speak out against racism in football and campaign for free standing at grounds.

Like her rivals Ian Murray, Richard Burgon and Dawn Butler, Allin-Khan will struggle to beat the clear favourite Angela Rayner, but her energy and enthusiasm are infectious and will leave an impression.

“If you have grown up in poverty, you know that it doesn’t know regional discrimination”

- Rosena Allin-Khan

She is also keen to reframek the narrative that only politicians from outside London can communicate about the realities of poverty and hardship.

“I think it’s important to have a breadth of candidates on the ballot paper,” she says. “And if you have grown up in poverty, you know that it doesn’t know regional discrimination.

“And it gives you a fire in your belly to fight for everyone else, regardless of where they’re from.

“The deputy job is going to be a roll your sleeves up job, and I have a lot of ideas.”

She also hopes that opening up about her own triumph over adversity will inspire young women from ethnic minority backgrounds.

“There’s nothing like growing up under the Tory government with my ethnic background and my socio-economic background and having people try and put me in a box,” she says. “The only box you should ever go in is the one you make for yourself. And I’m learning that more and more as time goes on because, even this place [Westminster], you’re forced to identify one way or another.

“And actually, why do we have to? What can I just be, like, proudly British and proudly Polish-Pakistani.

Rosena Allin-Khan; British; Labour Party,
Rosena Allin-Khan; British; Labour Party,
Universal History Archive via Getty Images

“Why do I have to feel more one more the other. I just feel like, actually the only thing that matters is how I see myself and how I treat others.”

It was also at Cambridge that Allin-Khan first got involved with the Labour Party.

She was elected to Westminster when Sadiq Khan decided to run for London Mayor in 2016, sparking a by-election.

Her time in politics has been marked by turbulence. The day she was elected, Jo Cox was killed by a far-right terrorist and just days later the country voted to leave the European Union.

She strongly supported a second referendum on Brexit but, following Boris Johnson’s Conservatives securing a commanding 80-seat majority, now accepts it is time to move on.

Labour infighting has also been rife since Corbyn was elected but Allin-Khan hopes the leadership and deputy leadership contest will bring unity.

“The thing I learned the most from my humanitarian work is that we all come to our political opinions based on our past and life experiences. And you can’t ever take that away from someone - that is their lived experience,” she says.

“And once we accept that we’ve all had different lived experiences, you work with the information that you have about someone else or their ideology.

“I think people are inherently good and everyone generally in politics I
truly believe is just trying to do their best.”

While leadership favourite Rebecca Long Bailey gave Corbyn “ten out of ten” for his leadership, Allin-Khan does not agree.

“I would have to give him six out of ten,” she says. “He did get us to a point where we are an anti-austerity party and we have a record number of young people signed up to the party and registered to vote, but the biggest judge is the electorate and we didn’t wow anyone at the last election, did we.”

Following Corbyn’s claim that Labour “won the argument” at the election, Allin-Khan also stresses that the party has to reflect on the fact it has not won a majority since 2005.

“It’d be an incredible error to not recognise that we have suffered a catastrophic defeat and a blow to our party,” she says.

“We’ve lost the last last four elections. We need to learn from the mistakes of 2015.

“And I think we need to really look deep and listen in every corner of the country.”

The winner of the deputy leadership contest will be announced on April 5.


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