Rosena Allin-Khan: “We need to take our party off life support”
Rosena Allin-Khan says Labour is in a “critical condition”. The A&E doctor, a relative unknown outside of Westminster, believes she has the plan to get her party off life support. But she is facing an uphill battle in the race to succeed Tom Watson as deputy leader. Having overcome many hurdles during her career, can she surprise people once more? She speaks to Sebastian Whale.
When a sick or injured patient presents themselves before Rosena Allin-Khan, she does not automatically diagnose them. First, the A&E doctor checks their history, carries out an examination, and runs tests. “That’s where we are in our party now,” the Labour MP says. “We are going to have to dig deep.”
Her attempts to identify Labour’s problems have taken her around the country, from Grimsby to Heywood and Middleton, talking to party activists and members. After announcing her candidacy for the deputy leadership, she emailed every Labour councillor for whom she could find a contact for, alongside all prospective candidates that stood at the election who fell short, many of whom had not heard from the party. “I contacted all of these people and said, ‘You matter, and I want to hear from and engage with you’,” she says.
Allin-Khan, the MP for Tooting since June 2016, says Labour is in a “critical condition”. “We need to take our party off life support. But it is salvageable,” she argues.
Sitting in her parliamentary office, Allin-Khan, a relative unknown to many beyond Westminster, knows she started the race as the outsider. She has yet to shed light on who she would like to succeed Jeremy Corbyn as leader. To try and suss out the way she might be leaning, we delve into a few quick-fire questions.
Tea or coffee? “Tea”. Oasis or Blur? “Oasis”. Drama or comedy? “Comedy”. Blair or Brown? “Blair”. Night in or night out? “Night out”. Corbyn or Miliband? “Corbyn”. Cats or dogs? “Dogs”. Chocolate or crisps? “Crisps”.
So far, so good, though it’s not easy to read into her politics; Allin-Khan finds herself somewhere between Blair and Corbyn. Time to chance my arm. ‘Lisa or Keir?’ She considers the question. “Hmmm… I’m undecided. I’m the only person to not nominate a leader because I genuinely really want to see what everyone has to put on the table.” I profess sadness that my plan hasn’t worked. “You were being a cheeky monkey,” she says.
There are few things Allin-Khan would not talk about openly. She has welcomed the increased level of scrutiny that comes with running for a senior political position. It has presented her with a platform to raise her profile and focus on the issues that she cares about.
“I am literally living my best life right now,” she says. “I’m going around meeting activists, members, communities and saying, ‘Thank you’ and telling them that they matter. Yeah, I’m having a really good time.”
The daughter of a Polish Catholic mother and a Pakistani Muslim father, Allin-Khan grew up in Tooting, south London. Her mum was in a successful Polish girl band in the 70s named Filipinki. She met Allin-Khan’s father, who worked as a TV repair man, at a dance in Kensington Town hall while she was touring. Giving up her music career, her mother took on a job at a Mobil petrol station. When her parents divorced, Allin-Khan’s mother juggled three jobs to provide for her and her brother.
Upon learning that her grandmother was blind, Allin-Khan decided at the age of three that she wanted to become a doctor. Bar a brief dalliance with Egyptology at the age of seven, she never wavered from her plans. For her ninth birthday, her mother gave her a Reader’s Digest Medical Manual, and at the age of 14, she was in St George’s hospital undertaking work experience, sitting in on a surgery. “I still always came back to wanting to do medicine. It was like a drive, a sense of vocation. Like, if I don’t do this, I won’t be happy with my life.”
At Trinity St Mary School, her career advisor told her that medicine was not a realistic choice for girls like herself. After failing her A Levels, she rallied herself to retake them, never losing sight of her overarching aim. With medical school initially unaffordable, she studied Biochemistry at Brunel University. At the age of 24, Allin-Khan was accepted to study medicine at Cambridge.
Politics also came in at a young age. She recalls hearing ‘Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher’ chanted on the school playground. “I was very acutely aware of the fact that there were haves and have nots in this world, and we were definitely the have nots,” she says. “I just used to say, ‘It’s so hard’. My mum would reply, ‘There is a better way, there is hope, you must never ever lose hope’. We used to talk about the Labour party and one day being in power.”
Allin-Khan signed up to the Labour society at Cambridge. She also took up boxing, having trained in martial arts at school. “I was the only girl on the team, so I wasn’t allowed to take part in any of the competitive stuff... But I trained lots and got involved,” she says. Allin-Khan continues to help out as a doctor at Balham boxing club. “I love dancing, I’m a dancing nutcase. I also really like boxing for what it does for your mental health,” she adds.
Following stints at the Royal London and Homerton hospitals,orked in humanitarian medicine. She has helped victims of flooding in Pakistan and Palestinian refugees in Lebanese camps. Her work has taken her to many parts of the world, from Burma to North Africa. She continues to carry out emergency medical assistance, alongside doing shifts at the A&E department at St George’s hospital. On overseas trips, she will often omit sleep so that she can maximise her time on the ground.
How on earth can she balance all these things at the same time? “It’s time management and also multi-tasking. And I don’t sleep much. I’m such an opportunity-seizer, if the time feels right for something, I make it happen. I don’t believe in the word impossible,” she says. She adds: “I’m just driven by this internal pull to do things. That was the same reason I decided to run to be deputy leader on 13 December. I just had to do it. I just saw this door close on a generation of kids who grew up like me who desperately needed that hope.”
On 17 June 2016, the day after Jo Cox was tragically murdered in her constituency, Allin-Khan was elected MP for Tooting. The mother of two, who is married to a Welsh economist, had served as a councillor on Wandsworth Council, representing a ward that had been Conservative for 24 years until 2014. “Three recounts, sixteen votes later I won the seat. That’s sixteen conversations that made the difference. That’s how we need to rebuild our party,” she says. From October 2016, she served as shadow sports minister on Corbyn’s frontbench, until standing down earlier this month.
The best piece of advice Allin-Khan ever received was from a friend who told her: “Don’t accept the limitations that other people place on you”. “I’ve stood by that and I try to dish that advice out myself,” she says. Her biggest fear is to not have been able to save a life. “Sometimes if I do an aid mission I don’t sleep because I think if I can do something now, right this minute, it might save one more life,” she says. As for a superpower, she would want the ability to completely heal a person. “Just to be able to touch somebody and to take that agony… I would love to be able to do that.”
As she channels her energy into the deputy leadership race, Allin-Khan is prepared to take on some hard truths. The party fell short at the election, she says, due to unclear messaging and reaching its position on Brexit too late in the day. The former people’s vote campaigner says Labour must accept that the UK will leave the EU as December’s vote was an election on Brexit. As for what Labour got right, she says the party should continue championing its anti-austerity message.
On anti-Semitism, Allin-Khan says her first meeting would be with the Jewish Labour Movement. She would place a timeline on current investigations to ensure they’re concluded sooner and commit to expulsions for anyone found to be anti-Semitic. She also proposes a “truly” independent system for dealing with complaints and vows to adopt “every single” recommendation of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is carrying out a report into anti-Semitism in Labour. She also wants to implement a formal education programme to provide re-education at grassroots level. “Sometimes, people use anti-Semitic tropes without really realising what they’re saying,” she says. She declares: “Never, ever, ever again as a Labour party can we have a single door close in our face because somebody believes we are anti-Semitic. That just cannot happen.”
We meet as the row over Meghan Markle’s treatment in the British press continues at a pace. Allin-Khan, who is a Muslim, says the majority of Britons are good, welcoming, wonderful people. “I’m proud of my Polish-Pakistani heritage and I believe, truly believe, that most people are outward looking internationalists. I have to believe that, otherwise we lose all hope. But it is without a doubt that Meghan Markle experienced a type of behaviour that was related to being non-white,” she says.
“I’ve been alarmed to see the comparisons between photos of her and Kate Middleton at similar points in their journey, and the headline differences. For me, that is an abomination.” Allin-Khan says she experiences racism over social media.
As deputy leader, Allin-Khan’s focus would be on the grassroots. “I want to be the voice of the grassroots at the leadership table, not a leader in waiting,” she says. She also wants to reach out to former voters who backed the Tories on 12 December. “Labour needs to acknowledge mistakes of the past, there can’t be any denying what we got wrong. There needs to be a humble acknowledgement of it and a willingness to ameliorate the problems and move forward with absolute unity.”
At the time of writing, Allin-Khan has been nominated by eleven constituency Labour parties for the deputy leadership, and one party affiliate. She trails behind her rivals Richard Burgon, Angela Rayner, Ian Murray and Dawn Butler.
Regardless, Allin-Khan is keeping the faith. Either way, this contest has been an affirmative experience for the 42-year-old, who, as expected, finds the positive where others might not.
“I had no idea how far I would get or where I would go in this journey, but I thought ‘Throw myself into the race’. Granted, I’m the rank outsider that nobody expected to be doing it. But it means I can sit here with you now and talk about what I feel is important. I’m an added voice in these conversations in the deputy leadership race. There’s value in that, however far you make it.”