Sakina Sheikh is one of four candidates shortlisted by Labour’s National Executive Committee for the Lewisham East by-election triggered by Heidi Alexander’s departure to the London mayor’s office. She is a newly-elected Lewisham councillor and is backed by Momentum.
SKWAWKBOX: Thanks for making time to chat, you must be having a bit of a whirlwind week.
Sakina Sheikh: That’s it exactly, a whirlwind! I’m feeling really pleased and excited, really humbled to be on the shortlist it’s going to be an intense week and I’m concentrating on maintaining a level of focus.
SB: You’ve just come out of one election campaign – congratulations on becoming a councillor – and you’re straight into another. That’s one of the questions I’ve seen people raise, that you’ve only just become a councillor and are looking to move on to being an MP. How would you respond to that?
S: I think it’s really simple. I’ve lived in Lewisham my whole life, I know the people and the communities. Being a councillor is a great way to serve the people but it’s not the only way. I’ve been politically active in Lewisham for a long time, from being a youth worker, working with trade union activists from Unite, campaigning with Save Lewisham Hospital, working with Peace of Cake.
I’ve done a lot of community organising for years and being a councillor is one step to take as part of that. Organising with Peace of Cake, where we bring together different communities and they can break down barriers, open up space to fight xenophobia and racism.
Part of why I want to become an MP is that I think there are a lot of communities that are still marginalised, that are maybe very politically active – political with a small ‘p’ – and I think Labour lost touch with those communities, so I want to help bring them back.
SB: Who are you thinking of when you talk about marginalised communities?
S: I think working class communities, south Asian communities, black communities, young people. Lewisham is a 40% BAME [black, Asian, minority ethnic] community. They haven’t necessarily felt like Labour is a space where they would automatically seek support, but I think that’s changing. Labour’s new community organisers are a great idea to bridge that gap.
I sit in a lot of Labour events and I hear people say ‘how do we make our meetings or our movement more diverse?’ I think we’re asking the wrong questions. I think it’s less about how do we make the space more diverse and more about how can we resource the communities that are already doing the kind of politics we want to see?
For example, the Muslim communities in Lewisham is already very supportive of the Syrian refugees that are being placed here – referring back to Peace of Cake, there are a lot of people doing that kind of work and it’s particularly gendered as well. Are we as Labour offering venue space, are we offering financial support, are we offering something as simple as leaflet resources?
So for me, it’s less about stopping being a local councillor and more about a continuation of something I’ve been doing for a long time – and now I can see the Labour Party transforming into a body that can effect social change in a way that I believe it should be. Part of that is reconnecting with the communities that I have my roots in here in Lewisham. When the opportunity to become the MP came up, it seemed like the natural thing to go for it.
SB: You mentioned Peace of Cake just now – what is that?
S: Peace of Cake was set up by a woman called Asma Meer a couple of years ago in response to a rise in the number of Islamophobic attacks after the shootings and bombings in Paris. I think Asma realised that where a lot of Islamophobia or any form of discrimination comes from is not having space to meet people from different communities where you can demystify the toxic narratives that exist in the media. She saw that it needed to encompass people from all religions and it’s a non-political organisation, but while we can talk about what laws we might put in place to stop any form of discrimination, the grassroots work that she does on community cohesion is incredible.
Work like that should be resourced and the Labour Party should be resourcing it. She does all of it unpaid and sometimes just finding somewhere to meet is a problem. Why are we sitting in Labour meetings talking about how to be more diverse? We need to get out into the community, help the people who are already doing that kind of work and then the relationship will be built on trust – on friendship and sincerity and on taking on one another’s struggles, rather than having a recruitment drive.
SB: What do you make of events in Gaza this week? The Labour Party put out a very strong statement but not everyone has been unequivocal, or even issued much of a condemnation at all.
S: Innocent deaths in peaceful protests in Gaza are unacceptable and really upsetting. It’s not what we should be seeing happen. The statement put out by [Shadow Foreign Secretary] Emily Thornberry condemned innocent deaths and I support it. It’s important when speaking about this issue to remember that it’s a highly emotional one and so loaded for a lot of people, so it’s important to use a human rights lens when you look at the situation.
For me, there was an international agreement through the United Nations setting the 1967 borders and I think going beyond those is breaking international law. I think that’s something that needs to be addressed.
SB: You’ve been quite fulsomely positive in your comments about Heidi Alexander, who’d be regarded by a lot of SKWAWKBOX readers as fairly right-wing. If you’re selected and win the seat, what would you do differently to her?
S: I wish Heidi good luck in her new job. I’m convinced there’s an opportunity for the next MP to reflect the growth of the membership. I would like to see the next MP for Lewisham East be an outward-looking and positive advocate for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and that’s what I would plan to do.
Jeremy’s the reason I joined the Labour Party. As I said, I’ve been politically active all my life but it was the first time I saw the way I do politics in terms of movement-building and grassroots activism finally aligned with the way that the Labour Party was moving. If I become the MP, that’s something I’ll want to represent very clearly.
I can’t comment on Heidi’s views on the membership growth but one of the things I’d want to do as Lewisham East MP is grow the membership and get everybody active. We know the membership increased by five times nationally.
I’m sure that was similar in Lewisham, so I want to activate the members who’ve joined but maybe haven’t yet fully jumped in, make the CLP (constituency party) a place where new members can contribute just as much as older members – and that everyone in the party is reaching out.
I also want to see more Labour members becoming union members and activists and vice versa. The unions founded the party and I want to see Labour kind of evolve back to its roots, not just in Lewisham but nationally.
The local elections last week mean Labour would now be the biggest party at Westminster. But we will need a strong majority to deliver real change.
— Sakina Sheikh (@SakinaZS) May 10, 2018
SB: After the local elections a couple of weeks ago, you did really well on Sky News talking about the significance of the results, but the two men on the programme were, well, quite rude in cutting you off and talking over you quite a lot. You held your own very well but whether it’s because you’re female and young or because they were just arrogant, it was very annoying to see them trying to do that. Is that something you face often?
S: No – I’m quite confident and assertive and if I have something to say I make sure it gets said. I was at the Momentum hustings at the weekend and I made that very clear, I think, in the way I spoke about issues and I think you could see in that interview.
I have no problem holding my own and I’m looking forward to being in the House of Commons and challenging the government on their cruel, cruel programme of austerity, cuts and lies – and the institutional racism within their party, frankly.
If people talk over me I’m very good at making sure that what I need people to hear gets out there, as you saw on Sky. The people who look a fool are the ones who are being rude and disruptive – there’s a way of being assertive while still being respectful to the people you’re having a conversation with and I think I strike that balance well.
SB: Heidi Alexander was for a while the Shadow Health Secretary. Now, without assuming in any way that if you become MP you’ll be straight onto the front bench, but one of the things we’ve seen over the last few years is that it also might not take very long. If you were are some point in the future offered a front bench brief, is there any particular area you’d like to get involved in?
S: I think two main areas. First, the environment – I work on energy democracy at the moment, looking at how do we transform our energy infrastructure. The fossil fuel industry is not compatible with our future and if global temperatures rise more than two degrees it will cause disastrous climate change – and for a lot of small islands and places in Africa two degrees is already too far.
In the UK, one of the main ways we see the impact of pollution is in really bad air quality and that’s an issue for Lewisham East in particular. We have the Corbett estate where the air quality is particularly bad and results in deaths.
SB: What are the causes of that?
S: I think in Lewisham it’s particularly traffic-related. More broadly, you see what I call environmental racism – you do see a set-up of industries around poorer areas and I call it environmental racism as it disproportionately affects black, brown and working class communities, because there’s a devaluation of their lives and you get a higher proportion of industries that might cause bad air pollution and heavier roads going through.
You see it in Newham with the City Airport and its impact on air quality.
SB: Do you think people move to those areas because of lower house prices, or do councils give planning permission to go into/through those areas because the communities there are poorer and easier to impose on?
S: I think it’s more the latter. I’m sure there are elements of the former too, but what does choice look like when you’re poor or working class? You don’t necessarily get to choose where you live, it’s where you can afford to live. So I think it’s more the latter but they’re two sides of the same issue.
So I’ve been pushing for fossil fuel divestment, talking to Lewisham council about that and eight other Labour manifesto commitments and I’m also very interested in localised energy – communities owning their energy resources, building up renewable resources as well, building infrastructure and creating democratic ownership.
That’s something the Labour team want to do nationally as well. When we renationalise our bigger institutions it’s not just about centralised public ownership but how do we put them into democratic ownership, to create a socialist infrastructure that’s long-term and sustainable and genuinely empowers the people.
So I’d be very interested in the environmental brief and I think it’s a very exciting time for that because it has a big potential for our industrial strategy as well. Thatcher’s legacy was to deprive the north of its industries and she really punished the mining communities. We really see that deprivation still playing out generations later.
I’d like to help reshape the narrative around climate change toward talking about climate justice as well. Climate change is disproportionately caused by industrialisation but the countries in the global south that have to deal with the consequences, whether that’s rising sea levels, flooding, deforestation, drought in certain areas.
There’s a huge impact on the poor and on indigenous communities, as we saw with the Dakota access pipeline – and again, there’s a disproportionate effect on people with black or brown skin and on working-class communities.
Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is the only chance the UK has of having those conversations.
SB: And the second?
S: That would be the health brief. I used to work for Keep our NHS Public [KoNP] – which I found out about because I went to a ‘People’s parliament’ event organised by John McDonnell. He’d invite different campaigns to come and talk to people about important issues from institutionalised racism, deaths in police custody, sex workers to TTIP [the proposed ‘Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership’], to the NHS being privatised.
So I went along and I found it really empowering to be in Parliament and feel like I was helping shape the debate and the solutions. So I went to work for KoNP and I realised that the 2012 Health and Social Care Act pushed through by the Tories was a cruel piece of legislation, promoting the privatisation of the NHS when they had no mandate to do so, because they had campaigned on not reorganising it.
Moving the responsibility for providing health away from the Health Secretary onto CCGs [clinical commissioning groups], which are opaque and unaccountable to the communities they are deciding on behalf of – we’ve seen the damage of that here in Lewisham.
When New Cross walk-in centre was recently closed, the CCG ran a ‘consultation’ with the community, which overwhelmingly asked them not to close it – it added another 30,000 people onto an already overstretched A&E in Lewisham Hospital – and yet they went ahead and closed it.
I wasn’t a councillor at the time, but I went to the council’s ‘Healthier Communities’ meetings and said this is unaccountable and not what the community needs in a time of austerity when we have an NHS crisis.
SB: So you’d be fully on board with Labour’s plans to fully renationalise the NHS, then.
S: Absolutely. We need to repeal the Health and Social Care Act 2012 and we need to fully implement the NHS Reinstatement Bill. I feel very reassured that Jeremy Corbyn and his team would take us back to a place where the NHS is fully public and properly funded.
I think the NHS is a really beautiful, powerful thing and something we should all be proud of, but it’s also a really important way to communicate with people who maybe aren’t familiar or comfortable with socialism – that this is an institution that everyone loves and it’s just socialism in practice. Everyone gives a little bit and everyone benefits.
So the power of the NHS works on so many levels and that would be the second brief I’d be interested in.
Of course, my priority is making both of those things happen locally in Lewisham East and that’s why I want to be the next MP. I know that air quality is a major issue in Lewisham, I want to make sure that the commitment to fossil fuel divestment is something Lewisham maintains. I want to be in a position where I can talk about environmental racism and climate justice.
And also I want to be able to work on all the health issues we face – talking about that nationally but focusing locally on campaigning to make sure sure our health services get back to being properly funded because the Tories have been cutting our local services, that social care is properly funded, demanding more accountability from CCGs, especially about the incoming STP [‘Sustainability and Transformation Plan’ – camouflage for cuts] programme.
So thinking about future Shadow Cabinet roles is basically a thousand steps too far. If I’m privileged enough to win the selection I’ll be focused on making things happen locally. We successfully campaigned against major cuts to young people’s mental health services, but there are always more Tory cuts to fight and our social services are really suffering and that social care crisis has a big effect on the NHS, especially because people can’t be discharged from hospital when there is no safe care for them to be discharged to.
That’s why I’m running – this is my home, we face deprivation that’s disproportionate to other boroughs and it’s visibly increasing.
SB: The final hustings and the selection vote are on Saturday morning. What are your plans for the rest of the week – and what can people do to help if they want to?
S: Well, we’ve got a fantastic, grassroots network of campaigners – family, friends, fellow activists, community contacts in Lewisham and activists from around London as well. We’re going to be door-knocking, phone-banking – we want to speak to every single person in the constituency, at the very least by phone and as many as possible in person.
SB: Lewisham East has around 1,600 members – that’s quite a task in a few days, even if it was just phone calls!
S: It is, but it will happen. We’ll be working 24/7 so any help from anyone on campaigning will be so welcome. You can find me at Sakina4Lewisham on Facebook, there’s a Sakina4Lewisham website, I’m SakinaZS on Twitter or you can reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I want to speak to as many people as possible because I’m standing on a six-layered promise. Four of those are about policies and politics, but the first two are accountability and movement-building, which are about how I do those policies and politics.
I want to be as accountable and reachable as possible to the people I hope to represent and that I’m asking to vote for me, so I want to speak to people personally and if I’m blessed to be elected as the candidate and then MP for Lewisham East, I want to be as accessible as I can be to the people that elected me and I want to be someone who is as active as possible in that.
That will be not just for this week, but this is a chance to bed that idea in with people so they know what to expect from me.
SB: Last question – how do you rate your chances in the selection? There are people in Lewisham East who tour the country teaching right-wingers how to control their CLP even when they’re in the minority, but on the other hand I’ve heard that you were impressive at the Lewisham-wide Momentum hustings at the weekend. What do you think your chances are of actually winning it?
S: I’m in it to win it! I wouldn’t be doing it otherwise. Like I said, my motives are really simple and really sincere. This is my home. I know the issues locally and I know what we need to do to fix them, so I’m going to do my best to make sure I’m in place to do that.
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