Interview: Dr Rosena Allin-Khan

Dr Rosena Allin-Khan | Official Parliamentary portrait

Walking into the Christian Life Centre in Cowley, I really didn’t know what to expect when attending a rally for Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, the MP for Tooting who is running to be Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. As soon as I walk in, I see Rosena, dotting amongst Labour members, talking to local councillors and attendees, talking about inevitable topics such as Brexit, antisemitism and what really happened at the last General Election.

Without a doubt, the room felt hopeful, which really isn’t surprising; Allin-Khan is extremely charismatic, she exudes happiness and has a true fighting spirit. 

After a bit of pottering around, we’re shuffled towards the seating area, flanked by two large posters – both reading “Doctor Rosena, Taking Labour Forward.” The slogan really seems to sum up Rosena’s energy for the Labour Party. Despite only becoming an MP in 2016, winning her Tooting seat, vacated by Sadiq Khan, in a by-election – having only become a local Councillor just over a year before that – Allin Khan went straight to the front bench, working on sexual exploitation of children in football, and mental health in sports. 

The main interview begins with an introduction from Rosa Bolger, the leader of Witney Town Council, and a passionate plea of support for Rosena. The two entered politics in similar ways – both won their first council elections by a very small margin and are incredibly passionate about local politics. 

Rosena opens with a story about her upbringing – one which can only be described as very untypical, but is most definitely a story of great personal aspiration. Born to a Polish mother and Pakistani father in Tooting, she studied medical biochemistry at Brunel University. She had failed her A Levels, making the point that “it wasn’t that unexpected given I didn’t show up to two of them.” She alludes to a very working class upbringing, facing the brutalities of Thatcherism and the difficulties she faced as a mixed-race person.

After graduating from Brunel, she studied Graduate Medicine at Cambridge and became an Emergency A&E doctor, a job she still works alongside her role as a Member of Parliament; She says this gives her a foot in the real world, truly being on the front line. Her work as a doctor is the foundation of her political views – she says the A&E room is a microcosm of society, where one sees all of the ills of society, from poor quality housing problems, to mental health problems, to cuts in disability benefits. Throughout, she is incredibly humble, downplaying her incredible achievements. She is intent on talking about the lives she wants to help, rather than her own. 

As the interview begins, the questions are definitely ones you’d expect at most Labour meetings – life outside of England, the NHS, Labour’s economics, support for Proportional Representation, Brexit and the failure of Labour’s messaging in the last General Election. 

Opening with Scotland, Allin-Khan is asked the question on the mind of everyone who wants Labour to win the next general election. Without Scotland, there will likely never be a Labour government. “The path to power runs straight through Scotland,” is her answer. With pitch-perfect messaging, Allin-Khan explains how the first place she would visit when elected Deputy Leader would be Scotland. Allin-Khan says that problem that Labour has had in Scotland is that “people voted SNP because they felt they were basically having to choose how Scottish they were, and the SNP provided them with that opportunity.”  She claims that the issue of a second independence referendum is incredibly hard to fight in Scotland, because it is hardening people’s voting preferences and until the issue is sorted, people in Scotland will not have an opportunity to get the SNP out. And the SNP is acting like the Tories quite a lot on many issues,” citing drug abuse problems and social cuts.

Like many Scottish Labour activists, she is also critical of the way that senior Labour politicians have dealt with Scotland in the last few years, especially the actions of Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who unilaterally announced support for a second referendum during the 2019 referendum, which angered not just local Labour members, but also gave ammunition to the Tories’ pitch to the Unionist vote. The difficulty in Scotland, she says, is that “members on the ground are also divided. The task is to find unity on the ground in Scotland.” 

Scotland has truly been brought to the forefront of Labour politics, especially in the Deputy Leadership race, where Allin-Khan is facing Labour’s only MP in Scotland who has kept his seat in a sea of SNP-yellow, Ian Murray. Much to my personal delight, but unlike the commentary of many English Labour MPs, Allin-Khan makes sure that she also highlights the political situation in Wales. She claims that we will see Wales going a similar way, and without that we will never see Labour in government. 

Moving on, a concerned audience member asks about the NHS – perhaps most apt for Allin-Khan, whose campaign has repeatedly spun that she is the “A&E doctor, not Spin Doctor candidate”. Before the audience member has even finished their question, Allin-Khan knows what is about to be asked – parity in mental health funding and reducing the stigma. She highlights her experience in the NHS, and how there have been cases of Mental Health Departments having money taken away from their budgets from other services in NHS trusts, despite the fact that mental health services are already underfunded, in order for the trust as a whole to be able to stay afloat. 

Her solution to the crisis is a full integration between NHS services and social care services. She says that “without properly integrating social care with our NHS and having a fully funded, fully integrated service, we will never see the NHS we want to see. It’s the key to the crisis.” The problem, she claims, is that people can’t enter hospitals because there simply aren’t enough beds, and patients aren’t able to move to suitable facilities so have to stay in hospital. Her answer is one of principle, but she also talks about the personal experience of caring for a Dad with dementia, her time as a local councillor, and her job as an A&E Doctor. “I want to keep showing Johnson and the Tories up for the liars they are, I won’t ever stop talking about it” she claims. From her record, she’s telling the truth. 

The next question was a bit unexpected. The audience member brings up the recent case of an audience member’s racist rant on Question Time. Rosena’s answer was moving – and she broadened the question to one about systemic racism in this country. She says “99.9% of this country are good, tolerant, kind people” and that “racism, misogyny and hate isn’t a partisan issue, it’s an issue of right and wrong, going to the base of our values.” 

Unlike some politicians, Allin-Khan is a strong supporter of an independent complaints process – for cases of antisemitism, racism, sexism, homophobia and issues of sexual harassment and assaultIt is, she says “differences in our skin colour, our sexuality and ethnicity which makes our country beautiful, and is all part of a brilliant British tapestry.” Her answer on racism is a moving one, drawing on her family’s experiences of the Holocaust, and having Pakistani-Polish heritage. But she ensures that she pivots to her concrete solution to the problems.

One of the only unfortunate things was the lack of young people in the room. Amongst a sea of faces, I was one of only two younger members, though, Allin-Khan was intent on asking questions from the most diverse roster possible. One of the young members, the Chair of Oxford Brookes Labour pressed Allin-Khan on economic messaging.

The question begins with a statistic that only 12% of British people understand discussion of economic policy in the media, before asking Allin-Khan what the party can do to ensure that people not only understand policies, but also trust them enough to vote Labour. She begins her answer by promoting her relatively short political career as a benefit – saying that when she was a doctor, she had to understand politics and economics from the outside. Such a response would usually seem like a cop-out – that she was trying to make inexperience a skill – but in this case, that’s really not how it came across. 

It came across as someone who was frustrated at political discourse but really understands the base issues affecting the country. 

Her response was one I can envisage working across the country – that the party was “not out to punish the rich, but rather ask that people could contribute a little more in order to help their neighbourhood”; from her experience, she says, she has found no-one who has disagreed with the basic notion of paying a little more to help others when it’s framed that way. 

In response to a similar question about political positioning and the failure of the last election, she said that the Party’s message was one where “people felt that the party would help you if you were in desperate need of a foodbank, or that the party hated you if you had money” – they simply ignored the people who aren’t living in abundance but aren’t facing the rock face of austerity. 

In stark terms, Allin-Khan said that the party needed to stop being so anti-business. It was a huge contrast to what many are saying across the Labour movement and not in line with other parts of her campaign, which has focussed itself on grassroots revival – many of whom are on the left. It, rather, harked back to a Third Way rhetoric of politics, that captures more of the middle ground. 

But perhaps that’s not incredibly surprising from this candidate. A lot of her campaign seems to be about the rhetoric of winning – whether it’s the media, and how we talk to them, or not punishing aspiration, or focussing on the positive aspects of the Party’s manifesto, especially that “if we are anti-something, such as private schools, we should instead promote it as why parents should want to send their kids to a state school.” 

It really felt like she knew what the Labour Party had to do, rhetorically, to win back middle and southern England voters who felt like if they were in a higher tax-bracket, the Labour Party wasn’t for them (which Allin-Khan resolutely disagrees with) or for Brexiteers in the north of England who deserted the Labour Party  because they couldn’t trust the Party – “we sat on the fence so long we got splinters in our bottoms.” She called out the three line slogan of “Get Brexit Done” against a plethora of different policy announcements (which were good, but overloading”) such as WASPI pensions, free broadband, or a second referendum in Scotland. It’s undeniable that Allin-Khan is media savvy and knows how to play to a room, and probably the broader electorate.

Dr Rosena at the rally | taken at Christian Life Centre in Cowley

When I was able to sit down with Rosena individually, and ask a few more questions, I was able to delve a bit deeper into some of the pertinent issues facing the party, her favourite Labour leader who was, or never was, as well as her newest pledge, that she would seek a Vote of Confidence after one year. 

Allin-Khan repeated her earlier line – “essentially, we had too many policies coming out too quickly, and we couldn’t complete with three very simple words of ‘Get Brexit Done’.” 

When I pushed her on antisemitism, she showed herself to be one of the strongest candidates in the race. Although she narrowly missed out on being endorsed by the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), the only Jewish affiliated group to the party, by 0.4% in the second round, the movement has been very positive about her. She has already published a five-point plan to help rebuild trust with the Jewish community, which includes setting up a truly independent complaints process and expelling guilty members. 

She wants her first meeting to be with JLM, and wants them to guide a new education programme for Constituency Meetings. She recognises that there is a long road to travel to solve this crisis, and committed to implementing the recommendations of the report about to be published by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, “not just because it’s legally binding, but because it’s the right thing to do.” Her answer was impressive and extremely convincing and she seemed truly dedicated to solving this crisis. 

Allin-Khan’s plan to seek a Vote of Confidence caught many members by surprise, but is definitely in line with her grassroots pitch – never has grassroots democracy been so popular. I put it to her that a vote of confidence would put a target on her back, and perhaps prevent her from making the longer-term aims which are desperately needed.

“I am so confident I will do such a good job, I’m truly unafraid of internal democracy”. Her plan, which would require 50% of Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) to vote against her is the newest plan published in order to play to the grassroots base, many of whom joined the party to support Jeremy Corbyn. 

I finished my questions by asking her about who she thought was the greatest Labour leader, or the greatest never to have been of the last 50 years. “I know it’s a little longer than 50 years” she replies, but I really do love Clement Attlee” – a bit of a cop-out but I definitely understand from where she is coming.

I left the event incredibly impressed by both her meteoric rise – from a working-class background, to failing A Levels, but aspiring higher, making it to Cambridge, A&E work and then to the Palace of Westminster representing her hometown constituency – but also her enthusiasm for the Labour Party, unafraid to criticise it where it has gone wrong but determined to return it to the Government benches in order to radically transform the country after, what will have been, at least 14 years of government. 

Regardless of whether she wins, there is definitely a place for Rosena Allin-Khan in the next Shadow Cabinet, and on the next Election Team. It is without a doubt that she has offered one of the most comprehensive analyses of why the Party lost, what it needs to do to win. Her hope for the Party, and the country, is contagious.