Chingford Interviews

Faiza Shaheen: ‘I can unseat Iain Duncan Smith this time’

The Labour candidate on her Chingford upbringing, being a left-winger under Keir Starmer, and why she’s running again

By Marco Marcelline

Faiza Shaheen, Credit: Adam Scott

This election is “really personal for me”, says Faiza Shaheen, who is standing as Labour candidate for Chingford and Woodford Green for a second time after losing to Iain Duncan Smith in 2019.

We’re sat in a Woodford Green cafe, close to the home that she shares with her actor husband and their newborn son, and, as the smell of freshly-baked pistachio pastries wafts over to our table, Faiza emotionally explains why she is particularly moved to end Duncan Smith’s three-decade long parliamentary career.

In the early 2010s, her Pakistani mother, who was suffering from long-term health issues, was made to “defend herself” in a work capability assessment while Duncan Smith served as the secretary of state for work and pensions.

In the end, her benefits weren’t taken away, but what angered and upset Faiza was the way her unwell mother was treated. “She was really scared. She kept repeating, ‘I wish I wasn’t sick, I really want to work.’”

In 2017, two years before Faiza first ran for election, her mother passed away from complications related to a heart transplant.

Growing up in a working-class and mixed-origin Chingford household, Faiza admits her story of going to Oxford University, earning a PhD, becoming an in-demand economist and running for public office isn’t a typical one.

Attending Oxford to study politics, philosophy and economics was an “eye-opener” for her, and it’s where she says her class-based politics was fermented. Up until that point, her political understanding had been mainly influenced by her father.

“My parents weren’t Marxists or anything, though my [Fijian] dad was a car mechanic and he had a very strong opinion on the empire and didn’t like the Tories – hated Thatcher. He was also a massive fan of Muhammad Ali, and had all of his interviews and fights on cassette tape. So those things were a topic of conversation in our house.”

Faiza with campaign volunteers, Credit: Adam Scott

Faiza, who was at Oxford around the time of the Iraq War protests, says she remembers someone asking “why Muslims have such a chip on their shoulder”.

Some students openly said she was only there because of positive discrimination. She recalls a white male peer telling her, “Oh, you’re the type of people they’re letting in now”. He went on to train as a lawyer, she says.

“I would get into a lot of arguments with people,” she laughs, before joking that the combative back-and-forths she had were “really good training” for the world of politics. After gaining a PhD in applied economics, Faiza worked as an economist for various left-of- centre think-tanks.

It’s a role she returned to after her unsuccessful electoral attempt. In 2021, Faiza packed up and moved across the Atlantic where she took up a post as programme director on inequality at New York University. Through the job she ended up authoring an inequality policy report in 2021 that was launched by then New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the Spanish premier Pedro Sanchez.

Now back in the UK as a visiting-professor-in-practice at the London School of Economics, Faiza says that the conversation around social mobility should be turned on its head as it currently devalues working class trades as being lesser than white collar jobs.

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She describes her approach to tackling social inequality as not one which simply takes the view that “we should have more working class people going to Oxford”, but instead one that prioritises the importance of overlooked jobs.

“We need to give respect to all jobs, because we desperately need care workers, cleaners, lorry drivers. Those jobs are essential for society to function,” she says, adding, “we should look at society as less of a pyramid and more of a circle to see how we connect to and rely on each other.”

In an interview with the New Statesman last year, Faiza was quoted as saying she “gets annoyed” at being given the “Left candidate badge”. I ask why, prompting her to first clarify that she gets annoyed “not because I’m not on the left but because in this country it’s used in a very dismissive [way]”.

She continues: “It’s used to make it sound like what I stand for is some kind of anomaly or shouldn’t be mainstream. A lot of the things I’ve proposed [public ownership and wealth taxes] are perfectly normal in other countries.”

Faiza on the campaign trail, Credit: Adam Scott

Since taking the reins of the Labour Party in 2020, Keir Starmer has moved its policy platform to the political centre, in turn alienating prominent left-wing figures like Diane Abbott and John McDonnell.

The socialist flank of the party is a shadow of its past self; Jeremy Corbyn and Abbott have both been stripped of the Labour whip. Corbyn sits as an independent because he alleged the Labour antisemitism scandal was exaggerated by the media and political opponents in a bid to topple him, while Abbott had the whip suspended in April last year after implying that Irish people, Jews and Travellers do not experience racism.

“I support Diane; obviously she made a mistake,” she says. What about Corbyn? She hesitates. “I don’t know what’s happening with the investigation,” she replies before stating that she felt “really upset” when Abbott wasn’t called by the house speaker to speak in response to racist comments made about her by a Tory donor.

As a self-described socialist, where does she want Starmer to go further policy-wise? While pointing to the fact the manifesto hasn’t been yet released, she admits that “some green investment funding” has been watered down, which makes it harder to enact the change that she wants.

She adds that a policy she would push for if elected as MP would be for more investment in early years education and childcare. “I’m looking at nurseries for my [three-month-old baby] and it’s so hard to find a place and it really affects young parents a lot.”

Revealing that she spoiled her ballot as a university student when Tony Blair was prime minister, Faiza didn’t join the Labour Party until 2017 when Corbyn was leader. I ask if she would vote for Starmer if she was a student today.

Smiling, she retorts: “In Chingford, 100%, yes, I would, because I want to get rid of Iain Duncan Smith. That is the calculation here.

“Why am I going to want someone whose values are so far away from mine? Someone who doesn’t vote for free school meals, some-one who voted to allow private water companies to pump sewage into our rivers. Chingford and Woodford Green is such a marginal seat and it’s a binary choice.”

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