Chingford Interviews

Shama Tatler: ‘I’m a Labour moderate but I’m still left-wing’

In an interview with the Echo, Labour’s hope for Chingford and Woodford Green defends her political record in Brent, stresses her commitment to move to the area if she wins – and compliments Faiza Shaheen

By Marco Marcelline

Shama Tatler, Credit: London Labour

Shama Tatler, the Labour Party’s candidate in Chingford and Woodford Green, doesn’t face an easy battle in her bid to unseat the Conservative Sir Iain Duncan Smith and turn the constituency red for the first time next Thursday (4th July).

Her announcement as candidate came amid significant media attention on the deselection of previous candidate Faiza Shaheen, who was ousted in May following tweets she liked that were deemed problematic by Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC).

Local Labour members have resigned en-masse, citing what they call Shaheen’s unfair treatment by the party and Tatler has faced harsh criticism from irate left-wingers both in and out of the constituency.

What should have been a simpler two-horse race has been further complicated by Shaheen’s endeavour to finish what she intended to do in the first place: unseat Duncan Smith.

As the summer sun begins to bake in Chingford, we meet in the local party’s small and poorly ventilated office where a smiley Tatler greets me before explaining why she is the best candidate for this leafy part of north-east London.

A criticism that has been frequently levelled at her is that she has no connection to the local area. In fact, Shaheen has commented that her decision to stand as an independent candidate was spurred when she saw that the Brent councillor had been selected to replace her. 

Aware of the perception that she is a parachuted-in candidate, Tatler says: “I’m commuting here every day. I’m here every day. I’m speaking to residents all the time. My team and I have spoken to over 12,000 people since my candidacy. My commitment is to really understand…the lived experiences of the people who live here. 

“For example, number one, Hatch Lane could have one set of experiences. But number two could have a very different experience, even though they’re neighbors. And actually, my job is to understand their experiences and how I can advocate best for them. I’ve got that experience.”

In a recent media interview she committed to moving to the constituency when her 15-year-old daughter completes her secondary school education next year. It’s a commitment she reiterates to the Echo: “My daughter’s in year ten. Once she finishes year eleven, I’m looking to shift over.”

She adds: “There are fantastic [Labour] MPs who aren’t brought up in their constituencies, but they’ve become brilliant advocates for the communities that they’re serving – and that’s who I intend to be.”

Tatler joined politics in her early thirties after working as a teacher and seeing “what the Conservatives were doing to education, to schools”. 

She became more impassioned when her cancer-stricken husband died in an overstretched NHS hospital in 2016. “Some of…[what] my husband went through in the years before he died, I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy,” she says firmly.

“The manner in which he died was awful…he was stuck in A&E for hours. The service was so stretched that doctors couldn’t get to him in time and he ended up suffocating from pneumonia rather than the actual terminal cancer [he had]. My daughter was seven at the time. It really broke us, and I don’t want that for anybody else.”

Her political career as a councillor in Brent has seen her earn the nickname ‘Towerblock Tatler’ for her willingness to work with developers to put in a number of high-rise towers in the borough. 

It’s a nickname she’s not afraid to own. 

“The blocks that have been built where I’m a councillor have been on brownfield. And actually, some of those blocks, a third of them are social housing. We’ve even got blocks that we bought with the Mayor of London [Sadiq Khan] that are key worker housing.

“Anyone can come at me all [they] want about my housing record [but] I’m proudly standing on [it]. I know where to build and where not to build.”

In May 2023, she tweeted: “There are parts of the Greenbelt that are not green or pleasant. A review of land use is overdue for housing, industrial capacity and infrastructure.”

Does this mean she would welcome a review of greenbelt land use in Waltham Forest? “I want a review of ‘grey belt'”, she clarifies, before explaining: “Keir Starmer has been very clear on this. There are pockets of land that are poor ecological value. There are disused car parks, disused petrol stations that have no value, green or not. That is where we need to be building.”

So green spaces like Epping Forest aren’t up for grabs, then? “No… it’s a beautiful part of our world, our country. Why would I want to be building on that? What I want to building is on rubbish car parks that no one uses. That’s where we need housing.”

Tatler further opines that there are “plenty of parks and wonderful green spaces that don’t have greenbelt or Metropolitan Open Land protections. That’s what we need to protect. What we need to release is grey belt that is poorly used.”

Credit: London Labour

Prior to the election, Shama’s since-deleted LinkedIn profile stated that she was co-chair of Labour to Win, a political group that sees itself as protecting the tradition of the “old Labour right”, and resisting left-wing voices in the Labour Party.

The group is run by Luke Akehurst, a staunch Jeremy Corbyn critic and former Hackney councillor who works as the director of the lobby group We Believe in Israel. He is currently standing as the Labour candidate for North Durham.

Does she identify as a socialist, I ask? She claps back: “This is what frustrates me about some of the narrative that we’re hearing that if you’re on the moderate end of the Labour Party, you’re not left-wing.

“Just because I’m pragmatic, because I’m unashamedly determined to improve the lives of my community that I’m elected to represent, it somehow means I’m not any more left-wing than somebody else – I think that’s an insult, actually.

“I actually want to see people’s lives improved. And you and I have the space and the intellectual time to have this discussion. Too many people in our community don’t have that luxury.”

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One of those people lacking the time to discuss political ideology, she says, is a local resident called Saeed who she met on the campaign trail. He told her he had been waiting seven hours in hospital for a blood test.

“That is all sorts of wrong. If it means that we are working differently to make sure that he doesn’t waste his day for a blood test that could be done at his GP surgery, I don’t think that’s a problem. I think that’s still Labour left-wing values, that the outcome for these residents are most important.”

So the ends matter, and not the means? She responds: “It’s about the ends; it’s about improving people’s lives. If nothing else, that’s the core of Labour values, right? We can’t wait for the purity of left-wing politics, because we’re never going to get that. As a socialist – I’m a democratic socialist – I would love to say I want to do A, B, and C straight away. The reality is we’re not in that position.”

Adorning the constituency office walls around us are numerous vintage posters featuring quotes from historic socialists and reformists; they include George Bernard Shaw, the suffragette Annie Kenney, and Martin Luther King. 

Who is her political idol? “Probably Clem Attlee. And it’s not just because of the NHS, it’s because he actually put his country first. He helped found NATO. He helped think about security. That in itself is a very Labour ideal.”

She also mentions the Indian-born trade unionist Jayaben Desai who was a leading figure during the Grunwick strikes in the 1970s. “She’s very little known but she fought for equal pay for women of colour. She’s an icon for a woman like me, of Asian descent, on left-wing politics.”

Faiza Shaheen (front, centre) who Shama replaced has drawn support from snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan, Credit: Rehan Jamil

Both Iain Duncan Smith and Shaheen have demonstrated an ability to challenge their respective party’s leadership, I say, pointing to Duncan Smith’s 2016 resignation from the cabinet in protest at one disability benefit cut too far, while Shaheen repeatedly raised what she says is Labour’s poor handling of Islamophobia when she was still in the party. 

Would Tatler be prepared to do the same with Starmer, like Duncan Smith did with Cameron, if push came to shove? “I would challenge the perception that Iain is an independent voice.  He helped put Liz Trust [in Number Ten] He is still advocating for Rishi Sunak to be Prime Minister, despite everything Rishi is doing and [has] allowed to happen. And what mandate has any independent candidate got?”

I turn to Labour’s manifesto, which has been described as lacking bold and daring policies. Does Tatler think there are any particular manifesto policy points that could be better argued or developed? “No, because actually I’ve helped contribute to the manifesto process,” she retorts, before adding: “If I’d wanted unicorns delivered in a manifesto, I’d be standing for the Green Party.”

Mirroring Starmer’s careful commitment to moderate reformism, she continues: “The reality is we have only got a certain amount of space to be able to do what we want. So we’ve got to prioritise and choose, and that’s what a responsible political party does.”

We then turn to the elephant in the room. Earlier this month, over 50 local Labour members resigned over what they described as the “anti-democratic, inhumane and degrading” deselection of Shaheen. 

With no clear frontrunner in the race, relations between Tatler’s and Shaheen’s camp have stayed tense.

This week Shaheen took to X to allege that people on the doorstep were being told by Labour canvassers that she had been blocked for “more serious” reasons than liking tweets which the party found problematic. And earlier this month, Labour activists were heavily criticised online for putting up an election poster for Tatler in the Chingford Mount Greggs that Faiza worked at as a teenager.

Given the public acrimony on display during the campaign so far, I wonder what Tatler honestly makes of the woman she has replaced and ask if she can list three nice things about her.

Clearly not expecting the question, Tatler shifts in her seat, and, in a markedly softer tone, she says: “She’s smart. She is clearly passionate about her area and her community, and she clearly loves her baby.” Stumbling over her words slightly, she adds: “She’s very, very proud of being a young working mum and that’s great.”

At a Chingford rally on 15th June, Shaheen said Labour was “splitting the [anti-Tory] vote”, while Tatler, citing an IPSOS-MORI poll which put ‘other candidates’ at just 6%, has maintained that the race can only be won by either the Tories or Labour.

Two tactical voting sites have however recently withdrawn their advice to vote Labour, citing strong local support for Shaheen.

Has Labour made it harder for itself to get elected by deselecting Shaheen? “Well, I think that’s a bit of a misnomer. The Labour Party has been getting stronger in this constituency pre-2014. We had councils elected in areas that we didn’t expect to get elected, and that’s been growing. 

“In 2017, Bilal Mahmood was a candidate. He was only 2,000 votes away. In 2019, we got into a 1,000 vote margin but the Greens weren’t standing then. So it’s the Labour Party that people are talking about. The reality is our canvassing returns, our conversations, are showing the Labour vote is holding.”

While “appreciating” that the deselection came as a “shock” to Labour members in the constituency, Tatler insists that she “doesn’t know the details of what happened”. 

She then intones that she is bringing “something different” to voters than Shaheen, stating: “[I have] a lot more experience in how to deliver policy and how to deliver outcomes for residents.”

I press on whether she thinks the deselection was fair which prompts her to curtly reply: “I don’t know the details, so I can’t comment on that.”

And with that, our allocated twenty minutes are up. She cracks a warm smile while joking that media interviews aren’t her favourite thing to do. And then she gets on with her work to unseat Iain Duncan Smith next Thursday.

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