Why you should care
Because an upset here would make British political history.
Faiza Shaheen likes to talk. Upon entering the café where we meet in Highams Park, a district on the outer edges of East London, she chats breezily with the staff, wondering aloud whether her new, bright purple coat is a touch obtrusive for someone running for Parliament.
“But do you know what?” she says to me later. “This is where I grew up, so I just feel like I can and will be myself. I can’t lie to my neighbors.”
For almost two years, Shaheen has been pounding the streets in her bid to win Chingford and Woodford Green, the constituency where she was born and raised, for the Labour Party. It’s turf long dominated by Conservatives, but her battle with the incumbent — and former party leader — Iain Duncan Smith has drawn national attention ahead of the U.K.’s Dec. 12 general election.
The differences between the candidates could not be starker. Duncan Smith, 65, is an arch-Brexiteer, has been the architect of controversial welfare system reforms and has held the seat for 27 years.
First-time candidate Shaheen, 36, pledges to improve a redevelopment plan for the local hospital, reverse cuts to schools and adopt a “buy local reward scheme” to help small businesses. On Brexit, she says there are “no easy solutions” but that Labour is “being grown-up about it” by offering a second referendum and giving the public the chance to have the final say.
If what we were offering didn’t impinge on the richest people in this country … then it wouldn’t be worth doing.
The daughter of a Fijian car mechanic and a Pakistani stay-at-home mother, Shaheen was born in the nearby Whipps Cross Hospital and attended a local state school. She is the proud owner of an unmistakable urban twang and describes a childhood marked by insecure housing, racism and violence.
Her beloved mother’s deep respect for education and “insane level of absolute faith in me” proved prophetic when Shaheen bucked local trends by going on to study philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University, followed by a master’s and a Ph.D. at the University of Manchester.
Sam Tarry, a Labour Party candidate in the nearby constituency of Ilford South who has worked closely with Shaheen, believes that this “local girl” backstory lies at the heart of her appeal. “She clearly has a seriously sharp intellect and she’s able to explain in a day-to-day way the kind of radical economic agenda she’s been working on,” he says.
Shaheen is refreshingly unguarded and frequently breaks into laughter when remembering how she used to lecture fellow students about politics and racism in primary school (“How annoying was I?”) and recalling her first impressions of her “uncool” fellow students at Oxford.
Her time surrounded by privilege at Oxford also politicized her. “It did really freak me out, because I realized that these are the people that are going to rule this country, and they don’t think a lot of the rest of us,” Shaheen says. “I’ve seen them drunk. I’ve been privy to conversations: ‘Why is it that Black people cause crime, Faiza?’ I’ll never forget that.”
This was the point at which Shaheen says she became “obsessed” with inequality, making it the subject of her Ph.D. studies before moving on to roles such as head of inequality and sustainable development at Save the Children UK and director of the Centre for Labour and Social Studies think tank — where her work, Tarry says, helped influence Labour’s thinking. But it was Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise ascension to Labour Party leader, despite his socialist agenda not always playing well with the U.K. electorate, that spurred Shaheen to run for Parliament.
She acknowledges taking some flak about Corbyn as she campaigns. “If what we were offering didn’t impinge on the richest people in this country and some of the big vested interests like oil companies, then it wouldn’t be worth doing,” she says.
It was a message Shaheen was keen to impart to hundreds of impassioned supporters ahead of a political canvassing session on a frosty, recent Sunday morning. During the same speech, in reference to the challenge she faces to unseat Duncan Smith, she quoted her “sister” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: “We don’t watch the polls; we change the polls.” (There are no public polls of this seat, though oddsmakers give Conservatives the advantage.)
As British media jump on the AOC comparison, Shaheen says she does closely follow Ocasio-Cortez and fellow insurgent freshman Democratic U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, and can find similarities in “the sort of awful racism that we get.” Shaheen says she has faced an lslamophobic barrage online, and her Liberal Democrat opponent, Geoffrey Seeff, tried to tie her with a controversial Islamic organization she had never heard of.
Like Ocasio-Cortez, Shaheen is taking on an entrenched establishment figure and doing so largely by putting feet on the ground to deliver her message. It is shaping up to be a tight battle.
Jeremy Gilbert, a professor of cultural and political theory at the University of East London, thinks that with more younger, ethnically diverse voters moving out of central London this will eventually be a Labour seat — but probably not this time. Gilbert points out that the seat is only the 48th most likely takeover target for Labour but has taken on symbolic importance “because of its status as Tory central. If Labour wins in Chingford, it would be one of the biggest events in British electoral history.”
Duncan Smith held on by about 5 percentage points (less than 2,500 votes) in 2017, and Shaheen’s down-to-earth magnetism, along with the Green Party standing down in her constituency to help Labour’s chances, could close the gap.
Conservative campaigners are targeting the unpopular Corbyn more than Shaheen herself, as they flex the institutional power that has kept this seat Tory for so long. Shaheen, meanwhile, relentlessly brings up Duncan Smith’s key vulnerability: his residence, 50 miles away in a Buckinghamshire mansion.
“You wouldn’t send your kids to our schools,” she tells me, addressing Duncan Smith in absentia. “You know what? We can represent ourselves, thanks.”