I MEET Naz Shah in a coffee shop in Leeds.
Her victory in last week’s general election over the Respect Party’s George Galloway, in which she secured a majority of more than 11,000, was one of the few success stories on what was a miserable night for the Labour Party at the ballot box.
But if a week is a long time in politics then how about 12 months? A year ago if someone had said to Shah that she’d be an MP she would probably have laughed them out of the room. And yet here she is.
As the result was read out she admits it was an overwhelming and “very surreal” experience. “I was quietly confident I would win, but the size of the majority was the icing on the cake,” she says, sipping her coffee.
It’s been a whirlwind seven days coming on the back of a gruelling, and at times bruising, election campaign. The Bradford West fight was dogged by claims and counter-claims between Labour and Respect over a number of issues – especially relating to Shah’s family background.
This intensified after Shah penned an open letter about her life. In it she wrote about her mother going to jail for murder, and how she was sent to Pakistan at the age of 12 to escape her mother’s violent partner, only to be forced into an arranged marriage at the age of 15.
After this went viral Shah says she steeled herself for a tough election battle but admits it became more personal than she expected. “It was really vile,” she says. “I knew it would get personal but for somebody to go to the trouble of setting up websites and so many Twitter accounts… there were two Twitter accounts set up before I even got back to Bradford after being selected on the first of March.”
It wasn’t just attacks by Twitter trolls and abusive comments made on Facebook pages, Shah believes photographs of her may even have been doctored. “Somebody said there’d been pictures of me in a mini skirt. Now as far as I know I’ve never worn a mini-skirt, I don’t have the legs for a mini-skirt,” she says.
Her delight at winning the Bradford West seat has been tempered by Galloway who signalled that he is starting a legal challenge against his defeat. His spokesman said the complaint was under section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, relating to candidates making false statements during campaigns.
However, she has little regard for Galloway’s actions. “I think it’s an absolutely pathetic attempt. He’s a very sore loser and he needs to take his defeat gracefully and understand it for what it was, which was just short of 20,000 people in Bradford West sending a very clear message out that they didn’t want him anymore. He needs to respect their choice and respect their decision.”
Shah’s story is a remarkable one and she herself is an antidote to the notion that most politicians in this country are white, middle class males who have faced little in the way of real hardship in their lives.
By the time she was 18, Shah had packed nappies in a factory, worked in a laundry, seen her mother go to prison for killing her abusive partner and been pushed into a forced marriage.
It was because of this that she decided to write her open letter. “I had that back story and I thought why should I allow somebody else to write about it? Why shouldn’t I as a woman, as a feminist, as a mother and a daughter own my own narrative? That’s the choice I made and with hindsight it was the best decision I ever took, because had I not done that it would have come out in all kinds of ways. At least this way I owned it.”
The eldest of three children, Shah says her childhood experiences have helped define the person she’s become. “My background has made me who I am. Having responsibility from the age of six it gives you resilience and it shapes your personality and who you are,” she says.
“The education system failed my younger brother. My sister tried to commit suicide at a young age and nobody understood and stopped to ask the question why.” It’s perhaps not surprising then that education and mental health awareness are now two key issues for her. “We all have drivers and as a result of this I became passionate about inequality and social justice issues and I realised that leadership is the key to change.”
Shah, now a mother-of-three, could very easily have gone off the rails but she didn’t. She puts this down in no small measure to the way her mother raised the family in what were difficult circumstances. “Because we didn’t have a father [he left when Shah was little] my mother was marginalised, but she was always strict with us and told us we needed to work twice as hard. She gave me a very strong moral compass and instilled that in us early on, despite whatever she was going through and despite the poverty.”
What’s interesting and in many ways encouraging about Shah is that she didn’t set out to become a politician. “I was very active around mental health issues and social justice but always as a community activist. I voted for George Galloway [in the 2012 by-election] because he said he would bring so much change to Bradford. We wanted change and needed change and when he didn’t deliver I switched off.”
Instead she joined the Labour Party but it wasn’t until June last year that she set about becoming a parliamentary candidate. She was part of a forum in Bradford where the guest speaker was an MP from the Midlands.
“He asked me why I didn’t go into politics and I said because it’s a dirty game and it’s a man’s world, there’s no room for people like me. I felt I was too radical. He said I shouldn’t complain and said I should put my money where my mouth is, he challenged me and I said, ‘OK, fine.’”
In January she put forward her application and by March she became Labour’s candidate after Amina Ali, who was initially chosen, stepped down. For Shah it caps a meteoric rise. “People work for years on a political career and here I was a community activist, so it’s been interesting,” she says, with a wry smile, “... no different from the rest of my life”.
With the election over she is ready to put her ideas into action. “I’m passionate about community development and I really want people to fall in love with the idea of having their own solutions. I think leadership is massively important in developing communities because good leadership creates more leaders.”
She’s also keen to get on with the job of flying the flag for Bradford. “I’m really excited about the prospect of us being the youngest city in Europe by 2020 and I think we need to harness that. We have to bring that narrative out, Bradford has so much going for it. It’s heritage is second to none, the city used to be the powerhouse of Great Britain and there’s no reason why we can’t bring it back to that. For me it’s not a question of why should we do it, it’s a question of why aren’t we doing it, what’s stopping us?”
Shah hopes, too, that her story can help inspire others. “I’m living proof that you can achieve things beyond expectations. I believe that’s infectious and I want to infect that into Bradford. I’m not out to change the world, but in five years time when the next election comes round and people say ‘what have you done?’ I don’t want to list what I’ve done, I want to list all the things that we’ve done.”
See The Yorkshire Post on Monday for our interview with Andrea Jenkyns, the new Morley and Outwood MP.