Labour’s Brexit policy “became a laughing stock” and the party “now stands more politically and culturally removed than ever before to the people our party was formed to represent”, a candidate standing for Deputy Leader of the party has claimed.
Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, MP for Tooting, has today launched her bid for the role, which she sees as absolutely crucial to rebuilding Labour from the bottom up.
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post ahead of the announcement, the 43-year-old who still works shifts in A&E at St George’s Hospital in London, said: “Labour communities have sent us a message, we actually have to listen and as a doctor I can’t guess or assume what’s wrong. I think people feel like they are not listened to.”
Dr Allin-Khan was elected in May 2016, in a by-election triggered by Sadiq Khan standing as London Mayor.
In her acceptance speech she paid tribute to Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox, who had been murdered just a day before. She said Mrs Cox had been a “proud and passionate campaigner who will be desperately missed".
She added: "Jo's death reminds us that our democracy is precious but fragile. We must never forget to cherish it.”
In 2016 she increased Labour’s majority in her seat by 3,515 to 6,357. This was then boosted to 15,458 in 2017, and held at 14,307 last year.
It is a success she puts down to the prominence of local campaigning.
“I ran a hyperlocal campaign because I needed people to know they needed me back in Westminster representing them,” she said.
“Working incredibly hard in your community, people do remember.”
But even though she managed to hold on to her seat - unlike many of her colleagues including supporter and former Grimsby MP Melanie Onn, the election did not come without challenges.
“I ran a hyperlocal campaign, but the leadership came up no end in my area,” she said.
“We also need to internally investigate why we had to run such a defensive campaign. We can’t stop, we have the local election in May there are huge elections in Wales.
“I think [the loss was due to] a number of things, it was obviously our Brexit position which was just an issue, and we were not clear in our message until it was too late.
“This in combination with problems with the leadership. In Yorkshire candidates and activists did say though Brexit came up on the door, that the leadership came up far more.
“I don’t think our Brexit position was a problem, it became a laughing stock.
“But I think the negative stories about the leadership were relentless, I’m really keen we want our politics to be a positive place and be a battle of ideas.”
Setting out her stall for Deputy Leader, Dr Allin-Khan focused on speaking to those on the ground.
“We’re not going to solve it by sitting in a boardroom in London, it’s about rebuilding,” she said.
“The Labour Party is the most powerful grassroots movement in Western Europe
“While we catastrophically lost the last election, we really must take the time to listen.
“As a frontline A&E doctor I understand listening with humility to those Labour voters who have abandoned us.
“We have to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps now, no navel-gazing.
“The most traumatic loss for me, when I look at friends like Melanie Onn, is knowing they are not going to hear them in Parliament fighting for their communities.
“A new Tory MP is not going to do that and go against the Government.”
And she felt it was only a matter of time before voters in the North came back to Labour, pointing to austerity as a reason. But she said Brexit had dominated the most recent election, meaning people voted along those lines.
“People need to put two and two together [with the Conservatives and austerity] and I believe people will see this.
“People in the North of England are clever, they are smart.
“We didn’t have long enough to fight against [the Tory message] this time but we will keep fighting.”
Dr Allin-Khan was born to a Polish mother and Pakistani father in Tooting, but after he parents separated, her mother was forced to work three jobs to support the family.
It led to Dr Allin-Khan working from a young age to put food on the table.
She said: “The Labour Party has shaped the way I am today, I grew up in poverty, I was told that girls like me could not go and live out my dreams. Then it was the Labour Party that made me be able to train as a doctor.
“I believe everyone has the right to experience those opportunities. It gives you a fire in your belly to fight.
“I just remember knowing what it felt like to feel like every door was closed to you, and being young and it being the election time and my mum saying ‘I have to vote, I’m going to vote Labour because I think Labour can help change things for us’.
“Being out there are fighting for the party that I love and using my skills as a doctor having spent 15 years on the frontline of the NHS, my ability to listen is really strong.”
But she was not using the deputy leadership race as a practice run for bigger things. She said: “I don’t want to be a leader in waiting, this for me is the top job, this is the job that needs to go out into our communities. I think the top down approach to leadership is not successful when we’re trying to rebuild a movement from the grassroots up.
“That 70 year old lady who works in a charity shop in a safe Tory area but loves the Labour Party, her activism is important.”
But asked where the deputy leader job fits with the future of Labour, considering the attempts by Corbyn allies in September to scrap the role then held by Tom Watson, Dr Allin-Khan said: “The Deputy Leader post is a crucial bit, the job that needs to be done in rebuilding our grassroots, it does need to have a role.
“But I would welcome the position changing, I don’t even think it has to be an MP. For me it’s the job I would really want to do and I know how passionate I am.”
She added that it did not feel like a disadvantage to her to be running as a London MP, with suggestions the Labour Party needs to look outside London for its next leader.
She said London-based is “used to mean metropolitan elite. But in my borough alone this Christmas 3,000 children were homeless.
“Even if there was a leader from Yorkshire they still have to go everywhere, we can understand people all over the country wherever we are from, particularly if you have shared lived experiences.”