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Zarah Sultana in conversation with Chloe Swarbrick

It is vital that today’s youth are engaged with both local and national politics. It is us who have the power to make genuine change. For too long, we have had entitled, privately educated, socially disconnected elderly white folk favouring the lives of the few, rather than the many. We need young people in politics. We need young people to want to become politicians. We thought there’d be no one better than Zarah Sultana and Chloe Swarbrick to ask how we can encourage people to do so.

Zarah and Chloe, both female powerhouses in the global political sphere, have amassed large and loyal followings respectively, across social and mainstream media. Their use of platforms like Instagram and TikTok have been pivotal in getting their messages across, and their policies in place. As two young women leading the charge in progressive, inclusive and impactful politics on the world stage, they are outspoken voices in governments in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. 

Zarah Sultana has served as Labour MP for Coventry South since the 2019 General Election, becoming a key voice for the working class of the UK. Through the ‘Enough is Enough’ campaign, she highlights the cost of living crisis, housing crisis and all round trickery and corruption that we’ve faced from our government. 

Chloe Swarbrick is the youngest member of Aotearoa Parliament in 40 years, representing Auckland Central for the Green Party since 2017. She is the Green Party Spokesperson for Mental Health, Drug Law Reform, Education, Arts and Heritage, Tertiary Education, Small Business, Broadcasting, Youth and Local Government. 

We sat down to have an inspiring and invigorating conversation, exploring topics from tokenism and race to climate change and the necessity of community organising. 

Interview by Deba Hekmat

DH: Hello! How are we all doing?

CS: I’m doing well. It’s 9pm here and the house is sitting, and I’m excluded from the chamber tonight – so good!

DH: I’d love to hear about how you guys first heard of each other? 

CS: I came across one of Zarah’s videos on Instagram. I think it was around immigration and something to do with something the Tories were up to… it wasn’t good. And you were having a right old pop at them in the chamber. 

ZS: I came across Chloe when I was looking at  progressive politicians in New Zealand.  Coming across voices like Chloe’s – young, progressive, fighting for a green agenda. It’s something that resonates across borders. 

DH: Amazing. Could you tell me what community means to you, and where you both first found your community?

CS: For me, community is where you belong. There’s been a lot of conversation in Aotearoa (I use Aotearoa interchangeably with New Zealand by the way) about mental health. It’s become really apparent that all of us are born with biological predispositions towards the potential of manifesting mental ill health. But effectively, it is our environment, our cultural contexts and the opportunities that we have access to which can turnthat up or down a notch. It can be an enabling or disabling environment, and I think community is one of the core components of that. [Community] helps you realise that no one person is bigger than, as we would say, the ‘kaupapa’, which is the ‘true vision’. It’s really about realising your sense of place and purpose, and that no one of us is an island.

DH: That’s really beautiful.

ZS: I mean, I don’t know how to top that! I first came across a sense of community when I was at university, and got involved with the National Union of Students and the Black Students campaign. We were all organising on issues to do with deaths in police custody, Prevent, mental health, the environment, and it was the first time feeling as though I was part of a movement. 

DH: I think I really found my community growing up in my local youth clubs, and through extracurricular activities at school. Unfortunately, a lot of these services are either declining, or they’re shutting down due to lack of funding. Zarah, what advice would you give to young people in the UK who are currently trying to find their community?

 ZS: Find something that you really care about. It could be the environment, it could be to do with education. I got thrown into student politics around free education, being among the first cohort to be hit by £9000 tuition fees. There’s always something that angers us, and it’s about channelling that in spaces where you’re not going to get burnt out. There will be periods and moments that are quite low, and you need to remind yourself why you care, or why you’re involved in a movement or a campaign. It’s about finding those spaces where you can develop your skills; where you can meet new people, you can expand your knowledge and get a political education. I went to youth clubs growing up as well, and those spaces are few and far between at the moment, but there are other ways to get involved. I think people have also created communities online as well, where there haven’t been physical spaces. Initially there were Facebook groups, and younger people have now moved on beyond that and are having conversations with communities on TikTok and Instagram. 

DH: Chloe, you’ve been part of our own online community, The Basement, since 2015. What does The Basement community mean to you? How has it helped you navigate your life?

CS: To Zarah’s point, I often think about change and all of the different manifestations of ‘politics’, which is basically just power and decisions and the systems and structures that we accept. I basically whittle it down into two broad spheres: there’s the structure, which is the rules or the blueprint. And then there’s the culture, which gives legitimacy and life to the rules. When you think about culture, you’re not talking about it as synonymous with someone’s ethnicity, or geographical background – you’re talking about it as a shared set of values. And when you think about culture like that, you understand how we can build communities that are incredibly diverse, but ultimately come together to agree on what the values are. When I think about that, in the context of The Basement for example, it’s been really fascinating to watch this online entity of young people consistently transform and negotiate the kind of behaviour that’s acceptable, and almost self-policing. It’s one of the coolest manifestations of an online community that I’ve seen, because I’ve seen it fall apart in a lot of other places!

DH: It’s cute! It’s like our own little online society. And it is beautiful. I’m very grateful for The Basement. You are both young women in politics around the same age, both from the same generation. Would you guys say that there was a situation that politicised you and encouraged you to get into politics?

CS: I originally thought that I was going to be a journalist. But then I found that I was being quite reactive, and constantly getting pissed off with politicians not answering questions, as well as the disconnect between the communities that they purport to represent and the stuff that they were actually doing. It was also the closure of a small music venue — one of my favourites — and realising that it had come about because developers were making a quick buck by building apartment blocks without adequate sound insulation, so people moved in and then complained about this established music venue. Just seeing the ripple effects with regards to Arts & Culture and realising that these things are only thought about when our people are in those positions of power. It was the kind of coalescing of all of those different things; being pissed off and realising that, instead of constantly being reactive, you have to be proactive and insert some other ideas into these spaces. Otherwise, they’re not being debated. 

DH: Well you’ve done a bloody brilliant job so far. What about you, Zarah? I know you mentioned tuition fees…

 ZS: I guess my first political memory is the Iraq War. I saw millions of people marching in London, demanding the government not follow the US into Iraq. And then I saw politicians ignore that, and I questioned just how democracy really works in the UK. Then, when tuition fees were tripled, I saw a huge movement of young people, again, demonstrating and protesting. Again, I saw the machinery of Parliament push it through. This was after being really shaped by what was happening in my inner city community, which was affected by austerity but, also, the prevalence of Prevent. I remember when I was a child, hearing a news story about CCTV cameras being put up in the neighbourhood near mine which was predominantly Muslim. It was said that this was for ‘traffic control measures’ and whatnot. Later on, it was uncovered that it was to spy on the local community. When I was at school as well, my teachers were absolutely incredible, but there was a way that society still saw kids like me and where we came from. I often reflect on an anecdote where a senior police officer, who had never even visited my school, went to the City Council and said “every kid in the school will be able to tell you which gang they are going to end up in when they’re older.” So it doesn’t matter how hard we worked, because we were still going to be seen in a way. All of these things pissed me off.

DH: As a young, Kurdish, working class woman, it’s hard to see myself in politics. Was it hard for you, especially being a Brown woman, to see yourself in politics?

ZS: It was really difficult within the structures of the Labour Party to even get a foot in as an activist. I remember wanting to be an officer in a local CRP (Conflict Research Programme). My dad was politely advised to encourage me not to. The Labour Party growing up wasn’t the space for me, the Student Movement and social movements were, and then the Trade Union Movement opened up. I had come across all of these obstacles and barriers very early on, and I guess it then just gives you a thicker skin. 

DH: Chloe, why do you think that governments across the world allow such misogyny and sexism towards women in political spaces? Because I feel like there’s a certain standard in which women have been kept to and it’s made it near to impossible for us to enter these spaces.

CS: It’s about power, ay? And also, I think it’s really fascinating to look at it also from the sense of internalised misogyny as well. I watch women, and all of the different marginalised communities that ended up being represented in Parliament in some way or another, and there’s a lot that we could talk about in terms of breaking down tokenism versus representation as well. But to come back to that core point, I think that on a day-to-day basis, as a politician – and obviously nothing is a binary and this is a massively oversimplified engine with all the caveats — but I think that politicians are largely choosing between one or two things: they’re choosing between prioritising their career or they’re choosing to prioritise change. I see this [in New Zealand], particularly with the Labour Party and the National Party, who are kind of our Tory incarnation. Backbench MPs prioritise their careers, doing so on the basis that they’re going to sit down, shut up, and wait 10 years to have an opinion – by which point I would argue they don’t know what their opinion is anymore. Because when you’ve worn a mask for so long, it actually is your face. All of the different manifestations of bias and hatred and bile that come about in these power structures – it’s ultimately about self perpetuating power. How do you keep people down? How do you suppress people? Well, you have them fight amongst each other. And you have the people who do get into these positions of power, who feel as though they have to separate themselves or divorce themselves from the communities that they purport to represent. And that is tokenism, not representation.


DH: I love that. That’s a very, very good take. You mentioned tokenism and power – I wanted to ask you Zarah, why are profiles like Priti Patel and Rishi Sunak dangerous and harmful towards people of colour across the nation? 

ZS  For marginalised communities, it is really powerful to see themselves represented in ways that they didn’t think were possible. So I completely understand why people are attracted to the notion of “oh, there could have been the first non-white Prime Minister”, or the fact that the top four heads of state are now occupied by non-white-men for the first time in living history. For me, representation without structural change is absolutely meaningless. We’ve had Priti Patel as Home Secretary. She literally wanted to put naval ships in the channel to shoot at migrants and refugees on dinghy boats, and that is the cruelty that came from someone whose own family sought refuge in this country. So you cannot divorce the politics from the person. You have to look at what that person is doing in their role and who they are attacking and whose interests they are representing. 

Parliament was created for a class of people that I do not belong to. It wasn’t created for women, it wasn’t created for people of colour, or descendants of the Empire. There are more portraits in Parliament that have horses than women. There were nine canteens that did not serve halal food until we got a trial recently, even though London is the most diverse city in the entire world. So you’ve got, like, actual issues in terms of representation; we need more people from those backgrounds, because if they are not writing policy, they are being affected by it. And that’s why disabled people get hit the most, and why women and communities of colour are disproportionately affected. But again, we have to be honest about those limitations. If Rishi Sunak became prime minister, was that going to be that post-racial society we’ve all dreamt of? Is that what happened in the US when Barack Obama became president? What we see with Trumpism and what we see in the US is because none of that structural change took place, under Obama and so forth. The key thing is to represent people’s interests. It’s not about just having Black and Brown faces or more women. It’s about the politics behind those people. And I talk about Jeremy Corbyn quite a lot, because I think he’s quite central to my political story. But he’s a white old man, like, on paper. 

DH: We feel so connected to him. Black and Brown people across the nation, we love him.

ZS: It’s about whose interests he represents. The ‘Enough is Enough’ campaign that I’m involved in now around the cost of living crisis is about uniting the working class, and recognising that the working class is diverse. We come from all parts of the world. We work in many different jobs — whether it’s retail, hospitality factories, teachers, nurses — and we are all having to fight the good fight together. It’s hard because, like Chloe said, there are vested interests in dividing people. So we are constantly looking at each other and blaming each other. When people talk about NHS waiting lists, they’ll blame it on immigration, rather than the fact that the NHS has been underfunded for over a decade. 

CS: It was 125 years of women’s suffrage a few years ago in New Zealand, and we are regularly celebrating ourselves as the first country in the world that gave women the vote. [Firstly], women fought for the vote, we didn’t give it to them. And we’re not as progressive as we’d really like to think we are. I was being asked about “how do we get more women in our Parliament?” I was like, why are we asking how do we wedge more women into these spaces and not “what are the structural barriers to women getting into these spaces?” Because precluded in that central kind of question, we’re thinking about how we maintain these spaces and the way that they currently are, and therefore ask women to conform in order to to get into them. Therefore, when you get into these spaces without that structural change, you are incentivised to suppress others who may come after you. 

ZS: It’s really difficult to make an argument where the Conservative Party have managed to have three women prime ministers, and then the Labour Party hasn’t had a single woman leader. I do think that’s a difficulty that many Labour MPs and the Labour leadership would have to answer to. But I do think that you still have to involve the fact that that is a limiting factor. It can’t just be, you know, a woman who does absolutely nothing to alleviate the structural barriers that are affecting women and all marginalised people. 

DH: I agree. I can’t look at a woman who doesn’t believe that trans women are women. I can’t agree with a woman who doesn’t have the values of Black and Brown marginalised people at heart, you know? To me, representation is very much about the full picture, and not just the face value, or just the “I’m a woman, she’s a woman”, “he’s Brown, I’m Brown”. Chloe, thank you for doing the work that you do regarding the environment mate, it’s absolutely brilliant. I wanted to ask, as one of my friends recently spoke at a climate event called Overheated. Essentially, she said that race, racism and race-related issues are fundamentally at the core of climate change and climate issues. Do you agree with this, and why do you think that climate and race are so intertwined? 

CS: It’s colonisation, it’s capitalism – they’re intertwined! That’s just the reality of it, right? It’s about suppression of people. It’s about extraction of resources. I will declare here that I’m also a dual British citizen, so I have a vested interest in this stuff too. But I’m also very aware that our Westminister-colonial-parliamentary system only exists by virtue of suppressing the indigenous people of this country. We’re only starting to address and right some of those wrongs now. 

ZS: It’s exactly what Chloe said, it’s about colonisation. It’s about capitalism. But it’s also because capitalism is an economic system that is built on exploitation. When we look at slavery, and we look at Empire, they were all because of a system that wants to extract even more profit. That profit motive is putting the planet on fire, and unless we really have deep, structural, economic change – nothing will really be addressed. Politicians are really good at tweaking the system – it’s a lot of “oh, let’s look into this. Let’s have a paper and do some research.” I think young people aren’t taking that shit anymore, because this is their entire lives that we’re talking about. 

CS: I think that at a base level, for me the major issue that are facing young people — which manifests in the housing crisis and the climate crisis and all of the other crises — is the way that we conceptualise the economy. The way that most politicians would sell [the economy] to us is that it’s this deity that we have to sacrifice ourselves to, as opposed to the stuff that we make, the relationships that we have with each other, and the rules that we put in place that decide who gets what. I think that this has largely come about by virtue of conflating the economy with GDP, or Gross Domestic Product. GDP was invented by this guy called Simon Kuznets, who took it to the US Congress in the 1930s. He was like, “Hey, guys, I’ve got this really cool way to measure economic transactions, but God forbid do not use it as a measure of ‘welfare’.” But we did exactly that. The reason that GDP is a really fucking terrible measure of economic success is that GDP goes up when somebody is in a car crash, or when there’s an oil spill, or when somebody gets cancer. But the cool thing is that we can change all of that quite quickly if we manage to mobilise enough people to realise their power to make better decisions.

DH: Zarah, you’ve got your ‘Enough is Enough’ campaign and Chloe, you work a lot involved in environmentally-led Green Party campaigns. What is the importance of organisation? And why do we need to campaign in order to get things changed?”

ZS: I don’t think we’d have anything to be proud of in the UK if it wasn’t for working people striking, fighting, dying and organising for it. Whether it’s workplace rights, sick pay, materinity pay, the weekend, the NHS –- all of these things are because working people organised for them, took to the streets and reclaimed that power. It wasn’t because of the generosity of the political elite. That’s why legislation coming into place in Parliament that restricts the rights to organise, demonstrate, protest and strike are so damaging, because it’s taken away power from working people, and concentrates amongst those already who have too much power. We need trade unions to have more power, because there’s a direct correlation in terms of trade union density, and inequality. I wish the Labour Party was a stronger voice on trade unions, as it has been in the past, but isn’t at the moment. 

DH: Chloe, you are the youngest member of your Parliament in 40 years – could you tell me why is it so important for young people to vote and how we can get more young people to vote? 

CS: It’s difficult to get people to engage when you’re sometimes asking them to vote for the least worst person. When you think of a politician, you don’t think of cool, interesting, fun things necessarily. This lack of representation leads to a lack of action for things that groups who don’t feel represented want. A lack of action on the things that people want makes them less inclined to be engaged. When you don’t engage, you get less of that representation. That is a self fulfilling prophecy, and a downward spiral. The fuse break into that could obviously be a bunch of people putting themselves forward for election and being like, “well, we have no idea if we’re going to get elected, but at the very least, we’re going to force other political candidates to debate stuff.” But then it’s also about realising that politics just doesn’t just come and go with the general election. Politics is happening every single day with decisions that are being made, policies that have been put forward, debates that are being had, the stuff that’s playing out in media and social media, and in our communities. I’d actually say, maybe a controversial take, that even more important than voting is finding your people and doing the organising in your community, in your workplace, in your educational environment, in whatever given institution you’re in. 

DH: Zarah, in this vein, what is the importance for you in harnessing social media?

ZS: Being a young person means it’s quite a natural thing, because we’ve just grown up with it. But I think it took on a huge new dimension during the pandemic because we weren’t having physical events. As someone who has worked minimum wage, as someone who has student debt, as someone who’s only ever rented – all of those things are things I completely connect with, and that resonate with me. I see myself as having a sense of duty and responsibility to represent young people’s issues in Parliament. One of my favourite interventions — if I have a favourite — was presenting my student loan statement in Parliament, looking to Boris Johnson and saying, “as someone who is privileged, from an education from Eton, and then gone to Oxford, does he think it’s fair that working class kids have to have so much debt just to access education?” It’s about showing young people that they do have people in their corner by using social media in that way, as well as being fun. I think politicians are often seen in this one dimension, where it’s just serious – some of us are normal people that have normal lives, and do normal things. Showing that means it’s relatable. I think some of the nicest things are when I get young people, especially young women, who are just like, “I didn’t think I could do politics but I’ve seen some of your videos and you talk like me, you sound like me, and you look like me – actually wow,  can I be an MP too?!” I’m like, “Hell yeah! Yeah, you can bring all of your friends along too!”

DH: I love that! Chloe, bearing in mind what Zarah has just said, I’ve got so many insanely intelligent friends that have the degrees needed to get into the world of politics. But most of them want to, because they’ve got this mindset of “What does it mean to be a politician? You have to lie.” You are both young women who are doing incredible things in the world of politics. How can we get more young people that do have the skills to enter this world, to actually pursue it?

CS: We’ve got a really interesting culture in this country of people being way too humble about their skill set. It’s associated with something called ‘tall poppy syndrome’, which is basically where we literally call each other ‘tryhards’. If you’re trying too hard, that’s deeply uncool. There’s real benefit in a culture like ours in reaching out and helping other people through the door, and offering them support and recognition of their skills. But I also think it’s important to recognise that all of us are part of a constant power struggle. We’re seeing it right now in the United States and the reversal of Roe v. Wade. It’s really important to realise that none of these things are things that we can take for granted. Whether they be in civil rights, in gay rights, in women’s suffrage, and getting the right to vote – we tend to individualise those stories and tell them from the perspective of that one person who gave that really great speech, that march, that one person was responsible for all that stuff. It’s nonsense. There were people who were important for inspiring, but inspiration should not be an excuse to put somebody on a pedestal. It should be a mirror, it should be seeing, in somebody else, something that reminds you of yourself, and therefore an opportunity to participate in something that’s far bigger than just you.

DH: Just going back to Roe v. Wade, the Western world seems to have taken a couple steps back in terms of women’s reproductive rights. How can we ensure that women have complete autonomy over their bodies in New Zealand and in the UK? I know that New Zealand only recently, in 2020, took abortion off the Crimes Act, which I thought was actually insane.

CS: We’re not as progressive as you think we are!

ZS: Happy to come in on that! I think it’s what Chloe said – that you can’t take any of the rights that we have today for granted. Roe v. Wade is a great example, but it’s not something that’s just limited to the US. There are groups in the UK that are talking the same politics. In fact, when Roe v. Wade came up as a parliamentary question a couple of weeks ago, there were Tory MPs who were talking about women’s autonomy in a very concerning way, where they weren’t completely on board with the fact that women have the right over their own bodies. And this is a government that we have right now, that is extremely hard Right Wing when it comes to women’s rights, to migrants rights, when it comes to LGBT rights – especially Trans rights. That’s why we have to be fully alert, but also organising constantly and working together. Anyone who sees themselves as progressive, anyone who cares about rights of women and other marginalised groups, needs to be organising.

DH: That’s a fact!

ZS: One of the things that I did before I got elected was working as a community organiser,  meeting people where they are, and providing them with ways to get involved. That’s the job of those who are taking organising roles, to make campaigns and movements as accessible as possible. We need to make sure that we are allowing people to get involved in any way they possibly can. It’s not just about one person doing it all; it’s about having loads of people doing loads of things, and all of these things happening at the same time to generate those moments of change. Like Chloe said, it’s not about having a figurehead, it’s about showing people the potential that they have to be part of exciting transformative movements. I often take inspiration from independence movements from across the world — when you think of the UK basically colonising a quarter of the world — and how people who were under the Empire organised and fought for independence. We see that across the African continent, across Asia, South America, and other places where independence movements were under incredible oppression and were being killed. That’s why our education system is so deeply flawed. We don’t talk about the Trade Union Movement – we only talk about the Cold War, about Henry VIII and his wives. But when you give working people their history, and you actually tateach them about what they have been able to achieve, despite all of the obstacles, despite all the barriers and everything held against them…it’s that human spirit that inspires me all the time. That’s why I constantly have to leave Westminster and go into the community, and go into spaces where there are people fighting and organising and providing for the community where the government fails.

DH: Mate, ‘real people doing real things’ – that’s the Basement motto! I love that our community started this, and somehow it ended at the same place. Honestly, community is the answer. It genuinely is. Thank you both so much. This has been the biggest honour and pleasure of mine. So thank you for having a chat with us. 


Zarah Sultana

Photography Zaineb Abelque

Fashion Zahra Asmail

Beauty Dalila Bone

Producer Halina Kaszycka-Williams

Lighting Jack Cullis


Chloe Swarbrick

Photography Arthur Lin

Assistant Hannah Wareing

Fashion Tessa McNab

Beauty Jade Spencer