“Why are you getting involved in politics?”
This is one of the most common questions I get asked on the doorstep, usually followed by a disparaging comment about politicians. Given the long list of misdemeanours – from the expenses scandal to Boris Johnson’s lying Brexit bus – you can see why. But it’s not the guilty-by-association part of the job that is most demanding about becoming a politician; it’s the way my identity has been weaponised.
Racism is not new to my life. My dad, who was from Fiji, moved to Chingford in the 1960s and his experiences of racism were much discussed in our household. Anticipating that we would be called “P***” and various other racial slurs in the playground (he was right) he would make us practise our punching, advising us to hit fellow children who called us names. My brother, sister and I were more inclined to my mother’s softer approaches, but over the years I’ve certainly had to stand up against racism and have seen how prejudices play out in different arenas. But it’s only now, since entering politics, that racism is really starting to throw heavy punches in my life.
In the 18 months since I launched my campaign to stand for the Labour Party in my home seat of Chingford and Woodford Green, I could already write a book about the different ways in which racism has reared its ugly head. The multiple emails I’ve received telling me to “shut my mouth” when I go on television – one with a gif of a black woman speaking. There’s the local Tory councillor who we found out was a rabid Islamophobe, with a Twitter account littered with religious hatred and racism, who only got suspended for a month from the Conservative Party and whose Facebook friends now hound me online. Then of course are the emails from a local resident asking me if the Muslim men in Walthamstow are controlling me – this one comes with an extra slice of misogyny too.
This week I faced a new low, and from a less likely place. The Liberal Democrat candidate for the constituency, Geoffrey Seeff, got in touch for the first time, with an email that stated he had written an open letter that will be published in the local press alongside my response. The contents of his letter were alarming. He highlighted the apparent misdemeanours of a small Islamic organisation, the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), which he assumed I knew about. Apparently, the organisation had “been quoted saying some very unpleasant things” and supports the Iranian government. I was confused – what has this obscure organisation, one I’ve never heard of, got to do with me?