As we sit in the upstairs bar of The Pack Horse, after a lively, packed-out talk, I ask Rosena Allin-Khan if the pub is her natural habitat. “Well, it’s certainly one of them; I have many,” she replies. “I do love a dance floor but obviously it would be a bit loud in there.”
Perhaps it’s not a typical response from an MP, but then again, Allin-Khan is not your typical politician. She is a keen boxer, worked for many years as a humanitarian aid doctor and still does shifts in A&E. Born in Tooting to a Polish mother and Pakistani father, growing up her family suffered great economic hardship under the Thatcher and Major governments. “I know what it’s like to live in extreme poverty, to be cold and hungry, to have all hope lost, to feel like there is no purpose to your life and to have it all turned around by a Labour government. I have lived that reality”.
What’s more, Allin-Khan expresses a real sense of fear for those in a similar circumstance who face another five years of Conservative rule. “On 12th December a door closed on a generation of young people,” she explains regretfully, “I have to be part of that fight back”. She sums up the parallels she can draw between her upbringing and the people she meets across the country whose lives have been wrecked by austerity: “It’s about shared experiences, just a generation later.”
The event she has held tonight precedes tomorrow’s hustings in Leeds, where Allin-Khan will debate the other candidates who are also running to be Labour’s next deputy leader. Currently, the polls have shown Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner as the clear frontrunner yet, despite being conscious of her underdog status, the Tooting MP seems unfazed. “People have told me ‘you’ve only been in parliament for three and a half years, you are so fresh to this’ and I’m like yes, but the problem is now. So I am going to throw my hat in this race and I am going to go for it and get my messages out there.” I wonder: has Allin-Khan always had this unwavering drive?
Candidly, she tells me of her past issues with self-belief. “At first, I put barriers over what I thought I could achieve”, she admits, “because when you grow up having people make you believe that you are worthless and you’ll amount to nothing, it’s a hard thing to shake. A lot of young people I know can really relate to that because when I go in to schools or universities and talk about this they come up to me afterwards and say I get, I know how that feels, it’s a very lonely place.”
Throughout our conversation, it is Allin-Khan’s earnest understanding of the current problems facing these same ‘young people’ that strikes me most. Though, hearing her remarkable journey to higher education sheds light on the origin of her solidarity with students. After failing her A-levels, she managed to get a place studying medicine at Cambridge at the age of 24, during the era of Blair’s education reforms. However, her finances were a constant source of worry throughout every stage of the process.
“I had to turn up to my interview showing I had access to a certain amount of money that I didn’t have,” she recalls, “and because it was Cambridge you not allowed to have part-time job because of Saturday lectures and there were extra college fees.
“My mum borrowed £50-£100 from each of her friends, photocopied a bank statement, gave the money back to her mates and I went to the interview pretending I had the money. Then I always had to work part-time jobs anyway and not tell anyone. It was a real strain. I also know what it’s like to be a student who is crippled with so much debt that you have to choose between shampoo and food. That’s not a decision people should have to make”
Nevertheless, in spite of her own ordeal, Allin-Khan is ceaselessly empathetic to the plight of today’s students. “Now it is so much worse because at that time I didn’t have to pay tuition fees. Now, people have tuition fees, living expenses, and plus the cost of living has gone up. The burden on students is astronomical!”
Considering her medical background, I feel it important to ask the doctor about her take on the student mental health crisis, with levels of depression, self-harm and substance abuse in UK universities alarmingly high. “Well, I still do shifts in A&E and I see it all of the time. I campaign tirelessly for more mental health provision and in health questions I am there challenging Matt Hancock all of the time and I will champion mental health issues.”
Yes, it is a strong answer from an assured politician, but Allin-Khan is not afraid to open up on a more personal level, admitting that “some of my best friends at university tried to take their own lives.” It’s refreshing to hear an MP be this frank.
“There is so much pressure now to conform to what society wants you to be or your perception of what society wants you to be. Now more than ever, particularly with the rise of social media and influencers, I believe now is one of the hardest times to be a student”
She pauses and takes a deep breath. “I want any young person, any student, to know that in me they have a friend and an ally. I understand. I get it. Regardless of the deputy leadership, as an MP, as a doctor, as a human, I am going to go in and champion the cause for them, all day every day.”
Image: Evening Standard