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Faiza Shaheen won’t back down

In one of the most dishonest episodes of the recent purges, Labour HQ has tried to deny Chingford the chance to vote for a committed and talented socialist — but ANDREW MURRAY finds she is fighting back, with huge local support

THIS working-class Muslim woman is out to annoy the Starmer apparatus.

Victim of a political drive-by shooting for the ages, Faiza Shaheen has the fizzing popular energy in her struggle against the brute force of the Labour machine in Chingford and Woodford Green, on the edge of East London.

In a sense, she is one of two Labour candidates fighting to wrest the seat from the ex-Tory leader Iain Duncan-Smith who inherited the constituency from Norman Tebbit, Margaret Thatcher’s “semi-house trained polecat,” in Michael Foot’s pungent phrase.

The first is the candidate chosen by the local Labour Party, the charismatic campaigner who breathes commitment to her community and secured a positive swing in 2019 in an election when such an achievement was, to say the least, unusual.

This candidate is the authority on inequality, with an acclaimed book Know Your Place published last year, the “local girl” whose work has been praised at the UN.

The other is a candidate cynically parachuted in by Labour’s right-wing goons, with no local connections or democratic mandate.

So Shaheen is now forced to stand as an independent against official Labour’s Shama Tatler, with Duncan-Smith’s scalp the prize.

The story is by now well-known. Shaheen, having cut the Tory majority in this former stronghold to a little over 1,000 in 2019, decided to run again.

She won more votes in the local party than her three rivals aggregated. But she was doubly vulnerable. She was virulently opposed by the Jewish News newspaper, for reasons that are not easy to fathom.

And she was just about the only candidate associated with the left to be chosen for a winnable seat in what has otherwise been a clean selection sweep by the Starmer faction to destroy any traces of Corbynism.

But there she was, enduring the petty humiliations of a bullying party bureaucracy but plugging away in anticipation of what should, given national polling figures, have been a runaway victory when the election was called.

Despite having given birth to her first child, Zayan, just three months previously, Shaheen was up for the fight.

So, alas, were her enemies. In a classic triangular operation, the Sun highlighted tweets she had liked sympathising with the Palestinian people, having been directed to them by Labour itself, one may assume.

The Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) then picked up the ball and started organising people to protest.

According to some unverified reports, the JLM tried and failed to pressure the rabbi in Chingford to complain about Shaheen. The JLM did not respond to emailed questions about its role.

And finally, with the JLM as cover, the Labour apparatus convened a special panel of the executive after the general election had been called.

It was a kangaroo court, presented with a dossier of contemptible shoddiness, including tweets supporting a friend running for the Greens in a local election 10 years ago, and another tweet “liked” which was a quote from Nelson Mandela.

The panel consisted of Unison representative Wendy Nichols, West Midlands factionalist Gurinder Singh Josan and probably Usdaw’s Michael Wheeler.

The last may be in doubt since he neither contributed nor put his screen on during the performance — the hearing was conducted by Zoom and with Zayan in vocal attendance, since there had been no time to arrange childcare.

Wheeler was apparently “out and about” which may be true since he did pop up as Labour’s parachuted candidate in Worsley and Eccles a couple of days later, as did Josan in Smethwick.

Anyway, this trio did as bidden and removed Shaheen as a candidate. Was this as a result of pressure from the JLM on Labour to eliminate pro-Palestinian voices from Parliament, or were the JLM simply acting as Morgan McSweeney’s front-of-house, since the campaign boss could not tolerate even a single “Corbynite” blemish on his party purge record?

Who knows? I would have McSweeney down as the wirepuller. At any event, if the JLM were his hired helpers on this occasion they were rewarded, since Shaheen’s replacement Tatler is a member of the JLM, announced within 48 hours, suggesting she was all primed and ready to go before questions were even raised about Shaheen.

Labour’s leadership, from Starmer and his deputy Angela Rayner on down, said this was all about ensuring a “high quality” of candidates. This was a studied insult to Shaheen, but also an absurdity.

As Chingford’s hopeful was falling by the wayside, the Israeli lobbyist and model for the “zionist shitlord” range of T-shirts Luke Akehurst, and the volatile think-tanker who casually insulted the whole of Scotland Josh Simons, were being handed safe seats without a blink.

Quality? You could throw a brick in a barnyard and be sure of hitting more promising parliamentary material.

Shaheen herself had seen what was coming. “They just wanted to get rid of dissenting voices. They wanted to do me in when I was pregnant but that was not a good look,” she says, possibly underestimating the bleak depths of the McSweeney-Akehurst faction.

Two points should be made before proceeding. First, full disclosure. This reporter has known Shaheen well for some years, since she came to work at a Unite-sponsored think tank, and counts her as a friend.

Second, while she is certainly on the left, she would not regard herself as a militant Corbynite, and she is measured and reasonable in her advocacy for Palestine. She would not be regarded as outlandish in any moderately progressive party.

That makes her treatment cruel, comically undemocratic and, ultimately, racist in effect whatever the intent of the craven panel. An articulate high-achieving black woman was blocked from advancing on frankly incredible grounds.

There is no possibility that any union would conduct its own affairs in such a riotously disreputable fashion. Unison was asked to comment on Nichols’s role but passed.

So here we are in a church hall in Chingford Mount. It is packed to the rafters and buzzing. It has the atmosphere of the first Corbyn leadership campaign and, longer ago, the peak of Stop the War’s work.

The community has turned out en masse for Shaheen. There is anger in the room, determination and, it seems, a deep fund of affection for the candidate Starmer tried to cancel.

One woman, too shy to give her name, says: “I supported Corbyn and was going to sit the election out until this happened.”

Tricia was more forthcoming: “She is a fantastic candidate and what the Labour Party did is mean, nasty and stupid. It’s bully-boy tactics. She is so brilliant, so talented, so committed. She is 100 per cent for the community.”

Rob, next to her, says it is “the first time I’ve volunteered to do anything in a campaign. I saw her interview on Newsnight. They’ve been absolutely appalling towards her,” he says, referencing a powerful and nearly-teary performance on the BBC by Shaheen just an hour after getting the email firing her.

The next interviewee, another Rob, says he is “supporting Faiza for the same reason I first joined the Labour Party in 1985, for a better, fairer society. We have seen that the PLP has forgotten or never understood those ideas. Two weeks ago I left the Labour Party and I wanted to show my support for Faiza today.”

Mick Moore, who was until the week before Labour’s campaign organiser in the constituency, does the warm-up. “She is giving hope to this constituency. We had the best Labour candidate in Britain. They tried to bully this woman, they tell her you are not good enough. Do they think we are mugs?”

It goes down well, and when he concludes “game on” the roof is nearly blown off. Faiza’s husband Akin offers a few words.

“What she has had to put up with from the Labour Party is disgusting and they should be ashamed. Labour took something from us and we are taking it back.”

Then the main event. Handing Zayan over to her sister for her speech, Faiza’s message is uncomplicated and sincere. “These are politics that come from the heart. I was told it does not matter if you are local, but that is so wrong.

“My book was called Know Your Place — the irony now being told to know your place.” Then the line that gets the loudest cheer of all, a message straight to McSweeney, Nichols, Starmer and Rayner.

“I am still that working-class Muslim girl that is going to annoy you.”

That is a certainty. Winning the election is not, but there are encouraging signs. When Moore asks the room to indicate who has had experience canvassing, around half the hands go up.

That spoke to a serious rift in the Labour Party and, sure enough, more than 50 members resigned in disgust a few days later. The first aim is to leaflet every household for Faiza within the next 24 hours.

“There are four Labour voters in my street, and three are for Faiza,” one man in the long queue for canvassers avers.

A Chingford savant consulted by the Star reckons that the Labour split makes Duncan-Smith’s re-election a shoo-in. Another asserts it is now a two-horse race between Shaheen and the unsought-for Tatler.

Shaheen’s pitch is defiantly local. Chingford born and raised, she has never aspired to represent anywhere else. The area “deserves to be represented by someone who understands its needs and values.”

Although the Gaza crisis may have been the proximate cause of her purging, she does not speak about Palestine as much as some other independent candidates. Of course, Chingford is not Birmingham or even nearby Ilford, and the bulk of the church hall crowd is not visibly Muslim, so often the backbone of the rebellion against Labour.

Still, she was out on the Gaza protests at a time when Labour was trying to ban its candidates from attending and she speaks with conviction about her campaign also being about “people dying on the other side of the planet.”

And briefing canvassers in Chingford, Moore was clear: “It is not us that is splitting the vote, it is Labour that has split the vote.”

That is a concrete truth in Chingford and a more abstract one throughout the country. Right-wing social democracy splits the working class, the labour movement and progressive voters by subordinating the movement to the capitalist establishment, seldom more so than under state prosecutor Starmer.

That is one lesson from this sorry episode. There are others — about racism; about the truncating of democracy; about Labour’s need to hose down any sign of enthusiasm.

And there are questions too — why do trade unions continue to tolerate and, on occasion, enable this gangsterism when they would scarcely permit their members to be treated thus?

Maybe that’s for another day, albeit one not far distant. For today, Chingford and Woodford Green has the chance to right a wrong, reject injustice and give Labour’s bullies a hiding.

They can also send a brilliant, committed socialist to Parliament. Not so many voters have that opportunity this election. Best make the most.

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