Nottingham’s Punjabi Forests: Talking With Nadia Whittome, The UK’s Youngest (Queer, Indian) Member Of Parliament

“It’s painful when people cherry-pick identities”.

Nadia says, as we (Praveen and Jo) ask her about her experiences of sitting among the wildflowers of her intersectional identity.  A person of colour (POC), Bengali Anglo Indian on her mother’s side, Punjabi on her father’s, from Nottingham, queer, and a young changemaker, Whittome has been the UK’s youngest elected member of Parliament, representing the constituency of Nottingham East since 2019.  We approached Nadia to speak to her primarily about her work as an MP, her love for her community, where she learns her socialist politics from, and where she wants to go in the future. We say primarily because this interview is filled with other tidbits – where to go in Nottingham to explore, what politicians can usefully do to support social movements, and what banging music Nadia is listening to for those of you who are looking for new reccs.

A need for better role models: Introducing Nadia Whittome

As brown activists living in the UK, we were and have been ashamed of the divisive, discriminatory and violent politics of some brown ‘role model’ politicians like Rishi Sunak, Sajid Javed, Priti Patel and Suella Braverman etc celebrated by the UK diaspora. Their politics have alienated the working class, are elitist and focus on preserving inequalities based on class, race, and gender over the needs of the working class and marginalised across social structures.

Politicians of Indian origin in the UK had a mixed bag of political views right from the early 1900s. The first Indians in the UK Parliament included some who were involved in radical pro-worker progressive politics, for instance Dadabhai Naoroji and Shapurji Saklatvala, both playing a pivotal role in the UK’s labour and socialist movement, fighting for their rights and those of other marginalised groups. On the other hand, Mancherjee Bhownaggree, who was elected as an MP based on campaigning against Eastern European Jewish migrants, worked with the far right movement. Indians from dominant castes and class have had important roles to play in the colonial project at the expense of people from oppressed castes. With the development of prominent brown people as the face of capitalist and people-hating politics, this is history repeating itself in the neo-colonial world of today. 

Nadia Campaigning with other MPs for climate action in the run up to COP26

While we were searching for role models we can get behind in the diaspora as political citizens interested in bettering working conditions across intersections, we came across Nadia Whittome. Her commitment to progressive politics and the working class is a breath of fresh air to a political landscape that often ignores or marginalises these groups. She stands out as a politician, who represents the progressive Indian diaspora, while arguing for her own brand of socialist ideas, such as only taking a worker’s wage (£35000 after tax) for her role as an MP and donating the rest to causes she believes in, in solidarity with people on low wages like nurses and care workers. She identifies as queer and has been vocal about her support for the LGBTQ+ community, pushing for inclusive policies that recognise and protect their rights. Identifying as a queer person and pushing for the rights of queer/trans and intersectionality adjacent communities is in itself a remarkable achievement. Especially because of the stigma that still exists around queer/trans identities in many South Asian communities. Additionally, Nadia has been consistently supporting worker’s rights in the UK and abroad, especially those who are among the most marginalised and under recognised; migrant, refugee and sex working communities.

The first part of this article follows Nadia’s journey as a UK activist turned politician and her guiding forces and inspirations. 

Praveen: What are some of the political movements you have been working with?

Nadia: I have been a labour rights activist for a long time. When there was an election to select who would be the Labour Party candidate, a group of us decided to run a candidate because we wanted bold and unequivocal positions on three main things. Number one was a Green New Deal, to tackle the climate crisis and social injustice at the same time. The second one was trade union rights, so a commitment to repealing all anti-trade union laws. Not that I have the power to do that, but fighting for that to happen. Third, was dismantling the hostile environment and extending free movement as well as defending existing free movement. . That’s the platform that I stood on and reflects the work that I’d done so far and I’m still doing now, like campaigns for migrant rights. The support for industrial disputes, for workers’ struggles for their rights, came from my background of being a care worker. I was in a trade union then, but it’s a very under-unionised workforce. And as a result, the pay is very poor. The conditions are very poor as well. I also built connections beyond my own workplace and sector – for example, I joined a brilliant campaign for delivery riders, who went on strike for the first time ever. I also joined the campaign for taxi drivers in Nottingham.

I wanted to be an MP who amplifies the voices of people in my community and their demands, and who builds a link between what is happening in all those incredible movements outside Parliament and what can be done from within Parliament, even if it’s limited in opposition.

Nadia returned to care work to help during the pandemic and was effectively sacked for speaking about the lack of PPE.

Jo: How do you see solidarities among class, caste, race, queerness, transness, disability functioning in your work?

Nadia: For me, solidarity is integral to my socialism, it is not an optional add-on. What I am striving for is liberation for everybody. I want every person to be freed from the constraints of oppression and poverty, and to have more power and control over their lives. Therefore, I think it is important to recognize that we can achieve this goal by working together and standing in solidarity with each other. We have the best chance of winning for all of us when we realise that our interests are not in competition with each other. Instead, they are dependent on one another, and all of us succeed. Some of the things that inspire me are initiatives like “Lesbian and Gays Support the Migrants” and the recent community efforts to oppose far-right demonstrations against drag queens. People standing with their migrant neighbours to physically prevent their deportation is another example. Moreover, when I look at struggles in India, they are often being led by individuals like Nodeep Kaur, a Marxist trade unionist. Many of these struggles, whether they are related to climate or industrial issues, are being led by the most marginalised and oppressed people. This has been the case throughout history, no matter where in the world you look.

Nadia on a picket line in Nottingham with striking telecommunications workers

Praveen: What are some of the lessons you have learnt in your work in political advocacy?

Nadia: I’m the first MP of colour in Nottingham, and given that Nottingham’s population is 40% Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds (BAME), it’s particularly important for me to not only speak for our communities, but also stand with them and amplify their voices. The wider community has been suffering and have been treated so badly by Conservative governments, and things were only getting worse. 

I’m also the first Gen Z MP in the UK, so representing the generation of youth climate strikers is important to me as well. In my feminism and my socialism, I want to be working with and standing up for and with the most marginalised people, people who are often excluded even within progressive or left-wing spaces, and definitely very rarely represented in Parliament. So I’ve done lots of work with trans people, with sex workers, migrants and people who have lots of those intersecting identities. I guess it’s taught me that the struggles of working-class people are deeply interconnected – whether that is the fight to access healthcare or workers rights, for better pay and conditions in the workplace or whether it’s the hostile environment towards migrants. It’s by advocating alongside those who are most marginalised that we can improve everyone’s lives.

Praveen: Who were some of the role models you grew up with, in life, as well as politically?

Politically, a big one for me is Jayaben Desai, the woman who led the Grunwick strike, because she was one of those workers who were disregarded, not just by their bosses, but also by the labour movement. They were written off as Asian women who didn’t have any power and who wouldn’t be listened to. Her quote, “We are the lions, Mr Manager”, I think summed it up. And not just her, but the whole movement that she was part of, challenging people’s stereotypes about Asian women being docile and submissive. I think, as an Asian woman today, that these are stereotypes that we still deal with. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like then. All of them smashed those glass ceilings.

Another one is Tony Benn. I was 16 when I got involved with the labour movement and community organising. It was when the “Bedroom Tax” was introduced by the Conservative-led coalition government, which basically meant that if you had a spare room in your council home [British public housing] that you would have to pay a tax on it. I was part of a big group of people who organised a rally in Nottingham against the Bedroom Tax and against austerity more widely. Tony Benn came to speak at that rally and it was just inspirational to watch him, as he was a huge hero of mine. I didn’t know that much about political theory at the time, I just knew that I was sick of what was happening in my community. Those three years of austerity at that time honestly felt like a lifetime. All of my formative years, like the whole of my teenage life, happened under Conservative governments – and we still have a Conservative government today.

Another person I look up to politically is John McDonnell [another socialist Labour MP, in West London], particularly since being elected. I thought about what kind of MP I wanted to be, and how I could use this platform so it’s a useful contribution to Nottingham and the labour movement. I saw how over the years he’s brought people into Parliament. It seems like he never misses a picket line, he’s done the relentless behind the scenes work as well as the amplifying and making arguments outwardly, particularly with people who are the most marginalised, like unpaid carers and sex workers. I thought, yeah, that’s what I want to be able to do.

I’ve never been under any illusions that change comes from politicians, and I still don’t really think of myself as a politician. I’m not alone in that because there are those of us, certainly on the Labour side, who have been activists before we were politicians. I think that it’s movements that will make the change so I see my position as an MP as a person who can be useful to my constituents, and to the wider group of people who are trying to win change.

I also think as humans we put people on a pedestal, naturally.  But it surrenders our own power and autonomy, and we become crestfallen when they make any mistakes. We can, as much as possible, find hope in movements and adopt a culture that is more forgiving of other people and ourselves when we make mistakes. Because we’re always going to make mistakes.

Nadia at Nottingham Pride

Praveen: What are your ambitions for your political career, and what is the best part of being in politics?

I want to use my position in Parliament to platform the voices of movements and causes that matter. Standing up for my community, in all its diversity, is my priority. If that means taking on a more senior role in the party, then great, I’m fine with that. However, I’m also content with being an effective backbencher. The most important thing for me is to do right by my constituents and my community.

On working and being in politics, it’s really important for me to emphasise that it’s not just me working alone. I have an incredible team of young women who are phenomenal at what they do. Despite the unfairness and injustice stacked against people in the system, my team always finds ways to push open even the slightest challenge and achieve victories for individuals. They have successfully helped people reclaim money from the DWP (Department for Work and Pensions), prevented deportations, and secured rehousing for those in need. Working with my team is truly one of the best aspects of my job.

Another thing is that, I have the opportunity to meet amazing people in Nottingham who are making a real difference. From those involved in mutual aid initiatives to those teaching children how to read, and even organisations like POW, Prostitute Outreach Workers, founded by sex workers themselves, which empowers sex workers and provides them with essential support for health, benefits, and housing. It’s a privilege to connect with these individuals who I might not have met otherwise.

Nadia finds immense value in being part of the wider movement, like her inspirations, she has consistently stood on picket lines with workers, and these political actions outside of the walls of parliament remain important to her, even before becoming an MP. Figures like Nadia show us how crucial it is for elected representatives to support and stand alongside workers during such challenging times, such as strikes.

On Identity, Safety, and Intersectionality

Unfortunately, even as an MP who is widely appreciated for her work, Nadia faces some of the same issues that other folx with intersectional identities face. As she explains, is sometimes not counted as an MP of Indian origin, and her queer identity is kept out of conversations.

Jo: I’ve always wondered whether it becomes painful that your progressive views, and your intersecting identities have ended up becoming reasons why you are not seen as a role model for the diaspora. What are your thoughts on that?

Nadia: I have been giving this question a lot of thought since I first saw it, although I had previously considered it in different ways without formulating it explicitly. It can be a painful topic. I believe it depends on how we define the diaspora, because I receive numerous messages from young Asian women and queer individuals who see themselves represented in me and the things I do. One aspect that I particularly love about India, and that fills me with pride regarding my heritage, is the immense diversity in terms of religion, language, and culture. I see myself as a product of the movements that have fought for a pluralistic and secular India. However, it is a common experience for individuals with intersecting identities to feel like they don’t fully fit in many spaces. This can be true whether it’s as a queer person in a diaspora community or as a person of colour in queer spaces. These instances serve as examples of how I have not been fully recognized. For instance, during the 2019 election, Labour Friends of India released a statement highlighting that one of my colleagues, who is also of Indian descent, was the only Indian candidate selected in a safe seat. Even though I too am Indian, with two Indian parents and four Indian grandparents, and I was actually selected in a seat with a larger Labour majority than the one mentioned in the statement, however, I was not included on the list. I believe it is important to acknowledge that sometimes people tend to gate keep and impose their own definitions of what it means to be Indian or South Asian. It is crucial to recognise that we are no less a part of that identity than anyone else. I’m out and I was out to a lot of people before I was elected, and then about a year in, I didn’t have  a public coming out, but I just mentioned that I’m queer.  But it’s not something that anyone in the local Asian community I’m part of has ever spoken to me about.

Nadia attending a Diwali event in Nottingham (left) and Nadia at home with her dog, Hattie (right)

Jo: Is there a heavy silence around it?

Nadia: Oh, there’s this palpable silence when it comes to it. It’s like they’re perfectly fine discussing everything else, but as soon as it touches queerness, it’s like the conversation comes to a screeching halt.

I am very much aware of my class privilege now, considering I used to be working-class before becoming a Member of Parliament. I can’t help but wonder if things would be different if I weren’t an MP. Perhaps my position offers some level of protection, but I can’t say for sure. I don’t want to assume what people are thinking. However, I do hope that the presence of openly queer South Asian individuals and the challenging conversations they have with their aunties and uncles, both publicly and at the dinner table, are gradually bringing about change.

There’s definitely a disconnect, though. On my mum’s side, they’re Catholic, and I was baptised Catholic, while on my dad’s side, they follow Sikhism. However, they’re extremely secular because my granddad was a communist, and my dad followed suit. So, they aren’t particularly religious. Nevertheless, I do recall going to the gurdwara occasionally when I was younger, and it struck me how there seemed to be a contradiction between the concept of a genderless God and the prevailing narrative around masculinity, which isn’t unique to the Sikh or Punjabi community. It’s a universal phenomenon.

A lot of spaces where identities intersect are not really safe spaces for those who hold within them multiple experiences. Often, places demarcated as being safe, don’t end up being safe for its members, nor is safety a static thing. The safety we feel changes based on what we learn, how we grow, how people around us learn, grow and behave with us, so one cannot expect to feel safe in the same place every time we experience it. The safety of a space cannot also be pushed onto people with this false premise.  We asked Nadia where she feels the “safest”, in all the vagueness as well as specificity of the word and the feeling:

I feel different levels of safety depending on where I am. There’s a strong sense of rootedness and groundedness in Nottingham, which has been my home my entire life. Certain places in Nottingham, the ones I used to frequent as a kid or teenager, still hold a special place in my heart, and I even hang out in some of them now. However, in a more abstract sense, the places where I feel the safest are in queer black and Asian spaces.

It’s comforting to know that many of us have had similar experiences. Even before I came out, it was tough because, well, I’ve always been on the quieter side. But even before that, I faced challenges due to my mixed heritage. Being raised by my mum, I’ve had more exposure to her culture and upbringing. My mum’s side of the family hails from a different part of India, which meant that I was often viewed as an outsider in both communities. However, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting people from various regions in India and other parts of South Asia. It has been enlightening to explore different aspects of my identity and discover the commonalities we share. Despite being part of the same country, the cultures can be vastly different.

There’s no way we’re ending this conversation without asking Nadia for recommendations for those visiting Nottingham, so here they are:

Nadia’s Recommendations!

Book I’m reading right now: Honey and Spice, by Bolu Babalola

Playlists: Deutsche Musik, COYR, Musique Francaise and Big Gay Night Out!

Places to go in Nottingham:

Let’s start with The Bodega, which is one of the best night’s out. On Friday nights, they have this event called Pop Confessional, and the DJ wears a dog collar. There’s even a confession booth where you can confess and get a free shot. In fact, they did ask me once  if I wanted to do a guest confession. I think it’s because I’ve been going there for so long, and being the local MP adds to the fun. It’s funny because I often get casework feedback at The Bodega. I remember one person came up to me to let me know that I’d helped them get their visa that day. It was surreal. I  even asked my uncle, who is a priest and baptised me, what he thought about the pop confessionals. I was hoping he’d say it would be a laugh, but he said, “No, you can’t do that.” So, I had to pass on the guest confession idea.

We have many beautiful green spaces in Nottingham, which is one of the things I love the most about living here. The football club is also called Nottingham Forest, and has a fan club called Punjabi Forest! We often take our dog for a walk along the river since we live nearby. It’s really refreshing, so definitely explore all the green spaces around.

Nottingham has some really cool art galleries too, with a thriving independent scene. The biggest one is Nottingham Contemporary. When I was around 13, I was part of the youth group at the Contemporary, and it was one of the first things that really politicised me and allowed me to express myself in a productive way. So, it holds a special place in my heart. But there are also other amazing art spaces like Backlit, Surface Gallery, and Primary. They all have a very chill vibe.

Oh, and let’s not forget about the fantastic food places! There are so many around my constituency. For Indian sweets, you should definitely check out Berridge Road. And if you’re into vegan options, the vegan market is a must-visit.

You can read and know more about Nadia Whittome’s work here. Here’s to more queer, progressive faces for our movements!

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