Image: DeFacto / Wikimedia Commons
Image: DeFacto / Wikimedia Commons

An interview with Zarah Sultana MP: strikes, power, and the cost-of-living crisis

Since she was first elected as MP for Coventry South in 2019, Zarah Sultana has made a name for herself as an outspoken critic of the government – as well as occasionally her own party – and as a sometimes-controversial advocate for progressive policies in the Labour Party. Sultana kindly accepted to be interviewed by The Boar.

Sultana addressed the picket line during the University and College Union (UCU) strikes on Warwick campus in November last year. We spoke about why university staff decided to go on strike and the universities’ refusal to negotiate.

“Staff, whether that’s university staff, or railway workers, or nurses, don’t take going on strike lightly. It’s a decision that is very difficult and is only done as a last resort,” she told me.

“Since 2010, university staff have seen their pay fall by 25% and they’ve seen their pensions cut by 35%. Casualisation in higher education is absolutely rife and PhD students are really struggling as well. Universities have to talk to the UCU and come to a negotiated deal because this is simply not good enough – and it’s off the back of 13 years.

We need to have a higher education system that is properly funded, in which educators are treated with dignity. We know how much of an issue mental health is, stress is, and workloads are. If key workers aren’t paid enough, they’re simply going to leave. They’ll find other jobs that pay them better and that is the detriment of the rest of society.

By striking, they’re standing up for themselves, they’re standing up for the future of higher education, and also for students because their working conditions are students’ learning conditions. If lecturers aren’t paid properly, the quality of education that they’re able to share with everyone is also affected.”

“How would you respond to the people that say when staff strike, it’s students who suffer?”

“At the heart of this is staff trying to fight for their jobs to be protected, to have the ability to teach students in a safe, holistic environment and they are unable to do that.

I’ve seen people say, ‘We’re paying for this! This shouldn’t be allowed to happen!’ As the higher education system has become more commodified, tuition fees have become the centre of the model that we have, and I think that this is a real issue because this isn’t the higher education system we want to have.

We know that the current crisis is affecting students too. Inflation is at 10% and maintenance loans are set to rise by only 2.8% in September. That’s a massive cut in real terms for students. It’s about showing solidarity that we’re all fighting for the same thing: a proper, funded higher education system.”

In 2016, Parliament passed the Trade Union Act, which required 50% of union members to vote in order to call for industrial action. Now, the government is proposing a new Strike Bill that would impose a ‘minimum service level’ on workers in certain industries. I asked Sultana how she sees the future of industrial action in the UK.

“The UK already has some of the most restrictive, anti-trade union legislation in the Western world. It is very hard for trade unions to meet the threshold. They can only use postal ballots, even though the Tories elected Liz Truss through electronic voting. Trade unions can’t use that tool. Yet, we’ve seen UCU meet thresholds, we’ve seen postal workers at the CWU smash thresholds, and now we’re seeing it now with the NEU as well.

The current bill is being rammed through Parliament. This has happened over the course of essentially two weeks. Just minimise as much scrutiny as possible because the government want to say this is about guaranteeing minimum service levels.

If you wanted to truly address issues like that, you would pay staff better, address chronic shortages, and improve working conditions. They are not willing to do that, so they force nurses, teachers, firefighters, and other key sector works to go to work and face the sack if they join a picket line.

This is a direct response to how mobilised trade unions are in this current time. Instead of being constructive and actually wanting to resolve these disputes, the government is hellbent on destroying trade unions and making them completely unable to support their members.

If we look at polling, the public are on the side of the people that strike because they know how hard it is. They are also experiencing the same difficulties with their pay being low and their bills high, so they see themselves in the people that are striking. There isn’t a binary between the public and the strikers: they are the same group of people.

The government is trying to really demonise trade unions and blame them. No! For 13 years, people have struggled to get help. When nurses, ambulance drivers, and junior doctors go on strike, it’s because they are worried for the care they are able to offer. I saw a placard the other day. It said: ‘Patients aren’t dying because nurses are striking. Nurses are striking because patients are dying.”

Much of Sultana’s messaging revolves around the power in communities rather than traditional power in Westminster. I asked how she imagined the future of politics going forward.

“I grew up really disillusioned with politics. I saw a coalition government get elected and vote away things that would have really benefitted my generation: tuition fees, taking away maintenance, turning grants into loans, and allowances that people had that don’t exist anymore. These were a direct attack on young people,” she explained.

“I’ve always believed in community organising, in social movements. That’s where I was politicised. Now I’m in Parliament, it’s really important for me to bridge those two because you need to be in power to make a difference to people’s lives, but that needs to be supported by these communities.

And then, I go out and I see people on the picket line, and I see huge demonstrations and that’s where there is real power because people are not accepting what’s happening. That’s where there is real hope. It’s about all of these movements coming together.”

“Obviously, many causes of the current cost-of-living crisis have been outside of the UK’s control: the Covid pandemic, Putin invading Ukraine, etc. How do you think the government could have dealt with it better?”

“When we look at the current economic crisis, we can’t pin it on just one thing. It’s a whole host of issues: Brexit is playing a part in all of this, we’ve had 13 years of austerity, we’ve had a global pandemic, and now a cost-of-living crisis. In this time, the Tories have not made it their goal to address the inequality within our society. We have a record number of food banks, and at the same time, we have a record number of billionaires, record profits being made by big businesses, and record wealth of the top 1%. You can see how these things are happening in tandem.

When people are in work, work isn’t paying enough to pay their bills and enjoy life.  That is at the heart of this and there is no motivation by the government to address that. The only way we can actually change things is to have a Labour government that is bold and ambitious. Until that general election happens, things are going to continue to be really hard for people.”

“You mention that the only solution you see is that a Labour government gets elected, yet you’ve been quite a vocal critic of the current Labour leadership under Keir Starmer,” I followed up. “What should Labour change in order to get elected?”

“While Keir and I don’t see eye-to-eye on everything, one thing that we definitely have in common is working every day to get a Labour government elected because that is how we are going to make a difference in people’s lives. We know that our NHS is broken, we see trains not running on time, schools are crumbling, and wages are falling. A Labour government that rises to these challenges is absolutely essential.

I think it’s really important to take inspiration from previous governments, especially the Attlee government of ’45. We saw a country that was completely destroyed by war and the answers of that Labour government weren’t to tinker around the edges: it was to be bold and transformative. That’s what we should do when we get into government.”

The discussion turned towards Coventry. I asked what the most pressing issues facing the city were and what we can do to address them.

“Only earlier today, I spoke with Coventry Citizens Advice bureau, and they’re seeing real hardship: huge increase in people experiencing financial debt, people enquiring how to pay their bills and council tax, debts growing, homelessness: all those factors have increased by above 20%. These are symptoms of an economy that is working perfectly fine for the wealthiest and is completely ruining the lives of everyone else. It’s heart-breaking.

Today, for example, we got the disappointing news that Coventry has been completely overlooked in the so-called ‘levelling up’ funding. Bids that we sent through that the council prepared were around tackling deprivation in some of the poorest areas and got absolutely nothing, yet Rishi Sunak’s wealthy constituency got £19 million.

He has been recorded saying that he was changing the algorithm to provide funding to constituencies that were less deprived and taking money away from constituencies that have high levels of deprivation. This is the man who is now our Prime Minister! What is so outrageous about this is that Coventry City Council has seen more than a billion pounds in the past 13 years taken away from their budget that they get from central government so there’s a real strain on local services and we see that. Yet, the government won’t provide any funding for projects that we desperately need. That’s a huge issue.

The second point is around the cost-of-living crisis. As someone who volunteers at the foodbank whenever I can, demand has absolutely soared while donations aren’t as high as they used to be. People are experiencing real hardship. The weather in Coventry recently has been very frosty and there are many people in the city who won’t have been able to put heating on because they simply can’t afford it. And that’s an issue. We’re very lucky to have Coventry Foodbank, but it shouldn’t exist if we were paying people properly, if people’s benefits were enough to help them, then we wouldn’t have this situation.

I also think that there’s an issue where councils don’t have enough power to build council homes. That’s something that needs to be taken away from Westminster and directed to local government to allow them to do more. Going forward with a Labour government, I hope that we will see a re-balancing of the support that is given to local government, but also in terms of powers. We should be becoming a more decentralised country because that’s where people feel like they can actually change things. Otherwise, things seem distant; things seem like they just happen in Westminster. If we could give combined authorities more power at local government, then that would be really positive.”


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