When darling of the left, Faiza Shaheen, chose to stand as a Labour MP, the high-profile 35-year-old had her pick of safe seats.
An Asian woman who grew up in poverty, she went from living in a condemned house in Walthamstow and working at Greggs bakery to completing a PhD and becoming director of the pro-Jeremy Corbyn think-tank, Class.
But for Shaheen, it had to be Chingford and Woodford Green. Not because she grew up there, but because it has been the domain of ex-Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, since 1997.
“I feel a duty to my country to take him out because of the misery he has created in so many people’s lives,” Shaheen told HuffPost UK.
Duncan Smith is the godfather of Universal Credit, a benefits reform he oversaw during his time as work and pensions secretary. It was designed to simplify the benefits process but has received a mountain of criticism for delays which have exacerbated poverty and foodbank use.
Introduced in 2013 and now being rolled out across the country, Shaheen says the reform has caused misery among claimants – something her family has personal experience of.
Her mum, Nuzhat, who died at the age of 64 in 2017, was among those whose benefits were reassessed for Universal Credit when she had been receiving Disability Living Allowance.
Nuzhat was unable to work because of a heart condition but had to undergo the stress of being quizzed by assessors anyway, says Shaheen.
“They had to come to the house. She had had heart failure,” Shaheen said in an interview with HuffPost UK. “I was upstairs and could hear her saying again and again: ‘I just want to work’.
“She had a huge pile of doctors’ reports. She could not work anymore. It was very clear, and people were there to ask her whether she could work.”
Shaheen said Duncan Smith has “wreaked so much havoc on people’s lives. He symbolises – and quite rightly because these were his policies – so much cruelty and heartlessness.”
The memory of her mum, a Pakistani lab technician who won a case for racial discrimination when she was targeted for redundancy, is driving Shaheen forward. “She was an insanely aspirational parent despite everything, and I was lucky that I had that for as long as I did,” says Shaheen. Nuzhat died last year from an infection after receiving a heart transplant, and her father passed away not long after due to bone cancer.
Her upbringing is an important part of her politics. During a recent TV appearance, Shaheen was speaking about “energy and meters” with other left-wing commentators. “I was telling the other people about the time when my mum couldn’t find a pound to put in the meter, and I looked around and they all looked shocked. I realised that no-one else had had that experience.”
Shaheen’s dad, a car mechanic from Fiji, instilled in the young politician and her brother a sense of how to cope with, and fight, discrimination in Britain, she said. “My dad taught us that we would have to work twice as hard,” she said. “He was once reading the paper and someone set it alight whilst he was reading it. He told us so many stories about skinheads. He taught us about Martin Luther King. He loved Muhammad Ali.”
Discrimination is currently one of the most important, and divisive, issues facing Labour, as it struggles to overcome an anti-Semitism scandal now focused on whether the party should adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of jew hate.
Shaheen said she remains loyal to the party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, despite the barrage of criticism his leadership faces, after he has been accused of failing to take seriously the concerns of Jews over the repeated surfacing of anti-semitic views in the party.
“Jewish people don’t all feel the same way and a lot of people are saying that the definition Labour has adopted is the right definition,” she said. “I think it is a very important debate to have – what anti-Semitism is – because we need to know what we are fighting.”
But she said a “problem” arises when discussing Israel and Palestine. “If you can’t say that Israel is an apartheid state, or if Palestinians in this country can’t say that it was racist, without being labelled anti-Semitic by the Labour Party then I think there is a problem.”
All I was really confident about was dancing to drum ‘n’ bass
Shaheen attended Chingford County High School, the same school as David Beckham and Harry Kane, and achieved the best grades of any student in her year. She went on to study philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University, a place she says she “hated”.
“I couldn’t be surrounded by more arseholes,” she said. “It was awful. Being that close to the elite, being that close to all that sense of entitlement was really eye-opening when you come from a working class background.
“The mentality of people there was so dog-eat-dog, proper rat race.”
The university politicised her, she said, but when she moved to Manchester to research a PhD in economics, she was still haunted by “imposter syndrome”.
“I think you feel a lot of that when you come from a working class background,” she said. “I really admire people who are confident in their early 20s. All I was really confident about was dancing to drum ‘n’ bass.”
After her studies, Shaheen went on to work for think tank the Centre for Cities, where “a lot of people there were politically where Tony Blair was, and I found myself having lots of arguments”. She then moved to the New Economics Foundation, a left-wing think tank.
“I have so often been the only brown person or, so often, the only woman or the only woman from a working class background,” she said.
In 2014, she became head of inequality and sustainable development at Save The Children, representing the charity before the UN.
She was in the role in 2016, when staff were allegedly involved in sexual abuse and inappropriate behaviour. The chief strategist, Brendan Cox, resigned in September after female members of staff made complaints about him.
The charity also failed to properly investigate the abuse and will now be formally investigated by the Charity Commission. Shaheen said she was aware of some of the allegations at the time, but did not see them first-hand and was not targeted herself.
“I just feel like those at the top had become really hypocritical organisation,” she said. “It is such a shame because there are so many talented people who work there. I hope it is better now.”
Shaheen became a card-carrying Labour member when Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader in 2015, and moved to be director of the trade union-funded think tank, Class, which produces research and policy papers. Its current projects are on race and class, automation, the labour market and Brexit.
“I couldn’t join the Labour Party when it was austerity-lite or when they had ‘immigration controls’ on mugs,” she said, referring to the period when Ed Miliband was in charge of the party, and released a series of branded Labour cups featuring various political pledges. “I’ve always been a Labour supporter but that was not something that made me want to jump with joy,” she said.
Just before she was selected to fight Chingford and Woodford Green, Shaheen found herself sitting opposite her nemesis, and she claims Duncan Smith blanked her because he saw her as unimportant.
“I was on BBC Daily Politics with IDS [Duncan Smith] a few weeks ago,” she said. “He didn’t know I was running at the time, he didn’t know I was from his constituency and he said ‘hello’ to The Times journalist, ‘hello’ to the presenter, and ‘hello’ to the Irish diplomat and he completely ignored me.
“When he left he did the same thing and I thought ‘you are going to regret that’.
“It happens a lot that posh, white men just pretend you do not exist.”
Shaheen will now spend the coming months attempting to build a power base in the east London constituency, and says she has strong support from the local party. But she faces an uphill struggle in the area, as Duncan
Smith is well-known, and has secured the backing of Brexit voters in social housing estates.
She claimed Brexit, which IDS was a key figure in campaigning for, has unleashed a “torrent of hatred and bigotry”.
“I think it will be very historical to take him out,” she said. “We are at a point in the world where we are fighting this torrent of hatred and bigotry. I think it would be symbolically powerful to take him out.
“It makes it more of a daunting task, but it is incredibly motivating.”