Nadia Whittome originally made headlines when she became the “baby of the house” in 2019, elected at the age of 23 as Labour MP for Nottingham East, in an election whose main take-home was how many seats Labour had lost. She was a firebrand or maverick – insert your favourite term for “disobedient” – from the start: hard-remain when Corbyn’s office was all about the lexiters, further to the left than Starmer has turned out to be (so far).
So she was never going to be a quiet backbencher, working her way strategically through the party ranks, but her next headlines were a long way from politics. In May this year, she announced her decision to take time off because of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In a parliamentary culture in which even MPs who have to give birth or have chemotherapy are surrounded by endless discussion about whether they can still do their job, this was a momentous act, signalling to many that Whittome belonged to a new, more honest culture. Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said at the time that her colleague had “shown so much bravery and … will have helped so many other people”, a view shared by many Conservatives. But Whittome wasn’t thinking of the career angle. “My symptoms were getting worse rather than better. I couldn’t be the energetic, effective MP that Nottingham needs and deserves, and, also for my own health, I needed time and space to recover. I didn’t worry about my political future, I wasn’t thinking about that at all.”
We meet in her constituency office in Nottingham, plateglass-fronted with the sign of its hardware store predecessor still up. From the outside, it looks like any Labour MP’s HQ from the 80s: shabby, but civic, in the sense that once you’ve figured out what it is, you know you’ll be allowed in. The interior, though, looks more like a Danish community action hub. A kids’ play area where the boxes of undelivered leaflets should be, a bike, upcycled furniture.
Whittome is back at work, though her formal return will coincide with the end of recess on 6 September. She’s excited to be back, after a recovery that has been arduous as well as expensive – she was advised by her GP that waiting lists for treatment ran to many months, and she should go private, a decision she didn’t want to make, but will not berate herself for. “It just highlighted everything that needs to change; everybody should have access to the best treatment for whatever the condition is, and be able to access it quickly. I know from the casework how many people are waiting months, years even.” (One dreadful aspect of the crisis in mental-health funding is that people with the most severe illnesses often face the longest waiting lists.)
She also found herself, mostly in her absence, becoming a lightning rod for the subset of the culture war in which young people are snowflakes, and prioritising their mental health is evidence of their weakness; it is a view that attaches to women in particular, and has been vividly on display this summer when the tennis player Naomi Osaka dropped out of the French Open and the gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of her Olympics event, both explicitly for the sake of their mental health. Whittome didn’t face widespread criticism of this nature, but enough – probably the most succinct, in that it packed so many remarks into one short paragraph, was from the rightwing blog site Guido Fawkes. “That speculation, that I couldn’t have PTSD because I haven’t been in a war, that I’d even diagnosed myself or that it was a result of reading the mean comments about myself online …”
It’s only when she speaks of her mental illness that Whittome’s delivery is at all halting. She has made the choice to be open, but it didn’t come for free. “I’ve thought a lot about whether to speak about the causes of my PTSD, and I decided that it wouldn’t help my recovery. But I will go as far as saying it was caused by extremely traumatic events that were entirely unconnected to my work as an MP, politics or parliament. When you look at misleading speculation, side by side with the very genuine and immediate fear for your life that results in PTSD, you see how ludicrous it is. But I still worry about the impact [the negative coverage] will have on other people with this diagnosis; how they feel it’ll be received.”
In the interests of full disclosure, I know Whittome pretty well, not as a friend, but as well as I know anyone I’ve ever met on a committee. We were both on the national committee of Another Europe Is Possible, and had a meeting in February 2019, the day Chris Leslie, her constituency predecessor, announced his decision to leave the party and join Change UK. (When I said to her that he had “left”, she corrected that to “defected”, which is accurate, if a little Soviet.) I suggested that she should stand and was astonished when she said she was only in her second year at university and had to concentrate on her degree – I knew she was young, I didn’t realise she was then 22. In her public speaking, she comes across as someone of a sensible age with a very young face, presumably because she has been politically active for so long.
She started campaigning against the bedroom tax in 2013, at the age of 16, motivated by her neighbours’ situations. She lived with her mother, and still does, in a house her mother owns, though they are no strangers to the sharp edges of austerity, her mother having not been able to work for many of Whittome’s teenage years, due to poor health. “My mum’s political, but it comes from having had to be. If you sat her down and had a conversation about the pros and cons of proportional representation, she wouldn’t be interested.”
From there, partly through youth organising with the GMB union, she got involved in campaigns for migrant and workers’ rights, along the way fighting the anti-union legislation contained within the Lobbying Act of 2014. But her causes were also informed by friends who were delivery drivers, and bisected the youth climate strikes in practical ways; so they fought a measure that gave motorised Deliveroo drivers priority over cyclists, and organised the first “workers’ climate strike” in Nottingham.
What sparked her fight against Brexit was the conviction that “since its inception, [it] was waged by the rightwing establishment as an attack on workers’ rights and migrants’ rights. I don’t see these as two separate things.” The conception of the remain camp as comfortable centrists who didn’t like their boats rocked was always fanciful, but few voices on the left articulated that plainly, and when the Nottingham East selection started, Whittome had substantial support on this left/remain basis alone. But the competition was tough – another candidate was Shaista Aziz, also an impressive anti-Brexit and anti-racism campaigner – and Whittome’s edge was the intensity of her local support, built up through so many grassroots campaigns. Put it this way, I – blinded by self-importance – thought I’d been the first person to suggest that she stood, but in fact, “lots of people were telling me to stand; after 10 years [of Leslie] there was an overwhelming feeling that this was the opportunity to have an MP who was selected democratically by the membership”.
It helped with her time management that, by the summer of 2019, she’d dropped out of her degree – studying law at the University of Nottingham – because she couldn’t afford it, despite the fact that she was working all the way through, initially as a care worker, and later as a hate crimes officer. “I was living at home, and I still owe 51 grand. And I don’t even have a degree,” she says ruefully, giving texture to the statement she makes later. “One of the things I’ve always felt quite conscious of, growing up, was being let down by institutions. And even in the few positive interactions I had with institutions, I always had a feeling of being seen as different. I don’t see my constituents as being different to me. I don’t feel sorry for them. I feel angry and sad on their behalf, sometimes, but I identify with them, and I admire them.”
The first cat she put among the pigeons of parliament, having been elected, was to take a “worker’s wage” – to draw £35,000 after tax, from her £82,000 salary, and give the rest, “about 19 grand” to charity. I wonder, idly, if she is ever going to ease up on this pledge, given that she could have an extremely long career in parliament. Even though she has committed, too, to putting herself up for reselection at every election (this is a major plank on the Labour left, which Momentum campaigned a lot on – that it shouldn’t be a job for life), they could carry on selecting her for decades. “Well, it’s about solidarity, not charity. So, yes, it’s for ever. If it was just on a whim, depending on how I felt, that would miss the point,” she says, flashing me a warm, “which bit of this are you not getting?” smile. Those charities she donates to, by the way: “St Anne’s advice centre, this incredible organisation run by two women – an advice centre and a food bank – is like a one-stop shop for people who have been marginalised and exploited”; an organisation run by and for sex workers; and a wildcat strike fund for two small unions of delivery and taxi drivers. The causes reflect her belief that “change is fought for and won in our communities and our workplaces. I don’t think parliament is the epitome of winning change.”
They also situate her, of course, squarely on one side of a fissure within feminism and Labour politics; how the issues became conflated is a question for another day, but there often seems to be a fault line with pro-sex worker, pro-transgender feminists on one side, ban-sex-work, gender critical ones on the other. Given how useful these are, to opponents, as wedge issues, I can only see this divide getting more intense over time. Whittome is consistent and unabashed on where she stands. On this, and in fact on so many issues – prioritising the climate crisis in every scenario, scrapping student debt, a coherent long view on workers’ rights – she is as the rightwing troll sites describe, exactly where they fear a 25-year-old activist would be. Where they overreach is in the assumption that everyone finds these views ridiculous because young people hold them.
When Covid hit, Whittome combined her work as an MP with returning to her role as a care worker – for a short time, before she was fired for whistleblowing on what she said was the lack of personal protective equipment. (The home in question denied there was a shortage.) It came as a surprise; not to be fired, but to hear herself described as a whistleblower. “It felt almost like the opposite, actually. Obviously the government wasn’t focusing on it, and people in parliament were arguing [over whether the shortage existed]. But for other care workers and healthcare workers, all over the country, everybody knew it, I was just restating something we were all saying.”
It wouldn’t be reasonable to say all MPs should be like Whittome, or even strive to be more like her. Politicians don’t need to be self-sacrificing, with perfect activist credentials and a rock-solid hinterland of hardship and political passion, to be effective for their constituents. It is fair, however, to say that she brings qualities to the Houses of Parliament much more unusual than youth; and those who seek to undermine her on the basis of it underestimate Whittome and the political world we’re going into.