'Being a Unite member will anchor everything I do'
Unite’s Sakina Sheikh does not believe poverty and inequality are inevitable – and is standing for the London Assembly to help create a more equal society
From Cornwall now to London – our final stop on our Unite candidates tour of Britain. Sakina Sheikh, climate change campaigner, talks about her hopes to Hajera Blagg
London Labour councillor Sakina Sheikh considers herself a Londoner through and through – and now she’s hoping to take her years of experience as a campaigner to stand as a Labour candidate for the London Assembly.
“I’ve lived in London nearly my whole life. London is my home and always has been,” Sakina tells UniteLive.
“I see London as a tale of two cities – in some areas there is such immense wealth and in other areas there are queues around the corner for the food bank. How can that be? I don’t believe poverty or inequality are inevitable. In a more equal society everyone flourishes – and I would like to contribute to creating that more equal society in any way I can.”
After finishing university where she studied law with an emphasis on human rights, Sakina became an active campaigner in various organisations over the years, including Keep Our NHS Public, where she worked to campaign against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – a proposed EU-US trade deal that threatened to privatise public services like the NHS.
“That was my first interaction with Unite since Unite and Keep our NHS Public worked together on TTIP policy,” Sakina explained. “Unite was especially active in the campaign against TTIP so very early on protecting workers’ rights and public services became a fundamental part of my work through Unite.”
Later working for Global Justice Now, Sakina became more actively involved in the climate movement.
“I really got my teeth into environmentalism – that set the tone for the next five to seven years of my life,” she explained. “What I found most interesting is that climate change is a class issue, a race issue and an internationalist issue. The poorest countries, often from the Global South – with black and brown communities — are least responsible for climate change but are the ones that are most affected. For example, it’s said on average an indigenous woman is killed each month in the fight against the excesses of the fossil fuel industry on indigenous lands.”
Through her trade unionism, Sakina has sought to change the conversation on climate justice.
“Climate change is a class issue and trade unions should be leading on it. The government must do more to listen to unions and workers in creating concrete plans for a just transition that centres workers’ needs and aspirations.”
“How are workers in high carbon industries going to be given the opportunity for reskilling on their terms, and how do we ensure they are included in this conversation from start to finish?” These are the questions a Just Transition plan needs to answer — and the climate movement must also ensure that the conversation on workers’ needs, jobs, and economic sustainability is fundamental to any framing on climate action demands we make, otherwise class continues to be stripped from the conversation on climate change. I’ve been really inspired to see Unite has shown leadership on this and leads the way on defining a just transition for our members.”
In 2018, Sakina was elected as a Labour councillor representing the Perry Vale ward in the Borough of Lewisham – it’s a position she finds both challenging and rewarding in equal measure.
“It’s a tough job being a councillor in this age of austerity,” Sakina explained. “Ten years of cuts to local government’s budget through Tory austerity has been brutal and put Councils across the country and in London are on their knees. And then recently, the government told us to spend whatever we need to protect our communities during the pandemic and that they’ll make sure they cover the costs – however they then turned around and rescinded that promise after the money had been spent. In Lewisham, we’ve now got £30m to make up in our budget because of that hollow promise of covering the Covid costs, and I know other councils are facing a similar reality. ”
Despite the challenges, she loves working with constituents in her community.
“I love meeting people and being in a position through case work and the knowledge you build up as a councillor to help and support them,” she said. “There’s nothing more rewarding than, for example, working with a constituent who has a housing issue and being able to set the path for them to get the support they need for better housing. There are also so many incredible local projects in my ward that showcase the spirit of solidarity and kindness that can help us grow together.”
Sakina’s years of experience as an environmental campaigner is in part what motivates her to stand as candidate in the London Assembly.
“I would like to help shape the strategy and vision of London’s environmental plan. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has adopted a green new deal for London as part of his manifesto, which is really exciting. We’ve got a foundation to build on and I want to work with communities across London to hear what we need to go further.”
Sakina hopes to work with grassroots campaigners and trade unionists across the city to represent their voices in shaping a green new deal for London.
“I think a green new deal can be about economic transformation,” she said. “I think a Living Wage for all can be part of a green new deal. And I think fighting for housing justice can be part of a green new deal. If we really want to tackle the climate crisis it can’t be a siloed approach – it has to be embedded in all our politics.”
Another vital issue for Sakina in the upcoming elections is supporting and creating opportunities for young people.
“If elected, I will likely be one the youngest members in the London Assembly. I have many friends who are in the hospitality industry and other industries that have been decimated by the pandemic. I want to be a voice for young workers in London. We need a recovery that actually stands up for young working Londoners – a Living Wage for all should be the absolute minimum.”
Sakina urges Unite members to vote for Labour in the upcoming elections – and for Londoners, she reminds voters that they have three votes and that it’s vital that they use all three for Labour.
“Unite members should vote for Labour because the trade unions, after all, founded the Labour Party – Labour is the only party that will work to properly advocate for and uplift the lives of working people,” she said.
“The trade unions create and provide an essential political anchor for the Labour party – and Sadiq gets that,” Sakina added. “He knows that workers are the lifeline of London and continues to fight to protect your interests. whether that’s ensuring trade unions are represented at the negotiating table or lobbying the government for better support for workers during the pandemic. At the heart of his recovery plan is ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ which is another vital issue for all Unite members who may be facing precarity.”
And like Sadiq, Sakina vows to put Unite members at the heart of her work if elected to the London Assembly.
“I feel incredibly lucky to be part of a union that uplifts the voices of its members,” she said. “I’ve been a rank-and-file member in my union branch for years and our meetings are well-attended because Unite creates a space where members are not only supported by our fantastic officers in the union, but also by fellow members.
“If elected, I will enter City Hall as a Unite member first and foremost and that will anchor everything I do – I am dedicated to meeting with members and ensuring their voices are heard and uplifted.”
If you live in London and want to help Sakina and other local Unite candidates contact the Unite London and Eastern regional office
Wherever you live if would like to help Unite candidates in your area or to find out more see here
By Hajera Blagg
Stay tuned to UNITElive for the latest on Unite candidates taking part in Election 2021