The timing of the snap election isn’t great for Amna Ahmad, the Liberal Democrat candidate for Sutton and Cheam. Not only does eight weeks not give the 32-year-old much time to speak to her 96,000 constituents in the swing seat, but she’s also planning a wedding. “I can wear a sack!” she laughs. “My bridesmaids are encouraging me to plan, but I keep telling them I’ve got other things to think about.”
Indeed she does. The British Pakistani is running in a seat which, until 2015, had been Liberal Democrat for 18 years. This, of course, was one of the many Lib Dem seats they lost to the Tories in the virtual apocalypse of the last general election. The party was left with just eight seats, accused of one rather big broken promise, mocked for being powerless in a coalition and faced the Lord Rennard sex scandal to boot.
Now, two years on, the party has a new leader, Tim Farron, and they are promising to be the UK’s pro-Europe party, pledging to fight a hard Brexit and swearing blind not to enter another coalition, prompting a surge in membership (regardless of Farron’s “gay sex is a sin” PR calamity). After Theresa May called the election, the party went to over 100,000 members.
But if that was the pull towards the resurrected party, undoubtedly the exceptionally divisive Corbyn and his war-torn party was the push. The left remains fractured and unsure how to vote. Among the multitude of complaints, for many Remainers Corbyn didn’t work hard enough to keep Britain in the EU. Arguably, therefore, Farron has not only given the the party an identity to rebuild itself with – but one that’s very appealing to frustrated traditional Labour voters.
So, who are the Lib Dems now, I ask Ahmad when we meet for coffee. She answers by telling me her issues: she is, of course, against a hard Brexit; she campaigns for NHS funding and sits on Norman Lamb’s committee on the subject. She’s against grammar-school funding, but not grammar schools per se: “I want the comprehensives to have a fighting chance.” When I ask how she became a member, she recalls turning 18 the day before the Stop The War demo and identifying with then-party leader Charles Kennedy’s refusal to support war in Iraq.
But perhaps a more interesting question is: who is Amna Ahmad? When first campaigning in Brixton in 2013, she was accused of being an Oxford-educated careerist with a posh voice. And it was this depiction of her that made her decide to talk about her own life. Yes, she went to Oxford and, yes, her voice could be clarified as “posh”, but the real story goes something like this: Ahmad grew up in a violent house in one of London’s poorest boroughs, Lewisham. At 15, she called the police to report her father, who was arrested and taken into custody. She and her younger brother and sister were split up and put into care. Ahmad was in care for just a week, because she was turning 16. “‘You were on time every day for school’ was the only thing my teacher said to me about that week,” she laughs. Her brother and sister were only five and seven at the time, however. “It was heartbreaking. My brother went on hunger strike. There were issues around cultural sensitives. They made him eat bacon.”
Since the election was called, I’ve had to block so many people on Twitter. But I had my first experience of racism when I was six or seven. It’s nothing new
But, alongside such a traumatic childhood, Ahmad has shown flashes of being exceptional. She completed her maths GCSE – and got an A – aged 10. She won a scholarship to a private school and was bumped up a year “because of the maths thing”. The same summer she had her father arrested, she went to her local library, checked out a copy of Who’s Who and started emailing MPs to apply for work experience. She got through to Ann Widdecombe’s mum (“A lovely, lovely lady who said, ‘I’m sorry, but Ann is at the office, dear!’”), Michael Portillo said no and the newly elected PM Tony Blair never got back to her – despite Ahmad’s call to the Downing Street switchboard, demanding a response. Finally, Charles Kennedy said yes. She also applied for Oxford and sat A-Levels while dealing with prison visits and a divided family. “It was a really tough time – I was rebelling, rallying against people who didn’t want to me testify, so I was amazed to come out with any A-Levels, let alone get into Oxford.”
Ahmad admits that having to disclose such information isn’t easy – and she certainly doesn’t want it to define her – but it is driving some of her campaign issues. She’s keen to talk about the lack of funding for mental-health services for victims of abuse, for example. “I remember an NHS psychologist coming to see my brother and sister to assess them and then he wrote a report that said they seemed perfectly well-adjusted, because they are polite little kids who have been taught to perform because they had to live in a house with an abuser their whole lives.”
Full disclosure: I’ve known Ahmad for many years. She’s a good friend of one of my best friends. We first met about 10 years ago. And, while we’ve barely talked politics, I’ve watched her from afar, impressed. If she wasn’t on her way to America to help canvas for Obama, she’d sit next to me in a pub, saying she wanted to set up a women-in-politics group. And now it’s tantalising to see her in touching distance of such an achievement – not only because she’s a friend, but because life has dealt her one hell of a hand and she keeps turning her fortune around.
And it would be an achievement for the Lib Dems, too. If elected, she’d be the party’s first Asian female MP (their first Asian MP was only elected in 2004). Ahmad does a lot of work supporting women candidates and championing women in politics – although she says she “can’t wait for the day a journalist asks her about her stand on defence”. Sadly, that day isn’t here, because instead I ask how a young feminist can reconcile a party that harboured the Lord Rennard scandal. “It was a really horrible thing. But I took the recommendations of the Morrissey report to a meeting with local members and got them to adopt all the recommendations into their procedures. And the party has got a lot better – we’ve got a pastoral officer now.” That doesn't mean all harassment has gone away. “Since the election was called, I’ve had to block so many people on Twitter. But I had my first experience of racism when I was six or seven. It’s nothing new.”
Since interviewing Amna, the party suffered a blow in the local elections. They lost 28 seats, although the ever-optimistic Farron pointed out they’d increased their share of the vote where they hope to win seats on June 8.
If Farron is optimistic, Ahmad is committed. There’s not a decision she doesn’t want in on – including the right envelopes for the campaign trail. She speaks about her past in a way that many can’t – calmly, openly, matter of factly – to journalists (even the ones she’s never met before). She’s a got a determination that is perhaps what is precisely needed to be an MP, let alone a Lib Dem MP, right now. But she’s also got perspective. While she might come across controlling (“He bought the wrong envelopes for the printer!” she says of someone in her office), she has this to say: “Some things are accidental. I think people like to pretend they’ve always got a plan, but the thing my life has taught me is that our lives can always get knocked off course by events you have no real control over.”
Wise words for a life fully lived at just 32. Of course, she makes up for taking charge of the things she can control. Like envelopes.