Dr Rosena Allin-Khan waves from her Fiat 500 and drives down Balham High Road. It is not the archetypal boxer’s car. Rosena Allin-Khan is not the archetypal MP.
The hour before, we trained at Balham Boxing Club, a rusted shed on Tooting Bec Common in south London. It is slightly larger than the sort of mobile cabin primary lessons are taught from when a school renovation inevitably stalls. Worn heavy bags hang from scaffolding poles. Pictures of Muhammad Ali sit between promotional posters for amateur events, the showers make you want to dance in and out of a pair of flip flops while changing.
“Winston and Tasha here, they’re the ones who do the best gruelling workouts. They’re the ones that make grown men cry,” Allin-Khan says while Tasha wraps my hands beside the ring.
We do circuits. Shadow boxing with dumbbells, reverse crunches and shuttle runs before getting in the ring for pyramid combinations on the focus mitts. As well as training here, Allin-Khan is the team doctor. She runs with the team at shows, providing first aid ringside and medically assessing fighters’ fitness to box before they make the walk.
“It’s really, really come a long way in terms of safety. I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t think it was safe,” she says. It feels like she’s trying to get ahead of a criticism that’s not coming. “It’s really fun, particularly if you like boxing.”
The Labour MP has boxed since university, where she studied medicine, but does not compete - a black eye doesn’t help bedside manner. After graduating the junior doctor worked in what’s now her constituency hospital, St George’s, in the A&E department. It was her last job before successfully contesting the Tooting by-election to win a seat in the House of Commons. Although, that implies a sense of finality. In fact Allin-Khan still picks up shifts when she can, working 12 hours on the same ward in between parliamentary sessions.
It’s a work ethic that could be genealogically traced back to her mother Maria, a famous Polish singer during the sixties who fell in love with a Pakistani man she met on tour in London. She gave it up and worked three jobs to support the family, in a petrol station and as a childminder and cleaner. Rosena’s been in Tooting ever since. Her assessment of childhood: “I didn’t have the easiest upbringing.”
Sadiq Khan grew up on an estate in Earlsfield, south London. One of eight children to Pakistani parents and also a pugilist, he has said learning to box was the only option for a young Asian man living in an area with a strong contingent of the National Front.
In September 2015 he was selected by the Labour party as its mayoral candidate in the race to replace Boris Johnson. The campaign and vote was fraught. Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith repeatedly said Khan had "given platform, oxygen and cover to extremists.” Labour campaigners said the language was a reference to Khan’s Islamic faith and time as a lawyer defending prominent Muslims, like Louis Farrakhan and Majid Nawaz. Tories insisted the phrase related to his left-wing credentials and wasn’t a racist dog whistle.
Sourness spilled into the campaign’s culmination. During the count the candidate for far-right group Britain First turned their back. The biggest cheer in Sadiq’s victory speech came after he said: “This election was not without controversy and I am so proud that London has today chosen hope over fear… the politics of fear is not welcome in this city.” He is London’s first ethnic minority mayor and immediately resigned as the MP for the constituency he had lived in all his life – Tooting.
Rosena Allin-Khan, also a Muslim, describes her own by-election campaign to replace Sadiq as “brutal” and the tactics used against her as “dirty.” Five week’s after Sadiq’s resignation, Allin-Khan was at her own count. At 11pm a two-minute silence was held in memory of Jo Cox, a Labour MP murdered by terrorist Thomas Mair only hours before. An eyewitness says he screamed “Britain first” during his attack. There was no applause when Rosena Allin-Khan was declared winner and she declined the opportunity to make a victory speech, instead paying tribute to Cox: "Jo's death reminds us that our democracy is precious but fragile. We must never forget to cherish it.”
In her maiden speech to parliament, surrounded by a doughnut of cheering backbenchers, Allin-Khan did not find time to congratulate herself either. Contemporary reports detail a parliament left “spellbound” by the junior doctor’s emotive diatribe on the state of the NHS under then health secretary Jeremy Hunt.
The new MP’s Commons voting record is in routine with the Labour whip. Acting as a loyal vote is normal for a new backbencher but Allin-Khan offers more promise to the party, not least because she is in possession of a tangible personality. During our boxing session we head roll to blaring UK garage and she sings every word in DJ Pied Piper’s ‘Do You Really Like It.’ Currently a shadow minister for sport, dare someone suggest an actual doctor be in charge at the department of health.
New Labour’s 2000 NHS plan made a significant financial contribution to the health service. It promised a 50 per cent increase in cash funds, a third in real terms, and thousands more doctors, nurses and midwives. Rosena Allin-Khan credits Tony Blair’s policy with making it possible for people from working class backgrounds, like herself, to go to medical school.
“That’s why I chose to become a Labour politician. It’s that sense of fairness, striving towards being the best person you can be,” she says.
On the NHS is where Labour’s rising star is most compelling in discussion. As a doctor lampooning Jeremy Hunt, the UK’s longest-serving health secretary, is second nature to Allin-Khan.
When Hunt said he wanted to create a seven-day NHS and dispel a “Monday to Friday culture,” health service workers started the top trending #ImInWorkJeremy, tweeting pictures of themselves at work on the weekend. Don’t ask a teacher about Michael Gove.
One of the health secretaries other most provocative measures was to scrap nursing bursaries, forcing postgraduate midwives and nurses to pay for their tuition by loan. When I ask Allin-Khan about it she shakes her head in disbelief.
“It’s essential it’s fixed. I’m quite disgusted by the fact that I see nurses in my MP’s surgeries, and forgive me for feeling so strongly about this, they’re having to resort to using food banks because they cannot afford to pay their fees.
“Quite frankly this government should ashamed of themselves and what they’ve done to our public-sector workers, particularly nurses.”
Personal connection to the problem is evident by Allin-Khan’s impassioned response. She’s also particularly forthright when asked her course of remedy were she to be in the position now occupied by Matt Hancock following Hunt’s promotion to the foreign office - even though she’s not currently shadow health secretary.
“I’d love to have Matt Hancock’s job because we’d have a Labour government. With a Labour government this country would get fixed.”
She spins a circle in the air with her index finger, like an army sergeant ordering their troops to move on to a different patch of Vietnamese jungle.
By contrast it’s equally evident when Allin-Khan is getting on the stump during our conversation. We talk about Tooting, recently featured in the Lonely Planet as one of the world’s coolest neighbourhoods, the second youngest constituency in the country.
“I think Tooting has always been cool,” Allin-Khan tells me. That part is genuine, it comes out like a mum defending a child’s over-interest in skateboarding. From there she drops a reference to her apprenticeship scheme. A bit of self-promotion, no problem, but it stands out from her other more genuine comments.
More than half a million Rohingya Muslims are believed to have fled ethnic cleansing in Rakhine state, Myanmar, and travelled over the border to Bangladesh.
Allin-Khan joined an aid mission and volunteered as a trauma doctor. On her return, in late 2017, she retold the horror.
Babies thrown into fires, wives and mothers gang raped and chopped into pieces in front of their families. The MP provided medical treatment to the survivors. At the time she told The Times: “The children can’t look you in the eye. One four-year-old the same age as my daughter was mute. All she could say was, ‘They killed everyone.’”
She finds boxing’s rigour effective in dealing with the experience. "The mental health benefits of boxing are actually quite profound,” she tells me. “It’s about having people like Winston or Tasha, having people who are able to spot when somebody is not right or needs help.”
Ever selfless, the discussion of those benefits is framed by other people.
“Let’s be very clear, what they do to engage young boys and girls and give them a sense of purpose, through sport, through exercise, through mentorship, is second to none.
“Tasha and Winston meet children when they’re seven or eight years old. The mentoring that goes on as a part of that, it is a family. It isn’t just somewhere you come to get fit. You can pay a membership fee and go to a gym for that.
“This is somewhere where you feel like you belong. It’s a lifeline for many. That sense of belonging is a driver for so much crime and gang violence.
“It’s about camaraderie, the team, being together at a show and knowing that it’s you and your team that are going in, batting for each other.
“If we can recreate that in a safe space, with mentorship, surely that’s so much better.”
It is clear that Allin-Khan is doing more than batting for her team, be it Balham Boxing Club, her family, the Labour party or NHS. Her commitment is contagious, one of her aides is now a member of the club and working towards being competent enough to spar. “I don’t spend enough time on myself, that’s the key thing,” Allin-Khan tells me, worryingly.