- As Black History Month arrives in the UK, Business Insider has spoken to black members of parliament about what it is like to be a black person in British politics.
- The MPs spoke frankly about their own experiences of racism in the predominantly white, male-dominated world of Westminster.
- Some of the MPs spoke about being mistaken by white officials, politicians and journalists for other black politicians, and discussed how racism has affected their careers.
- They also spoke about whether the Black Lives Matter movement has made them more optimistic about the future for black people in the UK.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Black History Month has arrived in the UK during a period of intense debate and anger about the racism black people still suffer across the globe in the wake of the tragic death of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests.
Business Insider spent the past week speaking to black members from across the UK Parliament about their own experience of being a black person in British politics and the difference the Black Lives Matter movement has made.
These MPs spoke frankly about the discrimination and challenges they have suffered in their careers, both inside and outside parliament, and even within their own party.
And yet despite that discrimination, they also all spoke about why the Black Lives Matter movement has made them more optimistic that things can now change for the better.
What was your experience of entering politics as a black person?
Abena Oppong-Asare (Labour MP for Erith and Thamesmead): At the time I was running to become a councillor there was only one black councillor out of 63 [on Bexley council] and that year we went from one to six out of 63, which was a bit of a culture shock for some of the councillors there, who apparently couldn’t tell the difference between me and other black councillors, even though we didn’t look alike. That was something I experienced repeatedly.
Florence Eshalomi (Labour MP for Vauxhall): I will always remember my first council advice surgery when this gentleman came in and said he’d like to see one of the councillors and I said ‘Hi, I’m one of the councillors ‘and he said ‘no I’d like to see one of the real councillors…’
I thought to myself ‘how do I deal with this situation now?’ because it is a case of this man probably thought I was too young, he probably thought what is this black girl doing here and he probably thought she probably doesn’t know anything about politics and how the hell did she get elected?…
I didn’t solve the issue for him but I did raise it with the officers and he came back a few months later and said thank you and it’s just things like that where you realised being a black woman involved in politics was not going to be an easy ride. People were always going to question whether you should be there and I thought ‘wow, is this going to be how it is going to be?’ But that never stopped me and that never deterred me.
Was Parliament a welcoming place for you as a black person?
Eshalomi: There was a sense of ‘oh my gosh, little old me from Brixton is now sitting on these green benches’ and you just think wow, what an absolute honour and privilege.
But you do get that sense that it is still a white male club.
Being curious, walking around you get lost still, and come across corridors and doors where it says ‘gentlemen only’ and I’m like ‘What the hell? What do you mean gentleman only? Seriously?’
David Lammy (Labour MP for Tottenham and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice): I began to realise that I wanted to be an MP early on but I didn’t really recognise that it would be possible until much later in my life, if at all possible.
There weren’t the individuals in Parliament in sufficient numbers for me to recognise and see myself there. There was Paul Boateng, Dianne Abbott, Keith Vaz, and Oona King but I was very conscious that I was never anonymous in the Palace of Westminster. I felt very self-conscious, I think. I definitely felt, as I suspected Oona felt, as a second-generation African Caribbean born, schooled and raised in Britain, that there was a real responsibility to do the best I could and that there were lots of hopes hanging on my shoulders.
Clive Lewis (Labour MP for Norwich South): There have been thousands of radicals who have walked through those doors and you do understand that the whole edifice of parliament is designed to intimidate you to an extent. And I did feel intimidated. It is difficult to speak in the chamber when you’re not used to it. You can’t speak at your opponent, you have to speak via the Speaker. So there are lots of things that seek to, if you haven’t had that public school upbringing in debate, make you feel at a distinct disadvantage.
Some people recoil from that, others embrace it. Dennis Skinner was very good at telling us to just go plough headlong into it. Don’t worry about looking a prat, sometimes you will, but that’s the only way you will learn.
Have you experienced racism in parliament?
Eshalomi: I’ve been confused with Kate Osamor [Labour MP for Edmonton], I’ve been confused for Taiwo Owatemoi [Labour MP for Coventry North West]. I spoke up about the arts sector in the House of Commons and the graphic on the TV labelled me as Taiwo and I thought ‘oh come on’. I think that maybe what needs to change is the people working behind the scenes in identifying us. There’s a handbook that is printed which shows all the MPs and our names and constituencies, I assume that’s sent out to all the key people and journalists, but this mistake still seems to keep happening so something isn’t quite right there.
Oppong-Asare: It’s happened to me in parliament as well on quite a few occasions where people have mistaken me for another MP, parliamentary staff as well confusing me with Taiwo, and by a quite senior politician who confused me with Marsha de Cordova [Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities]. Obviously, you will have to ask them why this keeps on happening but it’s just because they’re not used to it. It’s not something that gets me really upset or angry. We’ve just got to improve representation.
Lammy: I’ve always received racism. When I started as an MP, people would write it to me in green or red ink and while it wasn’t great, it didn’t feel frequent. Today people can also tweet, Facebook message you, and use other social media. It’s an endemic issue and it’s part of this problem of people disappearing into a silo and into closed communities…
You can’t be in politics if you don’t develop a pretty thick skin and I have definitely developed that. The abuse I suffer is much more impactful on my wife, kids, family and friends, I think. I’ve got a fighting spirit. But I still believe that the vast majority of British people are decent, kind, passionate and hospitable and while racism has increased, it remains a minority. A vehement one, but a minority nevertheless.
Is racism holding back black people in politics?
Lammy: I am very aware that the Labour Party is not selecting black men.
In the age of Black Lives Matter, that is a recognisable issue that needs to be gripped and dealt with. Myself and Clive Lewis and Mark Hendrick are not sufficient. We have to scratch beneath the surface with various communities. If you look at the position of black men in society, there are definitely glass ceilings and prejudices. It starts in education, continues into university, and makes its way into the workplace — and the Labour Party is not immune to that. The idea that black and Bangladeshi men are not disadvantaged in the Labour Party’s selection process I think is perverse.
Lewis: I know that during my selection [to become Labour’s candidate in Norwich] there were people saying we can’t have a black MP. It came back to me that we can’t have a black MP in Norwich because there are people who won’t vote for us if we have a black mp. That came back to me. It was very upsetting.
When I see people on social media saying I f***ing hate him, a little bit of me wants to go on and say ‘can you question why have you got so much anger towards me?’ You can be angry towards any MP, I get that, but why that particular vehemence towards me? Can we unpack that?
It’s very difficult to know what your own shortcomings are. You can’t just blame everything on how you are responded to based on race. That would be ridiculous. You’ve got to own up and fess up to your own failures and mistakes and sometimes it is difficult to know how much is yours and how much is structural and it can eat away at you because it eats at your self-confidence and creates self-doubt because nobody can openly say or even be fully aware of why they respond to you in the way that they do.
Is there racism against black people within your own party?
Lewis: The thing about structural racism is it is not just saying ‘oh he’s black I’m not going to support him.’ That’s not how it manifests itself. It may be in the Conservative party but it’s not in the Labour Party. The Labour Party is a lot more insidious.
There’s a racist dimension to what people in the Labour Party think a good shadow cabinet member looks like, how they sound. So there is structural racism in the Labour Party.
One of the things that made me laugh was the people in the parliamentary Labour party standing up during the antisemitism crisis, and saying our party has a proud history of antiracism. I think there was a bit of buying into our own PR. The Labour Party has a very complicated history with race and anyone with a cursory understanding of that history knows that it has not always been a very happy one.
What impact has the Black Lives Matter movement had?
Eshalomi: The impact has been very strong in getting people who would before never have thought about what white privilege means, would never have thought about the disproportionate numbers of black men being stopped and searched, would never have thought about why more black pupils are permanently excluded in the education system and end up in a life of crime and gangs, would never have thought about why is it that black women disproportionately have a bad experience during childbirth and die during childbirth, would never have thought about why more black people are in zero-hours contracts and substandard housing before, would never have thought about why we are seeing more black and ethnic minority people dying during this pandemic, to start thinking about those things. So I think because everyone was at home there was a time and space for everyone to reflect on those inequalities.
Oppong-Asare: I’ve been contacted by a lot more people asking me to speak on these kinds of issues [since the protests began].
I’ve had people write to me, who aren’t my constituents, asking me what we can do to address this. So it’s not just something that black people are concerned about but white people as well. So it has brought people together.
But I’ve felt that some journalists are more concerned about whether taking down statues was the right thing to do or focusing on whether you are going to take the knee and I just think we need to move beyond those kinds of gestures which, I appreciate make a really good story, but they don’t really address the real issues. So instead of having real in-depth conversations they have just been kind of let’s try and trap this individual into saying whether taking down statues is wrong, which I have found quite frustrating.
Lammy: One of the things I draw from Black Lives Matter is the articulacy of young black and white people. There is a sort of consciousness among young people about issues of race and a sense that enough is enough and we need to stride forward in a profound way. I think we will see a generational shift in this country that will be reflected in the country.
I can tell that by all the requests in my diary. I always get lots of requests from schools and universities but this year there is a much larger number coming from FTSE 100 companies. People are much more engaged with the issues that have arisen from Black Lives Matter.
Is Black History Month still a good idea?
Eshalomi: What I would like to see is how we make sure our history in the UK reflects black British contributions, so yes there is the uncomfortable history of empire and slavery but actually let’s be bold and talk about that. Let’s stop being so British and saying ‘oh we can’t talk about that’ and just brush it under the carpet, that’s a part of our history that we don’t want to discuss, let’s discuss that… The recent discussion about statues coming down, I’d like to see more focus on the statues that should go up of black Britons who have contributed so much to the UK.
Lewis: I think Black History Month was a good starter for ten before Black Lives Matter blew up and it is a marker that was very good but I think we can be much more ambitious and I think we have to be much more ambitious. That black history can just fit inside a little box for one month out of twelve is quite condescending in a way. Black History Month was great for its time but its now time to move on to something better.
Oppong-Asare: I think it is important that we do have Black History Month because we are not at the situation where the curriculum is diverse, so it’s very much left up to individual schools to teach all aspects of the empire and I think we need to be teaching the honest, ugly sides of it. And I feel that having the month of October to talk about these things actually makes changes happen. But I do think we need to get to the point where these issues are addressed throughout the year.