An Interview with Dawn Butler MP

Dawn Butler visited Cardiff last Sunday. Credit: Carlene Lee-Phakoe

By Maisie Marston and Sam Tilley

Dawn Butler has broken many barriers in her political career. Before becoming an MP in 2005, Dawn also worked as an equality and race officer at the GMB union, and an adviser to the Mayor of London. First elected to the seat of Brent South in 2005, Butler became only the third black woman to secure elevation to the House of Commons and quickly rose through the ranks to serve as Minister for Youth Services under Gordon Brown. It was during her time in this role that she became the first black woman to speak from the dispatch box and thus represent the government of the day. Having lost her seat due to the boundary changes in 2010, Butler returned to Parliament in 2015, representing the new seat of Brent Central and quickly was appointed to the Shadow Cabinet; first as the Minister for Diverse Communities before adding the Women and Equalities brief a year later. Following the retirement of former-Deputy Leader Tom Watson from frontline politics, Dawn became the first person to throw her candidacy in the ring to succeed him.

In the midst of the Labour Party leadership and deputy leadership contest, Dawn Butler embarked on her ‘Prepare for Power’ tour, a grassroots campaign to support her deputy leadership bid. As of last Sunday, she has enough support from both Labour MPs and MEPs, and Constituency Labour Parties to be on the ballot paper, indeed the news was broken to her by Gair Rhydd. We talked to Dawn on the Cardiff stop of the tour to talk about her deputy leadership bid, ongoing work as Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, and what needs to be done to tackle discrimination in the Labour Party.

“What can I actually do about this?”

We begin by asking Dawn perhaps the most obvious question; why she is running to be Deputy Leader of the Labour Party? “I’ve got a thing about when I’m talking to young people that I try and be as honest as I possibly can, and sometimes I wonder myself when I wake up in the morning and I’m like ‘Dawn, what made you do this? What made you decide you were going to run?’ because actually some people have been planning their deputy leadership campaign for years, and I basically made a flippant announcement when Tom Watson stood down and they said like ‘who do you think could do it?’. I was like, well actually I thought about it and I think I could do it. And so, I decided to do it.

“It hasn’t been an easy move to make, I am not like, if you like, privileged or well-connected in that way, I have basically just been fighting my whole life as a black woman that’s what I do. But the thing is this, December the 13th was a really depressing day for me and I thought this is ridiculous, our policies are winning policies, it’s ridiculous that we lost, and it’s ridiculous that we lost on the scale that we lost, and what can I do about this? What can I actually do about this? This is a practical thing, I’m a very practical person.

“As I say, it hasn’t been easy, it’s like every step of the way there’s structural barriers that people are trying to put in my way, but what is beautiful about my campaign is that it is a grassroots movement. It is a fight against all of the structures and the establishment and the gatekeeping in the party. It’s like saying to people, do you know what, you can be working class, trade unionist, didn’t go to university, and you can stand for deputy leader, and you might not have the support from the unions, you might not have the big money, but as long as you have the vote of the people, then you can win, and I think that’s a powerful, powerful statement.”

More Can Be Done

One of the primary political stories of the past five years has been the various alleged cases of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party and the subsequent investigation by the ECHR. As a result of this, the Jewish Board of Deputies released ten pledges for all of the leadership and deputy leadership candidates to sign up to. Whilst Dawn has thus far not signed up to these pledges, she released a detailed statement on her website explaining her reasons and elaborated more on them to Gair Rhydd.

“The thing is this: I looked at the ten pledges and the easiest thing to do was to sign them. If I signed them, then I probably wouldn’t be asked about it, people would just accept that I signed them, it’s very symbolic if you like, but would it have helped the party get a better structure in terms of dealing with any complaints? Not really. And, up until that point we’ve had very strong statements about the EHRC investigating the Labour Party. Now, it’s not something to be proud of, but I’ve always said we need to take the EHRC’s report extremely seriously and implement those findings and I don’t want anything to get in the way of that, I want us to focus on the results of the EHRC report. They were supposed to report in January, well they haven’t done, I’m hoping that they will report before the end of this process. So, the first thing we need to do is implement the EHRC reports.

“I’ve written to the Board of Deputies to have a meeting with them, because I think we need to sit down and have a meeting. Leadership – it’s about understanding what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. That’s real leadership. And there are some of the pledges that will cause us difficulties. You’ve got people saying, I want to see every single case on my desk. That is not a practical way of handling a process that is fit for purpose. If you have all of the anti-Semitism cases on your desk, you need to have all of the cases – that’s racism on your desk, all of the cases against disability discrimination on your desk, all of the cases against LGBTQI+ on your desk, all of the cases against misogyny on your desk – if you’re going to have a fair system we’ve got to look at everybody’s case with equal merit. Number one.

“Number two, if you’re going to have an independent system, then you don’t see the cases because they should be independent otherwise that is interference. This means too much for me to allow an inadequate process to take place in the Labour Party. I still have an outstanding case that hasn’t been dealt with in the party for race discrimination. I’ll tell you one of the cases right, so, I talked today about a case where I called up the region after being racially abused at a meeting, and I was told ‘it’s just banter’ and I need to have thicker skin. I don’t want anybody to be in the Labour Party and feel they have to have thick skin when it comes to any kind of abuse. That’s not the road we should be going down.

“Let me tell you another case, and I haven’t really spoken about it, I don’t think, publicly. But you’ve got me in the mood to talk, so you’ve got me being a little bit talkative, I’m in a pub, I’ve had a drink earlier on. So I’m going to tell you this. So, we had somebody, this person was a secretary of the party, I’m not gonna tell you where or who that person is, and there was a black woman that applied to be a Labour Party member. She was told by this person ‘how can you afford the membership?’, right? So she thought that was very strange, she spoke to some other people and they were like ‘no, no-one’s got a right to ask you how you afford your membership, if you’re joining the Labour Party, you’re joining the Labour Party’. So anyway, so we went back to this person, it was the secretary of the party and said ‘why did you say that to her?’. Then this person said ‘we had an EC meeting and at the EC meeting we made a decision that this person is not suitable to be a Labour member because she had some issues with the Labour council, right. So that person came to me and said ‘this is what they said’, so I said when was the date of the EC meeting, we got the date of the EC meeting, no such meeting took place. And, in fact, some of the people she said were in the EC meeting were actually out of the country, so no such meeting took place. As it transpired, she lied. She created falsified minutes of an EC meeting that never happened. All because she didn’t want this black woman to become a member of the Labour Party. Region did nothing about that case, the black woman has since passed away, she passed away last year or the year before.

“Nobody did anything about that case, she didn’t get justice for what happened to her. So as far as I’m concerned, I want to process that works, and actually I want to get her posthumous justice. I want to make such that we kind of clear her name and make sure there is a little bit of justice for her because we should never allow that to happen and when I said ‘why is it you didn’t deal with this properly?’, and then we were told ‘well this person is no longer secretary of the party so it’s been dealt with’. That hasn’t been dealt with and that’s not good enough. The fact that the CLP voted that person out of secretary isn’t the point. The point is the party needed to have dealt with it, the party needs to have structures to deal with it, and we haven’t really got that at the moment.”

Breaking New Ground

If successful, Dawn would be the first BAME Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. There are currently sixty three BAME MPs inside the House of Commons, up from fifty two in 2017, but, as Dawn explains, there is still a long way to go.

“So, it’s quite interesting because lots of people talk the talk, but not many walk the walk. Like even when we’ve been on panel and people talk about representation and representation of Black Asian Minority Ethnic people and then somebody will say, oh yes, you know, they need to have a voice, I’m like ‘hello!’, you know, that’s why I’m here! You know, to have a voice, I don’t need you to talk for me I can talk for myself. And, in fact, what you should be doing if you really believe in it you should be advocating for the most senior person on the panel which is myself to be deputy leader. But instead of doing that, you want to talk for me.

“So I am sick and tired of people talking for me as a black woman, right, because if I wanted somebody to talk for me then I wouldn’t have put myself forward. So, I think that people have to start walking the walk instead of just giving it lip service. So that’s number one. Number two, ever since I’ve been a Member of Parliament, I’ve always used my platform to promote others. So I’m all about dismantling the structural barriers to progress. So I ensure that we have a standalone women’s conference, that means that women of all ages, all intersectionalities can come to conference, find solidarity, build whatever they need to build, whether it’s information, whether it’s contacts, whether it’s knowledge, whether it’s spirit, whether it’s experience, they can build that at women’s conference, and what you find is, after they come to women’s conference they’re more likely to go on to stand for council, and they’re more likely to speak up at the other conference. So, I made sure that we have a standalone women’s conference.

“I created The Bernie Grant Leadership Programme, that’s for Black Asian Minority Ethnic members to come onboard, again have a safe space where they can build and get the information, the knowledge, the networks, because we’re not priviledged enough to have the all-boys network, do you know what you mean, that’s not our priviledge. So I’ve done that. I have the Black Socialist Society, I relaunched the Black Socialist Society which is now called BAME Labour, so I relaunched that. So everything I’ve done is about getting people engaged and equipped to be able to take on the priviledge in the establishment. In the manifesto, I had a specific bit around class and making sure that that is now enshrined in law. Obviously we didn’t win the election, but we win the next election, and we need to make sure that’s still a part of it because what we’re finding is the party becomes a lot of lawyers and doctors and university graduates and it’s all good but we need diversity not just in how we look, so not just in gender, not just in ethnicity, but also need diversity of thought. If we have diversity of thought, we get better decisions, and that’s what we need to have.

“I made history in the House of Commons, I was the first black woman to ever stand at the dispatch box in the House of Commons and talk on behalf of the government of the United Kingdom. Just can you imagine what it would be like being deputy in terms of what it will say. Like John McDonnell said, having Dawn Butler as a working-class trade unionist as deputy of the Labour Party will show what the Labour Party’s all about. And so I agree with John. “

The other candidates running for Deputy Leader of the Labour Party are Ian Murray, Rosena Allin-Khan, Richard Burgon and Angela Rayner.

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