Home » Politics » Black politicians speak out about the 'white male club' of British politics and how Black Lives Matter gives them hope
Black politicians speak out about the 'white male club' of British politics and how Black Lives Matter gives them hope
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.
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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?
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?
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?'
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.
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?
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?
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?