ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL: Dawn Butler (PIC CREDIT: Ernest Simons)
AS HOPEFULS begin the final stretch of a race that has been five years in the making, the finish line appears not too far off for Brent Central Labour candidate, Dawn Butler. Hoping to win the seat, the prospective parliamentary candidate sat down with The Voice newspaper to share her journey.
We begin with where it all changed by taking it back to 2010 when she lost to Sarah Teather of the Lib Dems.
“2010 was strange,” she recalls. “You’re working really hard, lots of national things were having an impact and everybody was against Labour. People were talking about how we needed a change and Brent Central was a new constituency so I lost some of my safe wards where I’d done a lot of work. People didn’t realise how important the election was.”
A fact she admits was partly her fault. “I can take some responsibility for that. I didn’t bang on about ‘look, this is a new seat, if you don’t vote I could lose.’ It was tough.”
Losing by just over 1,300 votes, the competition was the tightest ever. Teather managed to overturn Labour’s margin of over 7,000 to secure the win and displace Butler. The loss was the third biggest national swing against Labour and one of the worst in London.
“It was devastating,” Butler says. “I cried a lot, I spent time in bed but then my dad became ill so for the next eight months I basically looked after him full-time.”
The timing of events couldn’t have been more appropriate admits the self-confessed workaholic. “To me, if I was an MP I would have been torn because I’m so committed to what I do, so I know it would have been difficult to do both things. I would never take away that time I had with my dad, so I think everything happened for a reason.”
Looking from the outside now, Butler continued to work in the community doing a combination of voluntary work and training programmes to earn a living. “I live in Brent, so even when I was no longer the MP I was still very active. If I wasn’t that would mean that it was all fake, that I didn’t believe in what I was doing. I want to make wherever I live better.”
The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, she recalled the experience of witnessing what she felt was the progress of the community unravelling. “I started seeing all the things that we had achieved in the community be dismantled. These were personal things to me.”
The closure of Central Middlesex hospital A&E formed part of a larger rhetoric that implied that the NHS was under attack.
On her campaign, Butler says: “It’s sad to say that the agenda is basically the same. We’ve got to save the NHS, which is on the brink of ruin and privatisation, more so than ever before. You look back and you can’t believe that we’ve still got to fight for the NHS”.
Now sporting a head of delicate sister locks Butler acknowledges that it is not just her personal style which has changed. “I’ve become a bit more religious over the last five years; I think my dad dying has done that to me. It humbles you when you lose someone you love, so I would say I’ve become more humble as well.”
The politician adds: “You can’t do it all by yourself. You really do need a lot of help and work. I suppose people think they know me. It’s really interesting when I meet people and they think I’m stoosh. They’ve got this impression, so I’m listening more to people because they form an opinion in their mind. I’m listening more to what they’re saying and then I’m trying to explain to them the reality.”
However being misinterpreted as ‘stoosh’ doesn’t seem to have scared away supporters. In her headquarters, with a huddle of volunteers in a back room, members of the public who pass by her office on Willesden High Road are eager to be noticed by the politician, diverting her attention with a smile and a wave, to which she returns the same.
Describing her campaign this time round as “blessed”, she expressed gratitude to those who are supporting her. “It’s all a humbling experience. It just feels a lot different. Every time we’re faced with a problem or an issue, somehow somebody walks through the door with a solution.”
Historically the Labour party has been the default choice for the BAME community, which in turn has led to some accusations of complacency. Speaking to The Voice just last week, Lib Dem MP Lynne Featherstone said: “It drives me completely mad. What did the last Labour government deliver for BAMEs? They are treated like fodder and taken for granted.”
But Butler disagrees. “I think maybe some black voters feel neglected or unloved, and maybe that’s what Labour need to do - show love for the black electorate...people sometimes feel like their vote has been taken for granted. I don’t think the Labour party takes the black vote for granted. What we have to look at is Labour’s policies. Who does it affect the most? Who benefits the most?”
Referring to the recently unveiled BAME manifesto, she indicates that its existence is a testament of Labour’s commitment to the BAME community. On her experience with black voters, she laughs before answering. “They’re my people, you get the most love and you can get the most critics.”
Then she adds: “I can’t believe when I get emails and phone calls from people who’ve had problems for the last five years just waiting for me to come back. But suppose I never come back? I ask them why they don’t go to their MP and why they’ve waited for five years. They reply ‘oh, she was no good,’ but this isn’t right.”
Concluding her point, she says: “I would love for black people to not expect more from their black politicians than they would from their white counterparts because it’s not fair.”
Labour has more elected BAME MPs than any of the other main parties. Butler herself was the third-ever female black British MP. She was also the first and only minister for young citizens and youth engagement, a time she recalls with great fondness. “My youngest volunteer is 13, an amazing young lady. I tend to attract a lot of young people, I’m not entirely sure why but I think the key is in being down to earth, communicating and not being patronising.”
The role was closed under the coalition government.
While she advocates for affirmative action, Butler wants to see systemic change. “You only get systemic change, real change that happens all the time if you present the arguments that win hearts and minds.”
The former MP, whose political career began as part of an all-women’s shortlist continues: “Sometimes you’ve got to force the issue. People see something like an all-women’s shortlist and then see women doing the job and they think ‘oh alright, okay, so women can be politicians’ and they change their mindset but it’s about emotional intelligence.
“Politics, like every single organisational business, needs diversity because 14 per cent of the population is BAME,” a figure she points out is not refelcted in Westminster. Identifying the overwhelming composition of parliament as white, male and middle-aged, Butler says: “We have a government that’s basically run by millionaires and I’m not against wealth. I want everyone to be aspirational and to achieve but to have just one set of people seated around the table you’re going to have one perspective. You can’t help that, that’s the life that you’ve lived. If you’ve never struggled to pay a bill you’re not going to understand someone who has. You can be empathetic, but you can never really truly understand it.”
Multi-millionaire and former footballer Sol Campbell has made no secret of his views on the Labour party, critiquing their proposed mansion tax and describing them as the “grim reapers” of the affluent in society.
On his remarks, Butler responds diplomatically. “Sol Campbell was just such a disappointment. What can you say? I think we need to have representation in all parties; I think it’s good. I think it’s bad however when you try to justify your vote by criticising the Labour party. For everyone that’s joined a different party, say why you’re joining that party. Talk about the policies of that party, talk about what your party has done to the country and if you’re proud of that.”
Affirming her own principles, she concludes saying: “I can always tell you why I joined the Labour party, I’m happy to celebrate our values and our rich heritage. We don’t always get everything right but I tell you the majority of stuff we get right and it makes a huge difference to millions of people in the country.”