Will it be a new Dawn for Labour in Brent Central?
- Credit: Archant
It’s been five years since Dawn Butler was unseated as an MP by the Lib Dems and she’s back again hoping to snatch the Brent Central seat for the Labour Party.
Her battle is about to become much more interesting as her strongest competitor, Ibrahim Taguri quit the Lib Dems amid allegations of breaking donations rules.
“I can’t be complacent,” she says. “This time it really feels like a calling. There’s a lot of work to be done and if I relax and am beaten, I’ll never forgive myself.”
She said she would have won in 2010 if not for the boundary changes, however the Labour Party had a 7,000 nominal majority which was overturned by Sarah Teather from the Lib Dems.
The changes saw her previous Brent South seat merged with the Lib Dem’s Brent East to become Brent Central.
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“It was an anti-Blair vote,” she added.
A Christian woman of faith however, she said “God works in mysterious ways”. She would not have been able to combine another term as an MP while caring for her father, who died a year after she lost her seat.
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Ms Butler then went on to work as a self-employed consultant, mixing paid and voluntary work.
In the last two years, feeling a “strong sense of civic duty” she has trained as a magistrate and sits on the bench at Highbury and Islington Court. “If you can join magistrates you should as the bench doesn’t have enough diversity,” she says.
“Everyone should sit as a magistrate for a couple of years. You see so many different cases it reminds you that what ever you do has an effect on people.”
Ms Butler, born and educated in and around Forest Gate, comes from a loving, supportive family where she was the fifth of six children.
Her parents came from Jamaica in the 1950’s, and settled in London’s East End. Her father, a musician, ran a market and her mother was a nurse for the NHS, both loyal Labour voters.
An early rebel at Lake House School, she held her first strike aged 11.
“I organised a sit in after a teacher said we had to run around a field. It was December, and cold.”
She graduated from Waltham Forest College with a computer science qualification and went straight out to work as a programmer at Johnson Matthey, a speciality chemicals and sustainable technologies company. She says “the only woman in a male dominated field” sexual harassment was rife.
She left to join the Civil Service under a Conservative Party and there got heavily involved with the trade unions, later working full time for GMB for 10 years. “I realised how important the unions were to people in the work force. I realised that if you’re suffering from any form of harassment, the trade union would be your place to go and to have been through what I had been through in the private sector, you realise how important they are in the public sector and should be that prominent in the private sector too.”
The Labour victory of 1997 and the introduction of the minimum wage was a turning point for her politically, when she saw just what politics could achieve. The party introduced an all woman shortlist and she says, she was invited to join.
One of only three female black MPs, she won Brent South in 2005 with a majority of more than 11,000.
As a minister for young citizens and youth engagement under Gordon Brown, some of her successes include setting up Brent’s Youth Parliament, which is still strong today.
She secured funding for the £5m Roundwood Youth Centre, in Longstone Avenue, Harlesden, andremains a powerful advocate for young people.
In 2009 she became the first black woman to speak at the despatch box in the House of Commons, an experience which she said was nerve wracking. “That was around the 200th anniversary since the abolition of the slave trade and there was a huge debate about that. Then a few months later I was at the despatch box as the first Afro-Caribbean woman. I was shaking like a leaf and trying not to show it because you can’t show weakness in the House of Commons because if you do they will attack you.”
She adds that there is still a lot of racism and sexism in parliament. “I actually want to make it better for anyone else coming behind me. It is important. It’s not just about being there or being the first, it’s about making sure you’re not the only one, and making sure there are many more following after you who will stand at that Despatch Box and be a government minister.
“I wouldn’t be here if not for all the other people who paved the way. My parent’s generation fought against racism so I could get a job, or be a politician, if that’s what I chose.”
In 2009 she got caught up in the expenses scandal after claiming for a second home in Brent while owning a property the same distance from Westminster, in Stratford, east London.
She also had to issue Ms Teather an apology for smearing her campaign over false expenses claims.
Ms Butler “draws a line” under the episode, exonerated over her expenses.
Regarding smear campaigns, including the recent Kenton by-election smear by the Labour Party on a conservative contender, she said: “You do wish that politics didn’t have to be that way. That’s why I will run a positive campaign and it will be factual. It’s important; people have had enough of the same old same old politics.”
She will not accept Tony Blair’s £1,000 gift to the constituency (he offered the sum to 106 key Labour seats in the country) after Brent Labour Party rejected the offer.
What is her decision then? What can she do for Brent this time round?
“What I give now is not only experience but a new sense of urgency for Brent so we can keep our community strong. It’s almost like we’ve been abandoned for the last five years. Our A&E has closed at Central Middlesex, young people feel more disillusioned than they’ve ever felt before. Older people feel unsure about the future; people now feel they have to work till they drop. People have been moved out the borough.
“We need a different emphasis, need to look through a different lens on society, we need to prioritise differently. People at the bottom need to matter. We need to invest in young people as we are really losing a whole generation of young people. Get them back into work, apprenticeships that work, so they can get on with their lives and start working.”
On the prospect of winning nationally, she adds: “Not all the politicians are the same and it makes a difference to the political parties and their agendas. If we don’t have a Labour government I honestly feel we won’t have an NHS in five years time that we recognise, our education system will be dismantled beyond belief and we’ll just go back to the dark ages.
“We want people to succeed and achieve and we want to make sure we give people those chances that allow them to do that and if you fall we want you to have a safety net. That’s basically the big difference between us.”