At the start of April, Dawn Butler was a well-liked figure in parliament and looked like a strong candidate for deputy leader of the Labour party. An experienced parliamentarian, 50 years old and a party member for more than 30 of them, she had been a minister in Gordon Brown’s government and served in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. In December 2009, she had been the first black woman to speak from the dispatch box. She also had strong union links, having worked for the GMB and, before that, the Public and Commercial Services Union. She had a life before – and halfway through – Westminster, working as a computer programmer and then an employment-service trainer.
In February 2005, she stood to be a parliamentary candidate in West Ham, in the east London borough of Newham, where she was raised by her mother, who worked for the NHS, and her father, who worked on the railways. She lost that race by four votes. A month later, she went for Brent South, in north-west London, and got it, even though “it had already been earmarked for Tony Blair’s political adviser. That was like a red rag to a bull, wasn’t it? It had already been stitched up for a bloke, so obviously I was going to go for it.” That May, she won the seat in the general election.
After boundary changes, she lost the newly minted seat of Brent Central to Sarah Teather in the 2010 Lib Dem bounce, only to be elected again – in the same constituency – in 2015, since when she has held the seat. She spent the intervening years designing learning programmes for companies and nursing her father in the last year of his life.
On 3 April 2020, she lost the deputy leadership race to Angela Rayner – about which she has views, which we will come to. Since then, she has been a backbencher, working in the same crisis conditions as everyone else. In June, she wrote an opinion piece in the Metro newspaper defending the Black Lives Matter protests. “We had 6,000 bits of communication and about 2,000 of them were hate communication,” she says of the response. “There are people calling me every word you can think of – the C-word, the N-word, the B-world. People threatening to kill me. I’ve been attacked on the tube. People have tried to attack me in my constituency office. A member of staff bought themselves a stab vest to come to my surgery.”
She had to close her constituency office because she could not guarantee her staff’s safety. “My team had to wade through all this and basically grade [the messages], in terms of what Twitter might take down, or Facebook might take down, or the police might take seriously, or parliament might take seriously. And they were broken by all this. They’re protecting me from the hate and I feel so guilty about it.”
We meet in her constituency, at the Arch, a deserted but intensely festive Indian restaurant in Wembley, where she is sitting in a cabana in the broadest sunshine, looking like a portrait of optimism. It is astonishing to hear, first-hand, about the racist abuse she has endured and to see the contrast between the grind of this nastiness and how undimmed she seems by it.
She quickly and resolutely diverts from her own experience on to someone whom she thinks has it worse: Diane Abbott, the recipient of almost as much online abuse as all other female MPs combined, according to research by Amnesty International in 2017. “You have people who’ve made a career out of attacking Diane. What did she have to put up with when she entered parliament [in 1987]? What scars has she got, what did she have to do to keep the peace, how many times did she have to smile through it?”
There are clear parallels in the way Abbott and Butler are treated, not just by political opponents and trolls on social media, but also by putatively respectable platforms. “They often try to dismiss what I’m saying, then two or three weeks later everyone else is saying it and I’m exonerated. A presenter said to me: did I read the government’s report [on coronavirus], which was 50 pages. It was only 50 pages anyway because it had such a large font; if they’d printed it at normal size, it would have been a pamphlet. And I was ridiculed for saying I hadn’t. But I didn’t need to read it – I’d already read the science behind it. I’m on the science and technology select committee.”
She says this portrayal – the idiot who is not on top of her brief – “is a form of trolling. It’s a trope. And it’s racism. It’s something that black women face all the time. We are simultaneously invisible and visible.” This has persisted throughout her life in the public eye, even the most triumphant and historic moments of which have been marked by this kneejerk ridicule. When she stood up to speak on behalf of Brown’s government, “the first black woman to stand at the dispatch box, the Tories tried to belittle me at that moment in history. I can’t remember his name, but one took great delight in telling me that ‘upskilling’ was not in the English dictionary. He knew it was a momentous time, but they’d all been instructed to put me down.”
But the person she remembers vividly from that day is Sadiq Khan, who was a transport minister at the time. “He ran from the other side of parliament to make sure he sat beside me. He was all out of breath. He said: ‘I’m not letting you do this by yourself.’”
Perhaps because of her five-year hiatus outside parliament, Butler made an easy transition from Brown’s government to Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, from minister for youth affairs to shadow minister for women and equalities. The obvious assumption is that she made a strategic shift in her own politics to fit in with the new order, but the only sign of that in her voting record is that, early on, she voted consistently against an inquiry into the Iraq war, which would have aligned her with the right of the party.
She rejects that and gives a straightforward, personal reason for those votes: “I never believed in holding an inquiry while we still had troops in Iraq. My brother was in the army and I spoke to him about it. If you held an inquiry while the troops were still out there doing their best to fight for the country, it would have been soul-destroying for them.”
Her analysis is that Labour moved rightwards after 2010: “When I came back in 2015, I was a little bit surprised at the sorts of things that the Labour party was comfortable with, like the welfare reform bill [in which Harriet Harman, as interim leader, instructed MPs not to vote against Conservative cuts]. I didn’t understand what had happened in my time away; I was only gone for five years. That’s when I knew that Jeremy Corbyn was going to do well, because he knew who he was and what our values were as a party.”
But Corbyn did not woo her into the shadow cabinet – she had to break down his door. “He had a lot of inexperienced people around him and that wasn’t helping us. I knew that I could help him at PMQs; I knew that I had skills to contribute.” Butler’s critique of Corbyn’s time is deeply felt, but quite careful. “The Labour leaked report [into the party’s handling of antisemitism, which described a closed inner circle around the leader, outside of which was a party so riven that staffers were actively hoping for electoral defeat] cut very deep. I was very bruised by that. The lesson is: you need people around you when you’re in power who will question what you’re doing, because you’ll make better decisions.”
I ask, of course, whether she is glad of Keir Starmer’s victory. “I would have been glad whoever won.” She dissolves into laughter and immediately concedes: “That’s really a cop-out. Am I glad? Do you know what I think? I think the Labour party’s leadership election system needs to change. I don’t think you should be having an internal election that means you have to spend a lot of money.”
She then rattles off how much everything costs – £5,000 to get access to the membership lists, £13,000 to pay for the system to contact members by text, half a million for a mailout. “I thought working 24 hours a day would be enough to win. But, actually, I needed money to access some of the systems that were needed. And I had 30 grand. Before the phone calls and mailouts started, I was in second place.” In the event, Butler came last, on 11%.
Another interpretation is that her campaign did not get across who she is. She often used to come across as dry and cautious, with more than a trace of the disciplined minister of government, serious and liable to equivocate. That Butler has vanished: no longer bound by the responsibilities of the frontbench, she relishes the freedom to choose her own causes: “There are things that I need to speak out on that may make Keir feel uncomfortable.” She also seems to have liberated her personality: funny, zealous, mischievous, pioneering.
Her chosen causes are varied: she has a fairly geeky, careful eye on government procurement, from the contact-tracing app to Chris Grayling’s shipping contract with a company that had no ships. She is viscerally worried about a bad or no-deal Brexit and what it will do to her constituents. “I think a lot of what this government is doing is that they’re using it [the virus] as a smokescreen for what’s going to happen post-transition. And we really have to work hard at informing the public as to what’s actually going on.”
And the Black Lives Matter movement – “It is a movement, not a moment,” she says, referring to Starmer calling it the latter, for which he later apologised – “has got me thinking about all kinds of things. Whenever, in general, Afro-Caribbean people, people of colour, see an injustice taking place, a wrongful arrest or a killing, it brings back trauma, it makes you think of the stuff you’ve been through, or your family has been through. My parents taught me resilience, but it was their resilience. My brothers taught me resistance, how to survive. So they would say to me: ‘When you’re driving, if a police car drives past you, look in the mirror, see if it turns around to follow you. If it does, stop somewhere where there are people.’”
It is stark to hear, in such concrete terms, the coping strategies that people of colour have developed to counter institutional racism. Butler continues: “There are loads of people who are, for the first time, understanding the injustice that Afro-Caribbean people go through. They’re seeing things they never saw before. There are people who are understanding that they have privilege whether they’ve asked for it or not.”
It is the fight of a generation, she says, but the vastness of it does not put her off identifying the practical solutions she wants now: the resignation of the Metropolitan police commissioner, Cressida Dick, for one. “I work with the police and they want the racist police officers out of the force the same way I do. But if you’ve got the head of the force refusing to acknowledge anything’s wrong, that’s never going to happen. She doesn’t accept the terminology ‘institutional racism’. If she doesn’t accept it, how can she be committed to eradicate it from her police force?”
Butler is also calling for an end to stop and search. “It does not work – or rather, it works the way it’s designed to work – it is designed to be discriminatory. The fact is, where a police officer can stop a person of colour driving a car, saying: ‘We smelled drugs coming from your car; that’s why we stopped you,’ and then, when they search the car, there are no drugs, you have to ask yourself: what were they smelling?”
Butler is adamant that she wants a life after Westminster – “I don’t want to be wheeled out” – but she has unfinished business: “the eradication of racism. We live in a topsy-turvy world where it’s a sin to call someone racist, but not a sin to be racist.” Plus, “I made a commitment to myself, when I was elected to parliament, that I would ensure there would be other Afro-Caribbean women coming behind me. There’s no point in being the only one. It’s too much of a burden for one person to carry and we won’t see change.”