This article is an extended version of one that appeared in the January issue of Total Politics. To read other interviews from the 25 club feature, click here
You were elected as the first black female MP. Have you ever felt discriminated against on either gender or race?
There were four of us who entered in 1987, and we’d been quite close, politically. There was Bernie Grant, who’s passed away, MP for Tottenham, Paul Boateng, who sits in the Lords now, and Keith Vaz, who’s still here, chairman of the home affairs select committee. Our advent was regarded with a certain amount of trepidation. I think the parliamentary authorities thought we’d be like the Irish Republicans, the Fenians, who were elected in the 18th century. The Fenians used to keep Parliament up all night and were generally trouble. Actually, we weren’t like that at all. I know that the then-Speaker, Bernard Weatherill, invited Bernie – who was regarded as our leader, as he was a bit older – for port. I think that was Speaker Weatherill’s way of assuring us that we were welcome, and we didn’t have to make a big fuss.
People knew who I was quite soon because I was the only black woman in Parliament and I had the shoulder-length braids. It was quite an unusual hairstyle, certainly in Westminster, and in those days you didn’t have many black people working there. It’s only recently you’ve seen black security guards, or black canteen workers or secretaries… I was the one black woman trotting around. Reasonably soon, people knew who I was because there could only be one black woman in the building. First of all, my three male colleagues kept being confused with each other, which was bizarre, because you couldn’t get three people who look more different than Bernie, Keith and Paul. They were constantly being confused with each other and constantly stopped because people just didn’t believe they were MPs. They thought they were building workers or something. That’s the thing that stood out.
Did it ever annoy you that the four of you were placed in a group?
We came in as a group. We were happy to come in as a group. We’d campaigned together for more black representation. We were elected together. In the run-up to the 1987 election, we and the other black and Asian candidates used to meet regularly.
Once in, we all had different paths to take, but we were happy to come in as a group. One of the first things we did was set up a black caucus. We involved the only black member of the House of Lords at that time, Lord Pitt. We set up a parliamentary black caucus and made links with the US congressional black caucus – they had a black caucus for years and years. It’s back and forth. The Americans came over here, we went over there. So no, we didn’t have a problem with being a group. Not at that stage.
You stood for the Labour leadership last year. Would you stand again if the opportunity arose?
I don’t know. I stood in particular circumstances. I was encouraged to stand by party members who felt it was a bit silly that all four candidates were so much the same. There was no other woman running, no other ethnic minority. I got letters and emails from all over the country, saying, “Why don’t you run?” In the end I did, and I enjoyed it. With the other four – David and Ed, Ed and Andy – we did 53 hustings altogether up and down the country, from Scotland to Wales, East Anglia and the South coast. It was a really interesting experience.
Are you close?
Over that summer we spent more time with each other than with our immediate families. You do get to know people in that context. If it’s Tuesday, it must be Scunthorpe.
You’re something of a celebrity politician. Is that something you set out to achieve, or was that a by-product of being an MP?
I didn’t set out to achieve celebrity status, and it’s still the case that I never watch myself on TV. I did This Week for six years, and I never watched an entire programme. If I come into the house and my son has it on, I get him to switch channels. I can think of nothing worse than setting out to be a celebrity politician. I was a journalist before I became an MP, and through that time I was on in breakfast TV, in regional news, TV in London. I know how celebrity can corrode the personality. I know it’s an ephemeral thing. You’re only as good as your last performance.
You can say I know how to ‘do’ TV. I don’t often need more than one take. That’s useful for TV journalists. Also, I realise, which some politicians don’t, that TV news is not the platform for a long speech. You have to have a few points to make, and you have to make them clearly.
Who is the best Labour leader you’ve served under?
I suppose my favourite leader was the lost leader, John Smith − the prime minister who never was. He gave a speech the night before he died, and his closing line was: “The chance to serve is all we ask.” It’s such a profound thing, and it certainly represents my view of politics.