“I don’t like losing. The last election was a catastrophic loss, the country needs better,” says Dawn Butler, the Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and MP for Brent Central. She is the most experienced candidate vying for the role of Deputy Leader of the Labour party but her close links to Jeremy Corbyn could lose her support. In a wide-ranging interview with the Gryphon, among other things Butler talks the election, anti-Semitism and the media’s racist coverage of Meghan Markle.
I meet Butler in the corner of a meeting room at the Hearts Community Centre in Headingley. Her outfit is symbolic of her campaign to become deputy leader, her long green coat implies renewal and new beginnings, paired with some red platforms to remind everyone of her socialist roots. Indeed, after losing 2.6 million voters compared to 2017, Labour’s worst post-war election result, all potential leaders are proposing a fresh start.
But there are some in the Labour Party who believe electing Butler would be a vote for the past. She is seen to be a close ally to Corbyn, regularly sitting next to the Labour leader during Prime Ministers’ Questions and even now refuses to blame him for the election:
“We have workable policies from Corbyn, I knocked on doors all over the country and people didn’t say, well I don’t like your policies. If we want to be a government in waiting, we have to have radical policies that benefit the people. Without Jeremy we wouldn’t have had these manifestos.”
So, if not Corbyn, what was to blame for the election? According to Butler, there was “too much” in the manifesto. It was cluttered with policies leaving the electorate unconvinced about how they were all going to be carried out.
“It was a Toby Carvery manifesto. In that all you can eat buffet; we were just chucking in more and more stuff. People thought: I can’t eat anymore and you can’t afford to feed me anymore. We didn’t explain that it was not the first term manifesto, but what we’re going to do in the next 10, 15 years. Next time, we will explain it better, how a Labour government will deliver.”
Butler wants the Labour Party to continue to be the student party by representing their views. “Students are hopeful, progressive, woke, open, inclusive – all of the things the Labour party is about.” She is committed to scrapping university tuition fees, a policy she reminds me, was introduced by Corbyn.
She also promises to try and defend the UK’s Erasmus programme with the EU which allows students to spend a year studying in a European university. Even though Boris Johnson has insisted there is no threat to the UK’s involvement, last week Conservative MP’s voted down a Liberal Democrat amendment which would have forced the government to negotiate continued access to the scheme.
“Nobody can trust anything that Johnson ever says, we have to protect everything we hold dear. I will be a thorn in his side to make sure the Erasmus scheme is somehow, someway still available. We are an internationalist movement.”
I asked Butler about what could be done to deal with the mental health crisis at university. An Insight Network poll of almost 38,000 UK students suggested rates of psychological distress and illness are on the rise in universities with “alarmingly high” levels of anxiety, loneliness, substance misuse and thoughts of self-harm.
At Leeds, there are support services provided by the University Union and the University. Butler believes the stigma attached to having a mental health problem needs to be removed, “we have to prioritise mental health and make sure we talk about it more. We can learn from young people. The days of stiff upper lip bullshit are over.”
Being Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities and a black woman, tackling racial prejudices is something Butler is passionate about.
“It is an absolute struggle at every stage of our lives. Every single day we need to explain our presence in the room. As a black female MP, I walk into a room with my white male office manager and they immediately assume he’s the MP, not me, even though they’re expecting a Dawn Butler.”
Universities are not immune to such prejudice. In October 2019, the Gryphon revealed that black students were awarded first class degrees at the University of Leeds at a rate four times lower than white students in 2019. Butler believes “we have to educate people about their biases and build a fairer country and dismantle the structural barriers that exist in society.”
An example of such a barrier is the British media’s coverage of Meghan Markle and the ensuing national debate on whether the coverage was racist.
“It’s so funny that the debates are happening. You’ve got these privileged white men and Priti Patel, the home secretary, who’s a disgrace saying racism doesn’t exist in British society. It’s more harmful to talk about racism existing than racism itself. How and when did that become ok?”
Critics of the Labour party argue that they cannot lecture about rooting out prejudices in society when they have failed to do so in their own party. The antisemitism crisis that erupted under Corbyn’s leadership was a significant factor in their election defeat. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) are launching an investigation into the issue, making Labour the only political party other than the British Nationalist Party to be investigated for racism.
Whilst her rivals for the deputy leadership Rosena Alli-Khan, Ian Murray and Angela Rayner have all supported the pledges advised by the Board of Deputies of British Jews to solve the issue, Butler wants a debate on the issue before agreeing to anything:
“We’re being investigated by the EHRC, their going to come up with findings… We need to look at them and implement them.”
Butler also confirmed she has requested a meeting with the board but is yet to receive a response.
After a fourth successive general election defeat, the divided party must unite behind one leader and deputy to provide a strong opposition against Boris Johnson’s Conservative government. What Butler has made clear is that she is ready to be such opponent.