Women in Westminster: In Conversation With Abena Oppong-Asare MP
Abena Oppong-Asare entered the House in 2019 and has rapidly progressed to her current role as Labour’s frontbench lead on Women’s Health and Mental Health issues. As part of our Women in Westminster series, PoliticsHome sat down with Oppong-Asare to find out more about why she sees diversity in politics as essential to our democracy.
A university careers advisor once told Abena Oppong-Asare that the chances of “someone like her getting a job in Parliament were slim and she should not try”. That negative assessment of her prospects did not dissuade her. In fact, it merely increased her motivation to succeed.
“If someone tells me that I can't do something it just energises me to do it,” she tells PoliticsHome, remembering the advice she was given. “Because you know, what right does someone else have to say you don't have the ability to do things?”
That refusal to be sidelined or placed in a particular category has been a hallmark of Oppong-Asare’s career in politics to date. During our sit-down conversation, it is clear that her drive to positively change society is far more powerful than the barriers that stood in her way.
In truth, it was not always obvious that politics would provide the route to deliver the impact that Oppong-Asare aspired to achieve. Growing up in what she describes as “a non-political household”, she attributes much to the strong family network that gave her the self-belief and confidence to seek out opportunities to make a difference.
It was shortly before she started her master’s degree that Oppong-Asare became more aware of the powerful impact that politics could make in driving change, particularly for those who were not always well-represented in public life.
She undertook work experience with Baroness Amos, the first Black leader of the House of Lords. Amos remains a figure that Oppong-Asare identifies as an important inspiration. The experience of working alongside Amos helped kickstart Oppong-Asare’s own political journey.
“She's from my area in Bexley, and I just thought someone from my area working in Parliament was really inspirational,” she says of Amos. “When I was growing up, I didn't really see many female Black role models in Parliament. Going into the House of Lords really opened my eyes. I didn't think that I would be able to walk into those spaces.”
Not only did the experience open a new pathway for Oppong-Asare herself, but it also strengthened her commitment to addressing the barriers that can prevent others from seeking out roles in public life. Throughout her political career, in both local government and the Commons, she has invested time and energy in schemes to increase diversity in public and political life. She is the current chair of the Labour Women’s Network and also runs regular summer schools for young people interested in political campaigning.
Oppong-Asare’s commitment to supporting others is driven by her core belief that, ultimately, engaging a wide range of perspectives in policy debates delivers better outcomes for the nation. She regards diversity not as a “nice to have”, but as the cornerstone for an effective democracy.
“If we have Parliament that reflects society then legislation will be much fairer,” she explains. “When you look around Parliament, particularly when you look at the pictures on the wall, you don’t see many Black faces. It’s great we have more Black MPs in Parliament. But I think it could be a lot better.”
The unique nature of Westminster means that it can sometimes feel like a slightly bewildering and confusing place for those stepping into political life.
“It felt a bit like Hogwarts,” she says with a smile as she recalls her first day as an MP. “I was really excited though. It is a job that I absolutely love doing. Of course, there are still lots of challenges, but I don't let those distract me from what I'm trying to deliver.”
Some of those challenges have been well-documented in recent years, with an increased awareness of the sometimes negative experiences of women in and around British political life. Oppong-Asare believes that progress is being made to modernise and reform some of the working practices across Parliament. She is equally clear that the issues women face extend far beyond Westminster.
“Parliament isn't unique,” she tells PoliticsHome. “It is certainly not the only place where there are outdated attitudes, and you can have unpleasant experiences. This is stuff that happens in every workplace. It is a reflection of society.”
Alongside delivering modernisation, she also argues that more can be done to ensure that public perceptions of the House are shaped by its wider work rather than just the “theatre” of Prime Minister’s Questions and other set-piece occasions.
It is a theme that Oppong-Asare comes back to throughout our conversation — a focus on delivery rather than theatre. That desire to deliver meaningful change is something Oppong-Asare is now bringing to her new role on Labour’s frontbench as Shadow for Women’s Health and Mental Health.
It is a subject that she has a passion for, seeing a clear connection between the brief she has taken on and the health issues regularly raised by her constituents. She welcomes the increased profile of mental health issues, and how that is leading to a more open national conversation.
“I think we have seen a huge change in attitudes, particularly to mental health, where people, including parliamentary colleagues, are bravely talking about their experiences,” she explains. “It wasn't too long ago that it was seen as a taboo, particularly amongst men and within certain communities.”
She believes that we are on a similar path for women’s health issues, with more open discussions now taking place about menopause, reproductive health, and conditions like endometriosis. These are resulting in more women seeking the support they need.
It is a solid example of the way that engagement delivers better outcomes. On policy in general, Oppong-Asare argues that for too long women’s voices have not always been heard in discussions that primarily impact on them. It is that belief that continues to drive her commitment to finding ways to bring different voices into policy debates.
It is a commitment that shows no signs of waning. It is also one that she believes we can all play a part in achieving.
“Don’t ever be the person who pulls the ladder up for other people,” she says. “Sometimes it is just about helping people along the way and offering kind words of encouragement. That is something we are all capable of doing.”
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