Chi Onwurah: “Diversity is not, for me, primarily just a social justice issue. It is an economic issue”
As a black, working-class, Geordie woman, who built a successful career in engineering, Chi Onwurah knows that improving diversity in industry is not just a moral imperative but an economic necessity. The Shadow Business Minister tells Elizabeth Bates why the push for gender equality is at the heart of Labour’s industrial strategy
MPs often take groups of schoolchildren on tours around the House of Commons, and Labour’s shadow business minister Chi Onwurah is no exception. But, she tells me, there is one thing that dampens the experience for her.
“There is so much of what I call ‘white men in tights from the 18th and 19th century’,” she laughs.
The Labour MP is not, as you might suspect, referring to the Lords, but to the lack of female statues on the parliamentary estate.
She is speaking on the day that the first statue of a woman – suffragist Millicent Fawcett – was unveiled in Parliament Square, and has just returned from the event.
“I was quite emotional,” she says. “It is incredibly moving. Representation matters and images matter; if you can’t see it, you can’t be it, and too often in parliament you can’t see it.”
She is concerned that the dominance of male imagery could be dispiriting for “little working-class girls from Newcastle”, of which she used to be one.
But her background has not prevented her success. Onwurah is a qualified electrical engineer who worked in technology firms all over the world, before becoming an MP in her home city of Newcastle in 2010.
Having spent her career in predominantly male environments, she is keen to use her current role to champion diversity. She jokes that in her early professional life she was often “the only woman in the room, often the only black person, the only northerner and the only working-class person in the room as well”.
This experience led her to the belief that improving diversity in business is not just a moral necessity, but is also key to driving economic growth, and she is calling on firms to lead the charge.
“I have spent a lot of time thinking about this,” she says. “Diversity is not, for me, primarily just a social justice issue. It is an economic issue because we will never have an economy that works for everyone if we exclude 50% from various sectors.
“It’s really important to get women in, and my own experience leads me to come down very heavily on those who give excuses. There are no excuses.
“There are reasons, and the reasons go from gender stereotyping of children, to lack of healthcare, to a culture which values certain behaviours over others.
“There are women and girls out there who are fantastic, who want to do science, who are interested in engineering, who would like to be Members of Parliament or would want to be at the bar.
“Companies and organisations just need to go out there and find them. I will not tolerate victim blaming, I am not a fan of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In [which encourages women to push themselves forward at work]. We need to make the culture right for women and minorities, and then they will come. If you build it they will come, especially if you build it with them.”
This push for gender equality is at the heart of Onwurah’s current focus as shadow business minister. The opposition’s industrial strategy – which she has developed with other shadow ministers including Dawn Butler and Rebecca Long Bailey – concentrates on general themes rather than specific policies and sectors, and has “diversity at its core”.
Other priorities are to promote green technologies, deliver high-skilled, quality jobs and rebalance investment across the country through regional banks.
Having grown up in the north-east, Onwurah is inspired in her brief by her personal experience.
“I grew up in Newcastle at a time when it was full unemployment, more or less, for good, semi-skilled jobs. And I was also in the north through the whole Thatcherite destruction of our industry.
“So, when we come to our industrial strategy – and obviously it’s for the many not the few – it’s about building an economy where everyone can benefit, but not simply benefit in terms of good welfare payments, benefit in terms of good jobs which are well paid, which are highly skilled and so provide personal satisfaction, and which are high-productivity. That’s basically what our industrial strategy is about.”
She is also acutely aware that this vision could be threatened by Brexit, with many of Labour’s industrial heartlands dependent on the support and trade they get from the EU.
It is the protection of those communities, she says, that is behind Labour’s commitment to a Brexit deal that safeguards jobs and businesses.
“We want a comprehensive customs union and we are not taking membership of the single market off the table, and that is really important.
“We want to increase trade with new and emerging economies, but we have to recognise where currently our trade and our jobs are, and a lot of that – in the north-east 50% of it – is with the European Union.
“It’s the biggest trading bloc in the world. Why would we want to be outside the biggest trading bloc in the world? We want to build on that.”
Despite her positivity, particularly on the transformative role technology can play in driving Britain’s future growth, Onwurah is also acutely aware of its dangers and has repeatedly warned ministers that they must do more to protect individuals.
Her protestations at the lack of state intervention in the technology sector have been borne out in recent months in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which revealed that technology and personal data was being misused on an unprecedented scale.
Onwurah is concerned that even in the wake of the revelations, technology giants, like Facebook and Google, still pose a threat.
“They have got an effective monopoly,” she says. “They have huge political power, but we haven’t got a coherent framework or approach, and the government is not even firefighting. It’s just more or less turning a blind eye. That’s bad for our democracy, and it’s bad for our economy.”
Instead, she would like to see “a wide-ranging review of data, data rights and the new social media connectivity”. The review, she adds, should consider the breaking up of monopolies, tighter regulation and even the transfer of data into “common ownership”.
Onwurah is also insistent that both the government and social media companies must take more responsibility for online crime, particularly when it comes to protecting children.
“I think the first duty of government is to keep its citizens safe – on the digital high street, just as on the normal high street.
“If kids are being attacked and stabbed on the streets and it’s clear that government has a duty there, the government has a duty to keep children and everyone safe online.”
She stresses, however, that it is crucial to get the balance right, suggesting that “government should be setting out a clear framework of rights and responsibilities and then it is up to the social media companies to enact”.
Onwurah has also experienced the power of social media a little closer to home. On the day we meet she has been caught up in the case of Mandy Richards – an aspiring MP whose offensive Twitter posts were widely circulated when she was selected to run in Worcester.
The contents – which included casting doubt on the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox and the Manchester terror attack – as well as other revelations from her past led to her being dumped by the national party.
Onwurah came under fire for a previous endorsement of Richards, although she clarifies it was “years ago”, before her controversial remarks.
But in the wake of the media storm, the Newcastle MP does acknowledge that the party’s vetting process for candidates needs an overhaul.
“As I understand it, there isn’t really a vetting process,” she says, “which some might argue has democracy but doesn’t have accountability.
“So, I think there needs to be transparency and accountability for candidates. If you’re going to represent the people of a great city or town like Worcester, you need to be absolutely transparent about your past and I think that the Labour party process should make sure that happens.”