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Dawn Butler MP: 'Talking about racism is absolutely exhausting as a black woman'

14 min read

For Dawn Butler, running for the deputy leadership has exposed structural barriers that are preventing people like her from progressing. To break through, the Labour frontbencher has released a 23-page manifesto, centred on the party’s membership. She walks Sebastian Whale through her plans

The spread of coronavirus will require us all to adapt our behaviours. For Dawn Butler, this could prove challenging. “I am very much a hugger, so these kinds of restrictions on shaking hands and things will impact on who I am,” she notes. Butler, one of five candidates for the deputy leadership of the Labour party, is not concerned that the outbreak could put a kybosh on the campaign, which still has a month to run. “The party hasn’t said that we have to act differently,” she says. “I suppose if it gets elevated to the next level, then maybe it might interfere.”

Talk in Westminster has turned to Parliament itself. The Times reported that MPs and peers could be kept away for months after the Easter recess – although Leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg has said there are “no plans” to do so. “It does seem to me that a trait of Boris Johnson’s government is closing down parliament and democracy at every opportunity he possibly can,” Butler says. “Yes, there are some legitimate concerns, and yes, there are a lot of people that work in here. But if it comes to the stage where Parliament has to be closed down, we cannot, and we must not allow that to be an excuse to subvert democracy.”

Should it take place, Butler argues the prime minister should hold daily Zoom calls with the public. “We cannot be in the dark about what this government is doing. We are already in the dark; there’s hardly an urgent question or a statement on the floor of the House, and people should be outraged that our democracy is being treated in this fashion,” she says.

For now, the seemingly endless internal Labour elections will plod on at a snail’s pace. Butler, the MP for Brent Central, has found the mechanics of the process frustrating. Her teasing response to the question, what is one thing you’ve done that you’ll never do again, is a whispered: “Stand for deputy leader!” (the real answer was Dry January – “It was quite dire”).

Though Butler, who defines herself as the “grassroots candidate”, relishes meeting members and activists, she finds the system prohibitive. “We shouldn’t be spending lots of money; it’s an internal Labour party election. We should have a better way of doing this. There are now structural barriers that stops somebody like me from progressing and moving forward,” she says.

Butler, who says she has no “institutional” or trade union funding, has an average donation from members of £12. “There either needs to be seed funding or there needs to be a way that is fairer,” she says. She also argues that there are “gatekeepers at every stage” who prevent a fair hearing for all candidates. 

A mailing to the party’s more than half a million members costs almost £300,000, says Butler. The MP is doing it “old school” by trying to phone members individually, though she knows it is “impossible that I’m going to reach everyone”. Candidates pay for travel and accommodation to hustings across the country. “The party could use our buying power to book a load of rooms, so we can at least have one room provided for,” she says. “I’ve maxed out on my credit card. It’s costing a fortune… But it does land it home to me that this is actually the way I would also choose to do it, because I am very much a grassroots individual.”

She adds: “But I do think, for people coming afterwards, it should be a lot more of a level playing field. We have to put in practice what we preach in everything that we do as a party.”

Butler’s biggest fear in life is losing. Her one chosen superpower would be the ability to “make things happen”. Though she faces a mountain to climb to secure the deputy leadership, with frontrunner Angela Rayner the bookies’ favourite, she has taken steps to try and turn things in her favour.

Recently, she published a 23-page manifesto, which centres around her CORED strategy – Campaign, Organise, Recruit, Education, and Discipline. The booklet has some interesting ideas which largely focus around the party’s members. Part of her proposals include public speaking training to ensure members have the confidence to make speeches at conference and courses led by people with “lived experience” on issues such as antisemitism, bullying and transphobia. She wants CLPs to be given tablets to use for data collection, and for activists to develop digital skills so the party can “win arguments online”. “Labour party software is very, very bad. We need a digital party for a digital age, and that means we need to improve what we do. We have to mix the old and the new,” she tells me.

“Our manifesto promises were not undeliverable, because if they were, the Tories wouldn’t be using them”

Under her plans, all joining members will be given “persuasiveness conversations training”. As an example, Butler says members could be coached on the economic positives of Labour’s policy of renationalising the rail network. “All of those details at individuals’ fingertips so that they are able to talk about it on the doorstep is the way that we arm our army of members, so that we become a 660,000-strong [team] delivering the Labour message everywhere that we go,” she says.

But, given the bruising election defeat in December, shouldn’t the emphasis be on listening, rather than persuading? “One isn’t exclusionary of the other. Both are equally as important,” she responds. “There’s no point in listening and not doing anything.”

Butler describes the party’s 2019 election booklet as the “Toby Carvery manifesto”. “There were just too many policies,” she explains. However, citing the renationalisation of the Northern rail franchise and attempts to eliminate homelessness as evidence, she argues that the Tories are “taking bits of our manifesto”. “We need to explain that and say our manifesto promises were not undeliverable, because if they were, the Tories wouldn’t be using them,” she says.

Could there be an issue in focusing too much on Labour members and not the wider country? “Our membership is a cross section of the country. So, when we arm our members with the information that they need to talk about Labour policy, they will go and talk to other people.

One of the more eye-catching sections of Butler’s manifesto is on the media. She calls for Labour to “fight back” against the press and not reward “bad behaviour”. “Dishonest and aggressive media outlets should not get our time,” her manifesto states. This requires “calling out slurs” against the party and “restricting media outlets who lie about us”. “If a media outlet is actively dishonest about the Labour party, we should not use them until they apologise,” it adds.

Which outlets does she have in mind? “What I’m saying is if you go onto a particular TV or radio show and they’ve told a blatant untruth or lie, we shouldn’t just accept that.” Butler claims that during a recent appearance on Question Time, the show let a “blatant lie” from a participant about her position go unchecked (she could not recall the specifics of the claim). So, is she advocating a boycott of Question Time? Butler asks an aide to pass her the manifesto. “I wouldn’t say, well… so a boycott is quite strong a word. But we cannot accept being misrepresented by the media. And if that means that we use other media platforms, or we use other journalists – there are hundreds of journalists. If one journalist is biased, then we’re going to use another journalist. It doesn’t mean that you boycott the BBC or ITV, it just means that you use people that are going to give you a fair interview. You can be critical, but just be fair,” she responds.

Her manifesto also calls for the party “to use libel law in order to show dishonest media outlets that they cannot mess with us”. I ask how that would work in practice. “We don’t use libel law as a party, whereas other parties often do… It does mean that we have candidates that are standing in areas where their opponents tell blatant lies about them and they get away with it, and we should stop allowing that to happen,” she says.

But what about the media? Butler says it would “depend on what the situation is” as to whether Labour pursues a libel claim. She says demanding Leveson 2 is part of the solution, “to make sure that media outlets are responsible for what they print and what they say”. But is there an example she can think of where Labour should have pursued a libel claim with the media? “No, I haven’t got an example,” she replies.

In her manifesto, Butler also calls for the party to “champion online media outlets” such as left-wing site Novara Media, and to fund “high-quality investigative journalism”, alongside a Labour party radio station and podcasts in regional offices. “We need an opportunity where we can define our own narrative around an issue, and then we can build on it from that. That way, the media can pick up what we actually mean and what we’re actually saying. Too often we’re trying to play catch up,” she tells me.

Shadow Cabinet meetings, according to Butler, should take place across the UK and be followed by interactive questions on Labour’s Facebook page with members. “It’s a way of making sure that they’re constantly engaged and showing that we appreciate them,” she explains.

"If we want to get back into government, then we need to have discipline and unity"

Another section of her manifesto that has caught attention is on party discipline. In a passage, she says if MPs “publicly undermine the leader of the Labour party they will be suspended by the whip and will have to reapply democratically”. Butler says: “It’s not about speaking out. Let’s be clear, politics is about having robust discussions, having disagreements, coming to a common census on an issue, sometimes you don’t agree, sometimes people vote against the whip – that is just doing everyday politics. That’s cool and fine.”

Her gripe is with people who appear on the media and advocate not voting Labour, and MPs who quit the party but do not force a by-election. “That should be stopped,” she says. But how can you force MPs to hold by-elections? “Yes, enforcement will be an issue, because can you force somebody to do it? We would have to look at when you sign up to become a candidate for the Labour party, that you sign up to certain values, and that would be added into the values,” she replies.

I point out that Jeremy Corbyn rebelled hundreds of times against his party and spoke out publicly on policy areas he disagreed with, such as the abolition of Clause IV, and various foreign policy stances, especially on the Iraq War. Would that breach her new code? “I’m not going to go into the minutiae detail, because it’s something that would have to be agreed upon. But what I am laying out very clearly, is if we want to get back into government, then we need to have discipline and unity,” she says.

Following the events of the past five years, Butler puts a lot of stock in discipline and unity. Referring to the moves against Corbyn’s leadership, she contends: “2016 was very damaging. If it wasn’t for the coup in 2016, I do believe we would have won in 2017.”

Perhaps then, an element of machine politics is needed to keep the show on the road? “Debates are good and fine; it’s what we do as politicians. But if we’re serious about getting into government, then we have to have discipline and we have to have unity,” she says. “We should always ask ourselves, is doing what we’re doing helping or hindering our prospects of getting into government.”


One of six children, Butler was raised in east London to parents from Jamaica. She would help her father, a baker, by decorating cakes. Butler became something of a dab hand, putting together birthday and multi-tier wedding cakes. “The longest cake I ever worked on took me about a week,” she says.

Her earliest memory is being accused of lying by a teacher aged six. She had been on holiday to Jamaica over the summer and was relaying a story about a cockroach that flew across the room. The teacher disputed it and warned her to stop lying. “I ran out of school, climbed over a high fence, climbed over a wall, and ran and got my dad. That is a very vivid memory for me,” she says. 

Butler went to Tom Hood School in Leytonstone and later Waltham Forest College. She started her career as a computer programmer and systems analyst, before becoming an equality and race officer at the GMB Union. Here, she heard the best piece of advice she has ever received: “Pick your battles”. She explains: “I was very uncompromising, and I would just fight everything. They said, ‘Pick your battles, because a) you’re not going to win them all and b) you will exhaust yourself and you will have no fight left in you’.”

Butler was an adviser to London mayor Ken Livingstone before being elected as MP for Brent South in 2005, the third black woman to become an MP after Diane Abbott and Oona King. She served as an assistant government whip, before becoming the first African-Caribbean woman to serve as a government minister when she took on a role in the Cabinet Office. She lost her seat in 2010 and was elected in Brent Central five years later. She is currently the shadow women and equalities secretary. 

Given her heritage, the Windrush scandal of 2018 really hit home. Her parents, who had taken steps to ensure they were not affected, are proud Britons. When a young Butler asked her dad to sing the national anthem, he started singing God Save the Queen. “Never once were they resentful, they were very proud of their British heritage,” she says. “To think, all these years later, when you’ve given the best years of your life, you’re then faced with ‘you’re no longer needed, you’re no longer necessary, you’re surplus to requirements, we’re going to send you back to a country that you don’t know’…  It was very, very heart-breaking. It was a very difficult time.”

The day before we meet, Butler called Boris Johnson a “racist” during an appearance on BBC’s Politics Live, giving the example of the prime minister’s 2018 The Telegraph column where he referred to Muslim women wearing burkhas as “looking like letter boxes”. Some of the fellow guests, including Tory MP Laura Trott, questioned her assertion, saying it was “outrageous”, “rude” and “offensive”, leading to a debate on social media. “Talking about racism is absolutely exhausting as a black woman,” Butler says. “Some people say, ‘you’re always talking about it’, when actually I’m not always talking about it, because I don’t talk about every single issue or incident that happens, but I get asked about it. The other side is, you have to talk about it, because otherwise it gets normalised.”

She continues: “At the moment, we are in a very post-Brexit world where hate crime has gone up, where racism has gone up. For people to not acknowledge that the words of the prime minister were racist, were wrong, is a real issue and a real problem. It’s not being disloyal.”

Butler concludes: “I want allies; I wish I had an ally around the table yesterday. You can’t excuse it away; if you excuse racism away, if you excuse sexism away, if you excuse bullying away, it just results in more of the same. And actually, we need to stand up to it in order to stop it.” 

GETTING TO KNOW YOU: The craic of Dawn

How would your friends describe you in three words?

“Generous, loyal, crazy funny.”

What habit annoys you in other people?

“Taking a really long time to get to the point.”

Do you have any secret talents?

“I can salsa dance.”

Miliband or Corbyn?


Blair or Corbyn?

“It depends on the context. In reference to government, we had three wins under Blair and I’d rather win than lose. In terms of policy and direction of the party, then that would be Jeremy Corbyn.”

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