Politics

Dawn Butler: ’Nobody looked like me in politics'

She grew up in a big, musical family and had dreams of being a wedding planner, until politics beckoned and she just went for it

Dawn Butler, Member of Parliament for Brent Central

Dawn Butler. Image: Richard Townshend Photography

Dawn Butler was born in Newham, East London, in November 1969 to Jamaican immigrant parents. One of six children, she worked on a market stall at a young age while helping out at her family-owned bakery, Butlers Bakery in Leytonstone.

She began her career as a computer programmer before taking a position as an equality and race office at the GMB union and going on to advise then-Mayor of London Ken Livingstone on employment and social issues. Butler was selected as the Labour candidate for Brent South and retained the seat for her party at the 2005 general election.

She later became the first elected African-Caribbean woman to become a government minister in the UK when Gordon Brown appointed her as the Minister for Young Citizens & Youth Engagement. In December 2009, Butler became the first Black woman to speak from the despatch box in the House of Commons. She revealed that Conservative MPs “tried to belittle me at that moment in history”, claiming that one Tory MP “took great delight in telling me that ‘upskilling’ was not in the English dictionary”.

In 2017, Butler became the first MP in its history to sign a question in the House of Commons using British Sign Language. She served as Labour’s Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities between 2017-2020.

Speaking to The Big Issue for her Letter to my Younger Self, Butler looks back on the early influence of family, her first steps in politics and her pride in her achievements.

When I was 16 I was quite a formidable character. I was a tomboy. I was into cars and engines. Anything my dad and my brothers were doing I was doing too. Everybody in my family drove so I wanted to be a driver. I was just into everything at 16, nothing fazed me. But I also always had FOMO, that fear of missing out. 

Growing up with four brothers I knew from a very early age that if I wanted to be heard, not only did I have to have a loud voice, I needed to make sense. Because if I didn’t, my brothers would laugh at me. I had to formulate my arguments before I made them, I had to dot the i’s and cross the t’s and show that I could stand up completely on my own. Never underestimate your upbringing or the influence people have in your life, and how they formulate how you approach a situation, how you act, how you talk. It was that upbringing that made me who I am now. 

Butler as a teenager. Image courtesy of Dawn Butler

We’re a very close and very big family. So much so that there was almost no room for friends. If you have a party, you’ve got 50 people before you even think of friends. But it was great because it was a very safe space. Music was fundamental to my upbringing. My dad was a musician. He would sit me down and talk to me about words in songs, what the words meant. We would have meaningful conversations. Music is very important in a Jamaican family because it also symbolises freedom. And you will also find a lot of Jamaican families like country music as well. Story songs like Take Me Home, Country Roads. Music was the way we communicated when Black people were enslaved. They were forced to not speak their language or not read, so they communicated through music. That is part of our rich tapestry of our history.

I grew up in a very strict household. We were not allowed to do lots of things. I used to play in the steel band and I remember coming home from school one day to tell my parents the school wanted me to go to Trinidad to play in a steel band there. I was so excited. Can you imagine? And my mum said no. ‘No’ was my mum’s favourite word. I was devastated. And of course, I definitely was not allowed to have a boyfriend. It was very much, you get educated, you get a job, you get married, then you have kids.

I was totally unaware that there was a label for my views. As far as I was concerned my politics were just being sensible. Caring, practical, inclusive. When people say I’m left-wing I feel like, oh, am I? Surely the obvious sensible thing is to be inclusive, and make sure we put people before excess profit. I didn’t realise that was radical. People use words like do-gooder as an insult, something that we should be ashamed of. That’s ridiculous. I think we separate politics and life too much. Our life is political. We shouldn’t let people falsify or fortify that demarcation because what they’re doing is stopping us from caring for others. They’re trying to desensitise people on a mass scale. And that’s very, very dangerous.

I’ve deliberately not commented on the barge situation because that’s exactly what they want. If you say how inhumane it is, they’ll turn around and say we have to be tough on this. But they wouldn’t want the optics of people from Ukraine, with blond hair and blue eyes, being made to move into a barge. So I’m not going to fall for this culture war they want to provoke. It’s anything against everything I stand for. 

Dawn Butler at Nurses strike in London
Dawn Butler at Nurses strike in London, St Thomas Hospital, London, UK – 15 Dec 2022. Image: Mark Thomas/Shutterstock

I think I was always going to be a voice of some kind. My dad wanted me to be a journalist or a television presenter, but I’m a techie person, so I went into computer programming. But I got sexually harassed at work, so when the opportunity came for me to leave I took redundancy and I spent a year out raising money for charity. I love people, I love raising money. I like making people happy. So I wanted to become a wedding planner. I’d tell my younger self, start your wedding planning business now. Because this was before wedding planning was even a thing. Instead I did lots of jobs. Politics wasn’t my kind of thing because nobody looked like me in politics. It was mainly white males who spoke posh. So I thought, politics really isn’t for me. Diane [Abbott] was an MP but even she spoke kind of posh. But then, in true Dawn style, I just went for it. 

You’re always a nervous wreck when it comes to the election. You always think this election could be your last. But the reason I did it in the first place was because people believed in me and followed me and liked what I had to say. And I thought, wow, it can happen. I suppose it comes from not being from privilege. Politicians who come from a very privileged background expect to be put on a pedestal or to get the job. For me, it was a surprise. A welcome amazing surprise. And the push I needed. Years later they changed the boundaries of my constituency so I was no longer an MP [Brent South was abolished in 2010 and redivided between Brent North and Brent Central]. But on that day, at that civic centre, all of these kids came from nowhere. They just surrounded me and gave me a massive hug. I was amazed. I was looking around thinking, Oh my god, how is this possible? How is this happening? It was just incredible. 

My dad died a while ago, when I was 40, but I still feel it. It was a very tough time. That’s why the foreword to my book is dedicated to him. It was a hard thing for me to write and I left it till the very end. They say a girl’s first love is her father. I never knew how true that was until he was no longer here. I was with him when he died. And we spoke about everything when he was here. But you always think, I could have done this. If only I had done that. That’s the thing about grief. You beat yourself up a bit with it. 

Dawn Butler speaking at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool
2018 Speaking at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool. IMAGE: Russell Hart / Alamy Stock Photo

Black women don’t necessarily have the feminist movement as a security blanket. The feminist movement is white feminism; we are often sidelined. It’s quite shocking when that happens. They mounted a coup against me, to get me out as chair of the women’s PLP. And that came as a complete surprise. Generally, when they’re changing a chair, somebody says, I want to be the new chair of the PLP, and you’ll have a conversation and then you hand over, because it’s not that big a deal. But when I was the first Black chair of the women’s PLP, they put hurdles in my way. A whistleblower told me. I was walking past her and she must have felt she couldn’t live with herself. She turned around and said to me, Dawn, they’re coming for you. 

That was white feminism. It was a complete lack of regard for me as a woman and a Black woman. I talk about it in my book, because I’m not going to keep everybody’s dirty little secret. Now we’ve got other Black women coming into Parliament and I don’t want them to go through what I went through. I’m telling my story so that we can change the system. That’s the whole point of me being here.

It’s a lonely job, being a politician. There’s always somebody that wants your job. There’s always somebody ready to criticise you, especially if you’re a Black woman. If I make a mistake it’s amplified. If I do some-thing great, oh my god, I’ve got to talk about it. I was the first Black female MP in the Parliamentary Labour Party to speak at the dispatch box in the UK. I made history. But it’s hardly ever referenced unless I reference it myself. And I feel like, excuse me, if you’d made history you’d be talking about it morning, noon and night. I’d like to go back to myself then and say, blow your own trumpet Dawn. Blow hard on your own bloody trumpet.

A Purposeful Life book cover

A Purposeful Life by Dawn Butler is out now (Transworld, £18.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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