Growing up with four brothers, I knew from an early age that not only did I have to have a loud voice, but I also had to make sense if I was to be heard. Because if I didn’t, my brothers would laugh at me. I had to formulate my arguments before I made them, I had to do the i’s and t’s and show that I could stand up all by myself. Never underestimate your upbringing or the influence people have on your life and how they phrase it, how you approach a situation, how you act, how you speak. It was this upbringing that made me what I am now.
Butler as a teenager. Image courtesy of Dawn Butler
We are a very close and very big family. So much so that there was almost no room left for friends. When you throw a party, you have 50 people before you even think about friends. But it was great because it was a very safe place. Music was fundamental to my upbringing. My father was a musician. He sat down with me and talked to me about words in songs and what the words meant. We would have meaningful conversations. Music is very important in a Jamaican family because it also symbolizes freedom. And there are also many Jamaican families who enjoy country music. Story songs like Take me home, country lanes. Music was how we communicated when black people were enslaved. They were forced not to speak or read their language, so they communicated through music. This is part of our rich tapestry of history.
I grew up in a very strict household. There were many things we weren’t allowed to do. I used to play in the steel band and I remember coming home from school one day to tell my parents that the school wanted me to go to Trinidad to play in a steel band. I was so excited. Can you imagine? And my mother said no. “No” was my mother’s favorite word. I was devastated. And of course I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend under any circumstances. It was a lot: you get an education, you get a job, you get married and then you have children.
I was completely unaware that there was a label for my views. In my opinion, my politics was all about being reasonable. Caring, practical, inclusive. When people say I’m leftist, I’m like, oh, right? Certainly the sensible thing to do is to be inclusive and ensure that people come before excessive profit. I didn’t know that was radical. People use words like “do-gooder” as an insult, for which we should be ashamed. That’s ridiculous. I think we separate politics and life too much. Our life is political. We should not allow people to distort or reinforce this distinction because it prevents us from caring for others. They’re trying to desensitize people en masse. And that is very, very dangerous.
I deliberately did not comment on the barge situation because that is exactly what they want. If you say how inhuman this is, they’ll turn around and say we have to be tough on this. But they wouldn’t want people from Ukraine with blond hair and blue eyes to be forced into a barge. So I’m not going to fall for this culture war they’re trying to provoke. It’s all against everything I stand for.
Dawn Butler at the London nurses’ strike, St Thomas Hospital, London, Britain – 15 December 2022. Credit: Mark Thomas/Shutterstock
I think I always wanted to be some kind of voice. My father wanted me to be a journalist or TV presenter, but I’m a techie, so I dabbled in computer programming. But I was sexually harassed at work, and when the opportunity arose to resign, I let myself go and spent a year raising money for charity. I love people, I love raising money. I like making people happy. That’s why I wanted to be a wedding planner. I would say to my younger self, start your wedding planning business now. Because that was before wedding planning even existed. Instead I did a lot of jobs. Politics wasn’t my thing because nobody in politics looked like me. They were mainly white men, who spoke elegantly. So I thought politics really isn’t for me. diane [Abbott] was a deputy, but even she spoke rather poshly. But then I just did it, very Dawn style.
When it comes to elections, you’re always a nervous wreck. You always think that 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, this can happen. I suppose it’s because you’re not made of privilege. Politicians who come from very privileged backgrounds expect to be put on a pedestal or to get the job. For me it was a surprise. A welcome surprise. And the nudge I needed. Years later they changed the boundaries of my constituency so that I was no longer an MP [Brent South was abolished in 2010 and redivided between Brent North and Brent Central]. But that day, all these kids came out of nowhere into this community center. They just surrounded me and hugged me tightly. I was surprised. I looked around and thought, oh my god, how is this possible? How does this happen? It was amazing.
My father died a while back when I was 40 but I still feel it. It was a very tough time. That is why the foreword of my book is dedicated to him. Writing was difficult for me and I put it off until the end. They say a girl’s first love is her father. I never knew how true that was until he was gone. I was with him when he died. And we talked about everything when he was here. But you always think I could have done that. If only I had done that. That’s the thing about grief. You got a little done with that.
2018 Speech at the Labor Party Conference in Liverpool. PICTURE: 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 pretty shocking when that happens. They staged a coup against me to remove me as leader of the women’s PLP. And that came as a complete surprise. When they change chairs, generally someone says, “I want to be the new chair of the PLP,” and you’ll have a conversation and then hand it over because it’s not that big of a deal. But when I was the first black leader of the women’s PLP, they put hurdles in my way. A whistleblower told me. I walked past her and she must have felt like 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 respect for me as a woman and as a black woman. I talk about this in my book because I’m not going to keep everyone’s dirty little secret. Now other black women are coming into Parliament and I don’t want them to go through what I went through. I tell my story so we can change the system. That is the purpose of my presence here.
It’s a lonely job being a politician. There’s always someone who wants your job. There is always someone who can criticize you, especially if you are a black woman. If I make a mistake, it will be amplified. When I do something great, oh my god, I have to talk about it. I was the first black female Parliamentary Labor Party MP to speak at the Dispatch Post 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 made history, you’d be talking about it morning, noon, and night. Then I’d like to come back to myself and say, “Blow your own trumpet, Dawn.” Blow hard on your own damn trumpet.
Dawn Butler’s ‘A Purposeful Life’ is available now (Transworld, £18.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop at Bookshop.org, which helps support The Big Issue and independent bookstores.
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