Forces For Change

New House Rules: Meet The 4 Women MPs Reshaping The Labour Party

For the first time in Labour’s history, women MPs outnumber men. Marie Le Conte meets four politicians leading the charge
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Charlotte Hadden

Born into a family of trade unionists, it is unsurprising that Charlotte Nichols, the MP for Warrington North, became interested in politics at a young age. From three or four years old, she was “absolutely obsessed” with then speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd. “My parents weren’t big on having a TV, so the only TV I remember as a kid was the news,” Nichols says from the flat that she rents in her constituency. “I didn’t understand what she did because I was too young, but I loved her shouts of: ‘Order!’”

More surprising, perhaps, is that one of the people who pushed her towards Westminster was her local Conservative MP, Theresa May. As a teenager, Nichols was roped into helping with after-school activities as punishment for her poor attendance. “For six weeks in sixth form, me and Theresa May ran the Youth Parliament for the year sevens. I remember her trying to give me career advice and me being really quite snarky and mean,” Nichols admits.

A dozen years later, Nichols – newly elected in 2019 and promoted last November to shadow minister for women and equalities – is hoping to bump into May to see if she remembers her.

It is an odd thing to win your parliamentary seat just as your party is losing others. In 2019, Labour handed the Conservatives its biggest majority in a generation. It was a gut punch to Labour, but came with a silver lining – for the first time, the opposition now has more female MPs than males: 104 to 98.

In fact, the snap election proved to be a historic success for women in Westminster. A record 220 of 650 seats went to women, with the Conservatives gaining 20 women MPs (inevitably termed “Boris’s Babes” by tabloids), though only five members of Boris Johnson’s cabinet are women, compared with 17 men.

It is within Labour that the changes are truly striking: out of 26 new MPs, 20 are women, 12 are from Black or ethnic minority backgrounds, and half are under 45. You’d be forgiven for not having noticed – there’s been a lot going on. Between Brexit and the pandemic, the first-time electees have barely had time to get used to the job, let alone make their mark on national politics. Nevertheless, this new generation of ambitious young women is not only poised to reshape their party, but Westminster, too.

They do not represent politics as usual; from their backgrounds to their views, ages and gender, women such as Charlotte Nichols, Taiwo Owatemi, Sarah Owen and Zarah Sultana are determined to shift the agenda. With recent opinion polls indicating that Labour is still failing to connect with the electorate, it’s increasingly clear that new blood is what the party needs. Passionate about workers’ rights, the climate emergency and public health, they go against their own leadership when needed, and are reminiscent of “the squad”: the group of progressive Democrat women in America, led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who’ve gained global recognition for their approach to politics.

Charlotte Nichols, MP for Warrington North

Charlotte Nichols, 30, was once the women’s officer of Labour’s youth wing. Now, after swapping a career in the GMB general trade union for one in politics, she is the shadow minister for women and equalities.

Charlotte Hadden

“There is a strong Labour sisterhood, particularly among the 2019 intake of female MPs,” says Owatemi, MP for Coventry North West. Though they may not always agree on everything, the women try to stick together despite being unable to meet up in person as frequently as they’d like. But, “It’s comforting to know that they’re only ever a phone call or message away. I find strength and solidarity in their friendship, and I make sure I’m there for them when they need me,” Owatemi says.

Brought up in south-east London by her mother (her father died when she was six, following a shortage of organ donors), Owatemi was “a free school meals kid”. “I remember leaving school quite often with police outside trying to deal with gang-related issues,” she says. “It was normal for us to either mourn the loss of somebody who died from knife crime, or somebody who went to jail for knife crime.”

“I got really angry and frustrated,” she continues. “And my mum said to me, ‘If you are not happy with something, you need to do something about it.’ And that is why I joined the Labour Party.”

Owatemi, similarly to Nichols, was introduced to politics by a senior Conservative, Oliver Letwin, though this time through an internship scheme with the Social Mobility Foundation. “He was a lovely man, and he was somebody who was always willing to hear your opinions – he taught me a lot,” she says. “But he also showed me why that wasn’t the right political party for me.” For Owatemi – who credits her tough upbringing for making her stronger and determined to be heard – what matters is “social mobility, and rectifying the inequalities that exist within society”.

There are childhood parallels between Owatemi and her constituency neighbour Zarah Sultana, too. Representing Coventry South, the latter is originally from Lozells, a working-class area in Birmingham, where the assumption from authority figures was that she and her peers were destined to end up in gangs. As a young Muslim growing up in a post-9/11 world, she identifies “a feeling of not really belonging, but not really being able to pin that on anything specific,” which contributed to her political awakening. At the height of the tuition fees protests in 2010, she turned to activism, joining campaigns at university on anti-racism and Palestine solidarity. From there, she got involved in the National Union of Students and Young Labour, serving on the national executive council of both organisations. The public profile she built long before Parliament partly explains her prominence on social media, where she tweets to her 129,000 followers about politics, activism and, occasionally, football and K-pop.

Sarah Owen, the MP for Luton North, has the most experience of the four. The daughter of a nurse and a firefighter, Owen’s first time on the ballot wasn’t in 2019 like the others; in 2011, she was chosen as the Labour Party candidate for Hastings and Rye, but ultimately lost out to Amber Rudd in the 2015 general election. She did not stand in 2017, but returned to the fray two years later at the next snap election to stand for Luton North. “I still had that fire, that passion to want to make really big changes,” Owen says. “And the levels of inequality had just continued to get bigger. I was seeing that working in the trade union, I was working with care workers one day and shipbuilders the next, and life was just getting harder and harder.”

The timing could have been better, as Owen was pregnant with her first child when the election was announced. By the last week of campaigning, she could barely stand back up after pushing leaflets through low letterboxes. But being elected is only half the battle.

Sarah Owen, MP for Luton North

Born in Hastings, Sarah Owen, 38, is the first Labour MP of South-east Asian descent. She is committed to raising representation and ending discrimination against the UK’s East and South-east Asian communities.

Charlotte Hadden

In spite of the changing demographics in Parliament, the House of Commons can still be an unwelcoming place for those who do not look like your “typical” politician (read: male, pale and stale). Often confused for parliamentary assistants, young women – and especially young women of colour – have to work that much harder to earn their place in the Commons.

“I can’t go to Parliament dressed how I feel most comfortable; I make a conscious effort to dress formally,” says Owatemi. “Whereas I know other women colleagues who can wear jeans and trainers, I can’t do that because I risk being stopped by security, asking if I should be there.” Florence Eshalomi and Abena Oppong-Asare, also both elected for the first time in 2019, have told of similar treatment – both have been mistaken for other Black female MPs or junior staff in Parliament.

Owatemi’s fears aren’t unfounded. On the day she gave her maiden speech, she had to run back to the chamber for the closing of the debate. As she got near, a security guard spotted her and started advancing towards her, only stopping when he saw her security pass. “That experience will never leave me because it told me that people do not expect me, a young Black woman, to be there,” she says.

Taiwo Owatemi, MP for Coventry North West

A former senior oncology pharmacist, 29-year-old Londoner Taiwo Owatemi made her mark in Parliament when her impassioned speech about the Government’s free school meals U-turn went viral.

Charlotte Hadden

As Sultana points out, it isn’t just the people, even the building can feel hostile. “One of the interesting stats I learnt was that there are more horses in portraits in Parliament than women,” she says. As for women of colour specifically, she knows of one portrait of Diane Abbott, but is yet to spot any others.

Owen is acutely aware of this racial disparity, too. The first female MP of South-east Asian descent ever to be elected to Parliament, she is the chair of Chinese for Labour, and successfully pushed to change the organisation’s name to East & South East Asians for Labour earlier this year in order to be more inclusive.

“Politicians in this country should really explore the diversity within East and South-east Asian culture,” she says. “I really hope that the name change is a part of that, as well as hopefully bringing forward people from different backgrounds and cultures, because I don’t want to be the only one – don’t leave me hanging!”

Identity is important to all four women. Nichols, who is bisexual, is part of a new intake who have raised the number of LGBTQIA+ MPs in Parliament to a record high. Then there is her religious journey: several years ago she heard a joke about Jewish culture in a sitcom and, while searching for an explanation online, fell into a Wikipedia rabbit hole and never came out. “I went through a period of a couple of months where I was reading everything I could find about Judaism, theology, practice, food, and I thought, ‘I’m vibing with this.’”

She started going to her local synagogue and, after several months, told the rabbi she wanted to convert to Reform Judaism. “I had my bat mitzvah on my 27th birthday, which was the day I aged out of Young Labour. So I became a grown-up in the eyes of the Jewish community and the Labour Party on the same day.”

Though this experience was positive for Nichols, it took place while her party was tearing itself apart over anti-Semitism. “It was hideous to go to synagogue when that was happening, because people wanted to ask me about it, or were expecting me to justify it in some way,” she says. “People would be like, ‘How can you be in the Labour Party if this is how they’re behaving?’ That has been very difficult to reconcile.” She is hopeful that the party is now on a better track.

The past few years have presented a number of challenges for Sultana, too. “Being seen as someone who’s outspoken, but also being a woman of colour and Muslim, means that I get a lot of abuse. That’s included death threats in the post, being told to go back to my own country, and people wishing me a slow and painful death. Hostility is always the most extreme when I’m speaking up for refugees and migrants.” Sultana has been on both sides of online conflict. In 2019, she had to apologise for a remark made in 2015 on Twitter in response to a post claiming nobody’s death should be celebrated. She tweeted: “Try and stop me when the likes of Blair, Netanyahu and Bush die.” She has since been committed to making amends, attending interfaith conferences and travelling with an anti-fascist delegation to Auschwitz.

Zarah Sultana, MP for Coventry South

West Midlands-born Zarah Sultana, 27, has been active in politics since her student days at Birmingham University. With a Twitter following that rivals long-standing MPs, Sultana has made a name for herself as an outspoken critic of the Government.

Charlotte Hadden

As one of the most left-wing new Labour MPs, Sultana is particularly keen to highlight issues affecting her generation; from unaffordable rent to a precarious job market. When it comes to the climate emergency, she also worries that green policies can end up causing more harm than good. “Something that’s truly environmentally friendly is also conscious of the impact it has on the global south,” Sultana explains. “We can’t just be talking about batteries that are using lithium, which have been dug out of places on the African continent in very unsafe working environments.”

Nichols wants to ensure that saving the planet involves creating green jobs in Britain, too. “My constituency has one of the highest numbers of people working in the civil nuclear sector. I’d like to see a Green New Deal be delivered but in a way that isn’t what we’ve seen over the last 10 years, where the share of renewables in the energy mix has massively increased but the number of green jobs has massively gone down,” she says. More broadly, she is “very interested in employment rights and protection, particularly when it comes to the gig economy”.

As for Owatemi, she wants to continue the work her party started when it was last in power. “I grew up under a Labour government that believed in social mobility, and I want to see us continue to champion that,” she says. She is also keen to have more diverse voices involved across the policy spectrum. “It’s one of the reasons I joined the International Trade Committee; although trade really affects women, it tends to be a conversation that happens among men.”

Owen knows how divisive it can be to have people at the top who aren’t looking out for the entire electorate, for whom women are a continuing blind spot. “Social care is something every government has promised to get right, yet social care workers are still paid an absolute pittance,” she says. Her constituents come to her to talk about “jobs, health, education and inequality; all of them are completely linked”.

In speaking to all four women, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that the Labour Party has never had a female leader. When do they think it will happen? “I don’t know what it will take, personally,” says Nichols. “Which is not to disparage Keir Starmer in any way, but on a fundamental level – in any selection in the Labour Party – if a bloke turns up in a red tie, he gets selected.”

“It’s really important to appreciate representation,” says Sultana. “But having a woman leader or prime minister doesn’t mean that women’s lives will improve,” she adds, pointing to the refuges that lost funding under Theresa May.

Would one of them consider giving leadership a go? Sultana says no, but the other three offer variations on “never say never”. They may still be new to Parliament, but there’s no denying that their names on a future leadership ballot would be a refreshing change. Perhaps room will be made for their portraits one day? Westminster could certainly do worse.

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