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The MP Interview: Seema Malhotra

On launching Playstation 2, identity theft and dinner with Ally McBeal.

What made you go into politics?

I got involved with a lot of community campaigns and some political campaigns while still at school. So much about being in pressure groups is about influencing decision makers – and it made me realise that as well as influencing, sometimes its also important to be part of the decision making process. That got me interested in how politics works. I met someone in the Labour Party who encouraged me to join and I haven’t looked back since.

What job did you do before you became an MP?

I worked for Accenture and PwC and then as an independent management consultant (which isn’t a career that is well understood!). I have worked with a range of Government departments and with industry (most recently film and games industries) on projects mostly around how you improve business and public services. It’s been a career with a lot of variety. I spent two years as a systems analyst, then worked as part of the set up team for a regional development agency, and even project managed the launch of Playstation 2 in the UK. My four years in the Home Affairs/Justice sector were probably the most lifechanging experiences. I always wanted a career outside politics and am lucky to have had one that taught me so much. 

Which law would you scrap?

Not surprisingly I wish I could turn the clock back on the Health and Social Care Bill. We’ve had unnecessary structural change that I believe has weakened the NHS and there is much pain still to come.

And if you could pass one law, what would it be?

I’d make it illegal to fraudulently use someone’s address as your own. Apparently it is not against the law – and it has happened to a few of my constituents. They have had police turn up in the early hours with warrants for the arrest of people they have never heard of. Any form of identity theft is a real invasion of people’s rights and privacy.

Do politics and religion mix?

No, at least not for very long. And not very well.

Who is your favourite prime minister from history, and why?

I’m not sure I’d have one. I’d choose Clem Attlee for his courage setting up our post-war welfare state, and Harold Wilson for his wisdom on social reform and abolition of the death penalty. I also feel very fortunate to have experienced the Labour victory in 1997 – it’s easy to forget quite how much we changed under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Name three dream dinner-party guests.

Ally McBeal (ok she’s fictitional but she’s a big part of my life), Madam Alaska – a refugee from the Russian Revolution who lived in Feltham around 100 years ago. She trained circus animals and used to walk up Feltham High Street with a lion. And finally, Maud Pember Reeves. In 1908 she founded the first Fabian Women’s Group – the forerunner of the Fabian Women’s Network I founded in 2005.

Which politician from a different party do you most admire?

I may not always agree with her, but right now I would say Caroline Lucas. A quite remarkable politician with absolute conviction.

What’s your karaoke song of choice?

Gloria Gaynor’s “I will Survive”. Such a classic. Perfect for a girl’s night out.

What’s the last film you saw?

It was actually The Iron Lady a few weeks after I got elected. Her election scenes and first moments in the House felt eerily familiar.

What’s the last work of fiction you read?

David Lammy’s Out of the Ashes is my book of the month.

Newsnight or Question Time?


Humphrys or Paxman?

Kirsty Wark.

Who is your favourite blogger?

Sunny Hundal. He lives and breathes the blog.

Who is your favourite newspaper columnist?

I’ll always stop and read what Mary Riddell has written. Quite a unique blend of head and heart.

If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?

I’d change nothing, but an extra day in the week would be great!

What’s the funniest or saddest thing you’ve ever heard at a surgery?

My first house visit – a woman left by her husband to bring up her three children with all of them living in two rooms rented in-house from a private landlord. She had never paid the rent or had sight of the rental agreement before he left. She had to deal with the emotion of him deserting her, find a job and look after the children. Now they are older they rotate between the bed and sofa. She doesn’t have the money to move out. So often women are left picking up the pieces when families break down.

What was your worst doorstep campaigning moment?

I’m afraid I love every doorstep visit.

Who is the most important person in your life, and why?

There’s competition for that! My husband of course – I’m in awe of his intelligence and he’s incredibly supportive. But my parents have always backed me – through all the times I stood in non-winnable local elections – and I doubt I’d have been here without them.

Do you think you will ever be prime minister – and if not, why not?

Not the right question to ask an MP after four months – I’m still working out how to be a backbencher! (Next month’s book: Paul Flynn’s guide!) 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.