The FA's first non-white board member is also its first woman

"Many young people feel hopeless. And I don't think I ever felt that."

From the way Heather Rabbatts is described in the media, I imagine I’ll find her behind a huge desk, dressed in a power suit with jangling jewellery and those “see-through shoes” that have made such an impression on other journalists. Instead, she’s wearing white linen, hunched over her laptop in the open-plan office of Smuggler, a production company near Oxford Street in the West End of London.

A former barrister, she is the first female (and the first nonwhite) board member of the Football Association. She is also the head of an advertising startup, as well as the chair of the health charity Malaria No More UK. “People find comfort in being able to say, ‘I recognise you; you’re this kind of person,’ ” she says. “I am who I am. I will not be put in a box at all.”

It’s an understandable reaction from someone who has often found herself an outsider. Growing up in the 1960s, Rabbatts, who was born in Jamaica, was bullied at her primary school in London for being mixed race. “I felt after that experience it wasn’t really going to happen again,” she says.

Her unhappiness at school almost cut short her career before it even began. Rabbatts failed her eleven-plus – “At that time, if you failed your eleven-plus, you were pretty much cast into the darkness” – and then she failed her O-levels, too.

It was only when she signed up for evening classes at a local college that she discovered her academic potential and her ambition. “I had my first set of great teachers and my first black teacher, who was one of those rare people who believed in kids who have perhaps lost their way,” she tells me.

Rabbatts started to make her name as a local authority chief, running the London boroughs of Lambeth, Merton and Hammersmith and Fulham. From there, she went to work for Millwall Football Club in 2006, first as its executive deputy chair and later as the chairman.

Early in her career, some of her colleagues’ reactions were hardly more subtle than those of her playground bullies. “There was very much a sense of: ‘We don’t think this is a place for you.’ And people would say that to you without apology. That wouldn’t be said now.” Yet this is not entirely good news. “If someone says something to your face, it’s easier to respond. When you know it [discrimination] is there but you can’t quite put your finger on it, that’s much harder to navigate.”

Sometimes Rabbatts feels weighed down by the expectations placed on her as the only woman and mixedrace person at the FA board table. “My race is as important as my gender here,” she says.

When I ask her how football should tackle racism on the pitch, she replies: “My first response in a way is to reject the question. You wouldn’t ask that question to another independent director, would you?” She sounds defensive but her tone remains friendly enough. “Part of the challenge of being a mixed-race female is that everybody always assumes that those are the issues you are just going to be embedded in. I think that’s a real danger – that you let everyone else off the hook and everyone expects you to deal with it.”

Rabbatts’s feelings about being a role model are similarly complex. On several occasions, she mentions with passion the young people she’s mentored throughout her career but she finds it can be a strain, too. “I don’t want to be a role model. I find that quite burdensome but I feel it’s important that any one of us who’s achieved these roles does offer to others a sense of: ‘You can do it, too.’”

Can young people growing up in disadvantaged circumstances today achieve what she has done? Rabbatts is pessimistic. “Many young people just feel hopeless. And I don’t think I ever felt that.”

Heather Rabbatts is chair of the charity Malaria No More UK

Out of the box: Rabbatts stands out on the pitch and in the boardroom. Image: Russell Sach

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.