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

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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