Chi Onwurah MP. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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“Instead of getting Jackanory, I got the Trades Union Congress”: Chi Onwurah MP

The Shadow Cabinet Office minister Chi Onwurah on how her experience of the Biafran war informed her politics, why we need more scientists on the front benches and how Labour desperately needs more working-class MPs. 

Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and shadow cabinet office minister for digital government and cyber security, is reminiscing about her childhood. She was born in Wallsend, just outside the city centre of Newcastle, and grew up in a working-class household on a council estate with “absolutely no money”. But as a seven-year-old, this wasn’t always top of Onwurah’s concerns.

“I remember very clearly that I used to think in September, when I was seven, eight, nine, that all the children’s programmes stopped and instead my mother would be there shouting at the white man on the screen,” Onwurah recalls, relaxing on a sunny MPs’ terrace just off parliament’s Portcullis House. “It was party conference season. So we just watched conferences. My mum actually watched the conferences all afternoon, so instead of getting Jackanory, I got the Trades Union Congress.”

But it wasn’t just watching endless politicians at lecterns for a few weeks a year that politicised Onwurah. Because of her father being Nigerian, her family left Wallsend for Nigeria when she was six months old. However, the Biafran war broke out a few months after they arrived and so they only stayed for about a year and half before returning to Newcastle. Her father stayed on as a medical doctor for the Biafran army.

Although she was only there briefly, she calls her view of this horrifying war “the most extreme experience you can have before the age of three”, because it was “basically the starvation of the population and particularly children that I think really marked us and really marked me.”

Onwurah can recall her mother comparing the terrible experience of Biafran children with the relative comfort of their life in England. “Biafran kids were so desperate to go to school, and of course you’ve got a good school 50 yards down the road,” she explains.

“I think it made me politically aware from a young age... that was because the trade union movement and the Labour movement struggled to make sure that you have school, and so it was very clear to us where the things that made a difference between total desperation and at least having some hope came from; they came from the Labour movement.”

In spite of her firm political stance, and winning for Labour in her school’s mock general election when she was 17, Onwurah didn’t leap into a career in politics. She went on to have a 23-year career in electrical engineering and says her two proudest moments were being accepted by Imperial to study engineering, and becoming MP for Newcastle in 2010.

Because of her engineering background, Onwurah can say that, “parliament is the most diverse working environment I’ve ever been in, the most gender balanced”. An unusual point of view when the number of women in politics remains stubbornly low. She does admit parliament was a “culture shock” and found it a “real challenge” working out how it worked. But in an uncharacteristically ruthless statement, she tells me, “I didn’t come into parliament to make friends, I came to achieve certain things.”

However, she is more aware of her background in Westminster than she was in her engineering career. “There are aspects to the chamber which are very public school... if you haven't been brought up in that kind of environment or you haven't had the experience of trade union representation, you're going to find it difficult to stand up and face that kind of baying behaviour. I feel my class more here than as an engineer, for example.”

She admits: “I absolutely think that the Labour party could do better [at having more working-class MPs]. If you look at the percentages, it is about race, it is about gender, but it's also about class. We seem to have reduced significantly the route – which was through trade unions – for working-class people. I don't think trade unions should be in control of particular seats, absolutely not, One Member One Vote is the way to select a candidate... but we need to attract more working-class people not only as members but as candidates... we do desperately need to do more on that.”

During her engineering career, Onwurah helped introduce a wireless mobile network to Nigeria. She reflects, “it made me figure out what kind of difference I could make in politics”.

Onwurah became Newcastle’s first black MP in 2010. Her race did create “some obstacles” when running, she reveals. “There were some – Labour Party members and others – who said, and this is a phrase that I question, that ‘Newcastle is not ready for a black MP’ and there were some who were genuinely concerned that the British National Party would use my being black to target or divide the working-class vote. But that was a very small amount of people and the vast majority judged me on what I had done and who I was.”

Onwurah is acutely aware that Ukip is gaining traction among northern working-class voters, and points out that in her constituency, the party “took quite a lot of people who hadn’t voted before who were probably Labour voters three or four, maybe even five, elections ago. So that’s where for me the danger lies in Ukip taking votes that we should be winning back... We need to be aware of it, but we don’t want to just run a campaign that is just ‘We’re not Ukip,’” she warns.

She laments that “parliament is not representative of the country”, and points out the “particular challenges for black and ethnic minority candidates”. Referring to political parties’ “cliques and their networks... it’s always the case that those who are on the outside are less likely to be part of that network.”

Can this only be solved by all-BME shortlists? Onwurah looks thoughtful: “I’m not sure because I think it could be quite divisive. With women, they make up 50 per cent of the country and that’s not the case for BME. But we’re not getting enough BME candidates and we do need to look at ways of improving that.”

She was swiftly promoted to Ed Miliband’s frontbench a few months after her arrival to Chuka Umunna’s shadow BIS team as shadow minister for innovation. Science was a big part of her brief, and she emphasises the need for more scientists in politics as technology increasingly sets the agenda.

“I kind of expected that I’d have to put away the engineering part of me and turn my back on all that [when reaching Westminster], but actually having that kind of technology experience is really useful, it’s a way of thinking, and a logic...

“I suppose that’s what excited me about science in the first place; it’s about understanding the way the world works, the physical world, and the same in engineering and in science. Why do apples fall from trees? Why does the sun rise? Why do you get electricity out of a socket? And so that kind of understanding is a really good basis for understanding how society works. You have to remember that society is not as logical as a circuit board but it is a complex system with many interactions which is one of the things you need to be able to grasp... ”

She continues: “You want parliament to be representative of people as a society so yes it would be more representative if there were more [MPs who are] engineers and scientists. But also technology is becoming more and more an important part of our lives... As technology becomes increasingly a part of the world, with an even more digital-literate population, there’s much more demand for tech jobs than there are skills, and we also need more tech-literate MPs.”

However, in spite of this being an aspect of Onwurah’s CV, separating her from the significant number of politicians with backgrounds in law and arts subjects, she hasn’t retained a prominent position in Labour’s frontbench. Last year, she was reshuffled into the less high-profile shadow Cabinet Office team, as shadow minister for digital government and cyber security. Although predictably enthusiastic about her new role, she’s fairly frank about the bizarre reshuffle system:

“It does seem like a system which isn’t like any other system in the private sector or the public sector that I’ve ever come across. And changing people when they’re performing at their best. [But] if you think about it, it is also good to have new people looking at new challenges... I love science and engineering and innovation, it is what I’ve been doing all my life. This is a much broader brief, and if you talk about where technology can make a difference, government can be hugely more efficient with digital technology harnessed properly. So I’m really pleased, I’m really happy – I’ll probably get reshuffled again in September now... ” she laughs.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.