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21 August 2023

Dawn Butler’s Q&A: “Having cancer taught me how fragile life is”

The Labour MP for Brent Central on Sojourner Truth, fake culture wars and how she chooses which battles to fight.

By New Statesman

Dawn Butler was born in London in 1969 and started her career as a computer programmer. She was first elected to parliament in 2005 and currently serves as a back-bench Labour MP for Brent Central.

What’s your earliest memory?

I was being sick from eating too many mangoes in Jamaica. I had to go to hospital.

Who are your heroes?

My dad, God rest his soul. 

What book last changed your thinking?

Biased by the American psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt. It explains how to manage bias and how to add friction to a situation to reduce bias. I’d also say Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Sojourner Truth, the American abolitionist and women’s rights activist who was of New York Dutch heritage. She was born into slavery but escaped with her daughter in 1826. She was one of the first black women to win a court case against a white man, when she regained custody of her son who had been sold illegally. She travelled around the US campaigning for abolition and suffrage. She is famous for her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, which she gave in 1851.

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What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

I remember the most random stuff, but not useful information. I would love to say types of cheese and onion crisps, but it’ll probably be computer programs – as a result of my earlier career.

[See also: There is no good argument for leaving the ECHR]

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

The year 3000. I would like to see the future because I hope the world would be a better, more equitable place.

What TV show could you not live without?

Neighbours. I was struggling when it got cancelled and am so glad it’s now coming back. I also love Click. I can binge watch that all day.

Who would paint your portrait?

Boubou, the Senegalese artist who paints upside down. He is fascinating to watch.

What’s your theme tune?

“(Something Inside) So Strong” by Labi Siffre. It has a line for every situation. “Deny my place in time/You squander wealth that’s mine/My light will shine so brightly/It will blind you…”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Choose your battles. There are so many, you will exhaust yourself. I didn’t always follow it but I do now; as you get older you need to preserve your energy. In my book I talk at length about battles I have fought and ones I let go.

What’s currently bugging you?

The fake culture wars brought upon us by the Conservatives. They are a cruel bunch of people. I think they want to keep people angry and miserable to deflect from their incompetent and corrupt governance.

What single thing would make your life better?

A Labour government. It would make everyone’s life better.

When were you happiest?

Around the age 27. I just feel like I had myself together.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I would be a talk-show host like Oprah Winfrey. Hey, it’s not too late!

Are we all doomed?

Yes, ultimately; we all die in the end. When I was diagnosed with cancer it brought home to me just how fragile life is. Knowing that you are not invincible focuses the mind and attitude. It’s about how we live and the legacy we leave behind.

“A Purposeful Life: What I’ve Learned About Breaking Barriers and Inspiring Change” by Dawn Butler is published by Transworld

[See also: Shabana Mahmood: “All I do these days is talk to Tory voters”]

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This article appears in the 23 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Britain’s Exclusive Sect