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25 July 2014updated 23 Jul 2021 9:12am

“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. 

By Anoosh Chakelian

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.

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“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.

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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.