"Who is this black woman?": Kate Osamor on her path to parliament

Kate Osamor, a trade union activist, is on course to win the Edmonton seat for Labour. She speaks to the New Statesman about her mother's dealings with the party, education and BAME representation. 

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When Stuart Holland resigned from the House of Commons in 1989 a dramatic by-election was triggered in Vauxhall. One of those gunning to replace Holland was Nigerian-born, Martha Osamor, a left-wing activist and a member of Labour's Black Sections - a movement fighting for fairer representation in parliament. 

But Martha was vetoed from becoming the official candidate as Labour's leader, Neil Kinnock, became obsessed with resisting the rising left-wing rank and file members. It was a contest that many claim Martha could have easily won, given the chance. Instead Kate Hoey was chosen for the candidacy and has been sitting as MP for Vauxhall ever since. 

“What happened to her in the Labour party – I’ll be honest with you – I wasn’t comfortable with that," says Martha's 46-year-old daughter, Kate Osamor. "I was disappointed and didn’t really understand what was going on. All I remember now was how the media treated my mum: they made her into this ‘loony left’ character." Kinnock, according to Osamor, had tried to silence her mother in 1989. “He was just like 'no be quiet, you're in the way, you're too radical and you're too opinionated.”

“My mum stayed in the [Labour] party, she never left. As soon as I joined – and I started getting involved in my local party – a lot of those people [who were activists with Osamor’s mother] are still around now and they’re like: ‘oh Martha’s daughter!” she laughs.

Now, Kate Osamor, a GP practice manager and trade union activist, is standing for the “safe” Labour seat of Edmonton: the longstanding incumbent, Andy Love, held 53 per cent of the vote in 2010. There was a slight swing towards the Tories – 2.3 per cent – following the financial crash.  But it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that in two months’ time, 46-year-old Osamor will be sitting in the House of Commons as a Labour MP.

It was her mum who showed her how to use her voice and who taught her everything she knows about grassroots activism and community politics. She tells me how her childhood home was often the centre of the community: mothers from around the area would come flocking to the house for Martha’s advice. "You never knew who could turn up on the doorstep," she says in her north London accent. "From a neighbour saying my son's just been arrested and he's at the police station, to we need to start a campaign!" 

Donations, Education & Trident 

Last week the former PM, Tony Blair, donated £ 106,000 to the Labour party - £1,000 to each of the party’s target seats. But a few days later, three candidates rejected the money. One of them, Sophie Gardner – Labour’s candidate for the Conservative-held Gloucester said it would be “hypocritical” to accept Blair’s money because of her decision to criticise the Iraq war. I ask Osamor what she would have done. “Well, I don’t know, it depends how desperate you are. If you’ve got no money… you’ll take it from anyone. I’d take it to the constituency and ask them what they want to do. Do they feel we need the money? If we felt we did, then we vote on it.

“But, if you’re asking my personal opinion, I’d hope that I’d have the money myself,” she breaks out into laughter. “So I wouldn’t have to take it from him.”

On tuition fees Osamor pauses. “Well,” she says. “I was very fortunate to go to university when it was grants. It would be wrong of me to say that young people shouldn’t have that now. Whether it’s six or nine thousand, most people will never be able to afford that.

“I think we’re just bouncing over crumbs really. Most people just can’t afford it.” And it’s a sentiment that other members of the Labour party are groaning over too. Stephen Bush revealed that a new internal campaign  - under the banner of the Labour Campaign for Free Education – has branded Ed Miliband’s tuition fee cut a “weak policy” and is calling for the complete abolition of tuition fees.

Osamor goes as far to suggest that some of the funds used in renewing Britain’s nuclear defence system, Trident, could be redirected towards university tuition and building new homes. And she’s not alone, 75 per cent of Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidates would go further – they are against maintaining the nuclear deterrent when it comes up for renewal. “I’m not saying that we shouldn’t acknowledge that some people will want to kill us because of what our governments have done. I appreciate that. I’m not taking that away. But I still think there are other issues we should be fighting and championing, just as much.

“We lead too much towards reactionary behaviour. We set ourselves up to always be ‘they’re going to come get us! What do we do?’ Calm down, like, come on.”

BAME Representation

There are currently 27 BAME MPs in the House of Commons, or around 4 per cent of the total. The 2011 census showed that 12.9 per cent of the UK population identified as being from a non-white background.  The Liberal Democrats do not have a single BAME MP, despite 11.4 per cent of those residing in Lib Dem seats identifying as an ethnic minority. The three main political parties are woefully short of reflecting the racial mix of their constituencies and Osamor's presence is desperately needed. 

But it's not just in parliament that representation is an issue. Osamor tells me that it also needs to be reflected in the workplace. While she's never experienced overt racial discrimination, she's fully aware of discrimination in the workplace. "Well, it's about going for a job interview," she explains. “You might have as much experience [as another candidate] but they think 'will you fit in?' - well I might not fit in because there's nobody else here that's black!" Disturbingly, this is reflected in statistics released by the House of Commons Library that Anna Leszkiewicz wrote about yesterday. The number of young people from BAME backgrounds in long-term unemployment has increased by 50 per cent since 2010. There was a two per cent fall in long-term unemployment among young white people. 

Osamor is all too aware of the challenges faced by the BAME community, but her mother's fight for representation in the late eighties has inspired her to use her voice. "My campaign is going to be about introducing me, so that when it gets to the polling station, they’re not like: 'where is Andy Love?' and ‘who is this black woman?’ she giggles. 

Ashley Cowburn writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2014. He tweets @ashcowburn