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Labour MP Kate Osamor On Women, Race And Politics

Elected in May 2015 to the north London constituency of Edmonton, Kate Osamor MP doesn’t quite fit the “pale, male and stale” stereotype of British politicians. Born and raised in London, Kate worked as a practice manager in the NHS until early last year when she was selected for her local safe Labour seat.

I headed to Westminster this week to meet Kate, keen to find out what Parliament and politics is like for black women today. Taking a seat in her office, which, a good few months in, still feels pretty sparse, I ask what first got her interested in politics. “Yeah, a lot of people ask me that question,” she smiles, as she relaxes into our chat.

It’s not hard to see why we’re asking her so often; people who identify as BAME make up just 6% of the 650 MPs in Westminster, although the 2011 census found that 13% of Brits say they come from a non-white background. According to the BBC, only 29% of MPs are women, too.

Therefore Kate, a working class black woman, breaks the shitty mould of what we expect our MPs to look, act, and think like, thank the lord, and people often want to know how she got there.

“I’ve always used my experiences to inform my politics,” says Kate, “what I saw growing up made me aware of how hard life can be."

Kate’s mum was born in Nigeria, arriving in the UK when she was still young. “She had four children, which is tough, and then my dad passed away when I was still quite little.”

Through her childhood, Kate saw her mother, Martha, working three, sometimes four jobs, “dealing with racism and sexism, in a system where all the odds were already stacked against her.”

Rather than let it break her, Martha pushed back hard, going on to be a councillor, and later the deputy leader of Haringey Council.

“I grew up watching her, and could see that, with some serious struggle, and by talking about things that matter to us, you can really get somewhere.”

For Kate, taking up left wing politics was a no-brainer.

“I know what it’s like to rely on a key meter, I know how it feels to have money come in, and to have to ask yourself the question: Should I pay my bills or should I buy food? I’ve lived it, and I can’t forget that.”

Outside of here, I know so many people know what it’s like to struggle, but in here? There aren’t so many.

It’s an experience that’s known to vast swathes of the British population, according to the Office for National Statistics, almost a third of the population fell below the poverty line between 2010 and 2013.

It’s impossible to know quite how many MPs this figure might have once included, but with a third of them having attended private schools, a figure that rises to 48% on the Tory benches, it’s not hard to take a punt.

“Outside of here, I know so many people know what it’s like to struggle, but in here? There aren’t so many.”

“To be fair, a lot of the staff who work in here live in my constituency!” Kate laughs, when I ask if she feels at all isolated when she walks the corridors of power. “The people doing the bread and butter work in this place are black, and they’re women, they sound like me, or some of them, my aunties.”

The feeling of solidarity among Parliament’s workforce clearly provides Kate with a source of delight. “It’s great, they give me more food,” she beams. It’s light-hearted, but she’s undoubtedly aware of the deep-routed obstacles she faces.

As an aide pokes his head in, reminding Kate of her next engagement, she reels off protocols and procedures that she’s already identified as getting in her way. “There are rules about how you dress, what times you have to be here (last week a vote went on until 2am), there’s even a certain way to speak.” It’s not set up to be accessible.

But Kate’s is an already pretty impressive trajectory; elected in May, she was made Shadow Parliamentary Private Secretary for Jeremy Corbyn not long after, and in 2016 she’s just taken up her place on the shadow front bench, with a brief of women and equalities.

“It’s equality, which means I’ll be standing up for people from every strand,” she says on the topic, taking care to point out that the struggle of trans people is very much on her agenda, pointing to the tragedy of Vikki Thompson, a trans woman who committed suicide when detained in an all male prison late last year – “It’s an outrage.”
“But I’ll be honest,” she continues, “while I’m here I’ll be focusing on race, and I won't shy away from it.”

You can understand why. “BAME women, under austerity, have been hit hardest by cuts,” Kate asserts, with Treasury research showing reductions in spending on public services hit black and Asian households the most.

She also wants to talk about black mental health, and she wants to do it quickly. Right now, black men in Britain are 17 times more likely to be diagnosed with serious mental health illnesses than their white counterparts. Research in the London Borough of Lambeth found that while just 26% of the area’s population is black, nearly 70% of residents there, in secure psychiatric settings, are of African or Caribbean heritage.

“On opposition day the other week, we were talking about mental health, led by the shadow minister, and I got up to talk about race and mental health,” says Kate, understandably proud to have taken the opportunity.

However she doesn’t want to be seen as a novelty; Kate wants those long, green benches to be filled with people who truly reflect the diversity of the country, seeing all BAME and all women shortlists for selecting MPs as a useful way of getting there.

“It shouldn’t just be ‘oh look, it’s Kate’ when I stand up to talk,” she argues, putting on her lipstick as we get ready to head back to Parliament’s Portcullis House Lobby. “There needs to be like, 20 of us, from all over the UK, strong black women who’ll be there to back me up.”

From her own experiences, Kate points to the expenses that come with trying to run a campaign to become an MP, both before party selection and after. “You have to produce leaflets, take time off work, get new clothes, make sure someone can drive you around! I mean, who can actually afford that?”
With our time running out, we head back out of the office, down a corridor and through a door, into the cold. There’s been a lot of talk recently, both in the UK and now across the pond, about the role men have as leaders in pursuing women’s equality. Can a man be better for women as a leader than a woman?

“Yeah, I reckon so,” she replies, placing her finger to her lips briefly, as a fellow MP, a Tory, walks past.

“We can’t just say as long as they’re a woman that’s great; we need women that care about women! Come on, we had Margaret Thatcher!” she exclaims.

Kate supported Jeremy Corbyn, one of the very few MPs who did so, because she connected with what he was saying, “What he’s offering is better for women, and black women, than what the other candidates were.”

“It would be great if the leader was a woman, but this time? Yvette just wasn’t saying what I wanted to hear.”

Before we say our goodbyes, now standing by the exit, I ask Kate what happens now. She’s been in Parliament just nine months, but people are watching, and she continues to thrive.

“I don’t want to just sit in the background right now; Jeremy stood, and won, on an anti-austerity platform, which is for the first time, exactly what I believe. If I’m not going to jump and get involved now, I never will,” she smiles.

“Let’s see what happens eh? I’m up for it!”