The House of Commons, held up as a beacon of democracy, has a ‘dirty little secret’, according to black MPs – its racism. Dawn Butler, only the third black woman ever to have become an MP, said she faced such frequent racism from politicians of all parties that she had to ‘pick her battles’ to avoid being constantly in conflict with her colleagues.
In an article written for the Fawcett Society’s new collection of essays, Seeing Double: Race and Gender in Ethnic Minority Women’s Lives, Butler describes how former Tory minister David Heathcoat-Amory confronted her as she went to sit in the members’ section on the terrace. ‘He actually said to me: “What are you doing here? This is for members only.”
‘He then proceeded to ask me: “Are you a member?” And I said: “Yes I am, are you?” And he turned around and said to his colleague: “They’re letting anybody in nowadays.”
‘This man could not equate the image he saw in front of him with that of an MP. It was quite upsetting for my team and so we had to take it further.’
In an interview with The Observer, Butler went on to describe how an official complaint she made was stonewalled. ‘It’s not as though Parliament has a human resources department that you can complain to and expect disciplinary action from,’ Butler said. ‘So after being told by the Tory chief whip and the Speaker of the House that there was nothing to be done about it, I had no choice but to let it drop.’
Heathcoat-Amory, MP for Wells, rejected the allegation that his remarks to Butler in September 2006 were racist. ‘It is quite absurd,’ he said. ‘What she is actually objecting to is that I didn’t recognise her as a new MP. I simply asked her what she was doing at that end of the terrace, and they are quite sensitive about this kind of thing, they think that any kind of reprimand from anyone is racially motivated.’ He agreed that there was a problem with too few black and minority ethnic MPs being elected.
“beacon of democracy“? Anyway, Heathcoat-Amory, “They’re letting anybody in nowadays.” & “they are quite sensitive about this kind of thing, they think that any kind of reprimand from anyone is racially motivated.” They David, they? You mean the Right Honourable Member, ‘reprimand’ used to having servants are we? Oh boy, start planning on spending more time with your family. The article goes on to show how most MP’s being male and white and relatively wealthy are dismissive of the staff and when it came to this black woman MP they would often assume she was a cleaner and treat her with little respect, racism, sexism, classism- yep, beacon of democracy.
Zohra Moosa, editor of the Fawcett Society book, said: ‘With only two black women MPs and not a single Asian woman, Parliament has never once been representative of Britain. There is no excuse for an unrepresentative democracy in this day and age but, until we change the way our institutions work, we will never have the politicians we need.’