Friday Interview | Chi Onwurah – “we have got to make the political environment work for young women.”
We sat down with MP for Newcastle Central, Chi Onwurah, to discuss how we can make our voice heard through our local MPs and the support available for women wanting to pursue a career in politics...
By Laura Kingston
This is an unbiased article about women in politics and does not represent the political views of HLN or our readers – this is about championing routes for women to make our voices heard.
You’ve been an MP for 20 years now, but prior to that you had a successful career as an engineer – why and how did you transition?
I have always been into politics – I joined the Labour Party at 16. My mum was hugely influential in that decision as she was very interested in politics too. Her family was Irish but she grew up on Newcastle Quayside in the 1930s – a time of real poverty in the North East. She had six siblings and five of them died before they were adults – victims of diseases of poverty and malnutrition. This was before the NHS, the welfare state and council houses. I grew up in a council house in North Kenton and when my mum needed treatment for cancer and rheumatoid arthritis, she could use the NHS. She really showed me that this support we took for granted didn’t just appear out of thin air, it has been fought for by people over decades.
I wanted to change the world and initially, my way of doing that was to become an engineer. I did that for 20 years and loved it, it’s a fantastic profession. I always thought it would be a huge privilege to represent people as an MP, but had never thought about it as a possible career choice. I didn’t know how to get into it and like a lot of women, I assumed that if I would have been a good MP someone would have pointed at me in a crowd and said – “you should do it, you’ll be great.” which of course is impossible – you’ve got to put yourself out there.
In 2009 Jim Cousins announced that he was standing down as MP for Newcastle Central. Harriet Harman had led the Labour Party to bring in all-women shortlists and Newcastle Central was one. I was voted for over 14 other candidates which was an amazing feeling. I had told friends that I had a 1 in 20 chance of being selected so the surprise and validation was fantastic, but it was also terrifying. It was a huge, huge learning curve but one of my greatest personal achievements to be chosen to represent communities that I loved and respected so much.
Can you explain the role of an MP?
The job of an MP is to represent the people of their constituency and it is very much up to the individual how they do that. I spend Monday to Thursday in Westminster representing Newcastle and the people of the North East. I raise concerns, promote what is important to us and ensure that we are represented in decisions so that the region benefits.
On Fridays and at weekends, I spend a lot of time out in our local communities to understand people’s problems or issues and help to solve these where I can. My last surgery saw issues raised such as leasehold reform, anti-social behaviour, benefits, war veteran support – sorting out people’s problems is a very important part of the job of an MP – it’s being instrumental in solving something that affects people personally.
Do you think people use their local MPs enough?
It’s interesting – I think a lot of people don’t realise how they can use their MPs to affect change. I had a group of mothers come to me in 2014 about a planned closure of the Richardson Unit at Newcastle’s RVI which meant young people with severe eating disorders would be sent around the country to receive care. They weren’t sure how I could help, but because they highlighted it to me I was able to work with local eating disorder groups and charities, meet with the Health Minister and raise the issue in Parliament. As a result, the decision was reversed, beds were retained and they also started working towards an intensive day-care service in Newcastle. It’s a great example of how if you raise an issue with your MP, you can have your voice heard and effect change.
Sorting out people’s problems is a very important part of the job of an MP – it’s being instrumental in solving something that affects people personally.”
With such a wide demographic of people living in any one area, how does an MP ensure they represent such a variety of views and interests?
That’s a very important point. As an example, in Newcastle Central I represent people living in Gosforth – one of the most prosperous areas in the country – and people living in the West End of Newcastle which includes some of the bottom 30 wards in the UK in terms of deprivation – the contrast is huge.
Add to that a range of migrant communities and it can be challenging to represent such a wide range of views, but that is our job to do and I always say that I see it as a real education. MPs spend lots of time meeting people in the constituency they represent. Last week I went to the bingo at Slatyford Tenants Association, a few weeks ago I was at an Evangelical Nigerian Church in Elswick – I’m very busy every weekend, speaking to as many people in my area as possible so that I can ensure I’m representing all of the community in the best possible way.
One of the most important things for me is ensuring that we maintain strong communities in an increasingly digital world. Digital can be great to bring people together and organise events, but having a community which is geographically grounded and brings people together in person is hugely beneficial for people.
Moving on to the topic of digital, a number of female MPs have spoken out about the vitriol they receive from trolls online, with some stepping down from politics as a result – is this something you’ve experienced?
Unfortunately yes. There was a period when I was one of the most trolled MPs in Parliament. It can be very challenging. Often now, if I have said or done something that I think certain groups might find controversial I will come off social media for a few days as it can be very upsetting. It’s online bullying and a lot of advice tells you not to respond or reply, but I feel that doing this leaves that space to the trolls and bullies. It’s very difficult because female politicians experience it differently from our male peers, for example there is a lot more focus on what we look like and what we are wearing.
I’ve been appointed Shadow Digital Minister and one of the things we desperately need action on is the Online Harms Bill which sets out the government’s plans for a package of measures to keep UK users safe online. This will really help us to reclaim positive space on the internet – something that we can all be involved with and champion.
Do you think that online bullying might put young women off pursuing a career in politics? What is your advice to them?
It is hugely important that more young women get involved in politics to ensure that women are fairly represented in politics and decision-making. In the UK we have got to make the political environment work for young women and they should be speaking up and looking to others who are established in politics to help them do that.
Local politics is a great way to start. If anyone is interested in the Newcastle area they can get in touch with me and likewise in other areas, contact your local MP to have a chat. There is nothing more rewarding than representing the people that you care about and it is up to current politicians and the existing political infrastructure to make sure all young women feel able to do that.
Be reassured that there is a huge amount of support out there for women in politics. There is a women’s network for each political party and a range of other support groups that women can be a part of. I really want to make sure that the right support is available so if you find it isn’t, come and see me! In recent years, more women from a diverse range of backgrounds is making a huge difference in Parliament and I want to see that continue.
There’s nothing more rewarding than representing the people that you care about and it’s up to current politicians and the existing political infrastructure to make sure all young women feel able to do that.”
How do you start your day? I start with a run whilst listening to The Today Show. When I’m in London I run around where I live, if I’m in Newcastle I run on the Town Moor. I get home and during the week try to stay healthy by having yoghurt and cereal for breakfast – on a weekend I have bacon and toast.
How do you manage your time to achieve so much? Politics is about prioritising. I’m passionate about representing the people of Newcastle, women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), lifelong learning and diversity and equality – these are the things I focus most of my time on. I also think it is very important to prioritise spending time doing the things that are important to me outside of politics – downtime is vital.
What do you love most about living in Newcastle?
The atmosphere – I absolutely love coming back and spending time with people, talking to people and laughing with them. I also love the fact that we have the Town Moor and the Tyne – to have both of those in such an urban city is unique and amazing.
And finally – North East favourites?!
La Yuan restaurant in Gallowgate is the best Chinese, I think in the world! We always take visitors there and they agree – trust me, it’s a must-try!
Mrs T’s in Blakelaw Community Centre is my favourite for lunch – they have amazing homemade food.