HLN meets…Chi Onwurah MP
We caught up with Chi to find out what it’s like being Newcastle’s first black, female MP and how she’s working to help make the streets safer for women.
From growing up on a council estate to becoming Newcastle’s first black, female MP making a real difference in her community, Chi Onwurah MP shares her career journey, reveals how she’s working to help Newcastle recover from the pandemic and discusses her plans to protect women on the streets.
What inspired you to become an MP?
I’ve been interested in politics from a young age. I joined the Labour party at 16, but I would have joined when I was nine if I could – politics was constantly discussed at home. My mum had very strong views and made sure I understood that our council house, my school and the RVI had to be built and paid for and that it had taken generations of struggle by working people to make them a priority for the Government. It’s that kind of experience growing up which formed my values and beliefs that I have since brought with me into the political forum.
We know you had a successful career as an engineer before becoming an MP – can you tell us why you wanted to change sectors?
I entered Parliament for the same reason I became an engineer – to make the world work better for everyone. I spent 20 years as an engineer and loved it. But I also knew that whilst I could design the best broadband network, say, there were all political decisions behind it. I also wanted to ensure that everyone could access the fantastic schools, the secure home and the great NHS I benefited from growing up.
The beauty of transitioning into my role as Shadow Minister for Digital, Science and Technology means I can positively engage with the sector. I’ve been privileged to speak on issues such as the power and dangers of artificial intelligence, innovation strategy and the importance of diversity in STEM.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Every single day is different. Some days are spent in meetings with Shadow departments and representatives from organisations who wish to raise concerns. Other days are spent with local communities in Newcastle to learn about their views and experiences. But I always make sure there is a balance between my role as a Shadow Minister and as an MP for Newcastle Central.
What do you find the most challenging about your role?
Being an MP means representing the people of their constituency and this can become challenging when it involves a wide range of people. I represent people from some of the most thriving areas and some of the most deprived areas in the country. As an MP, it can be difficult representing such a wide range of views, but it is also an opportunity to learn.
As a black female MP, have you felt like you’ve faced any discrimination in your career?
Unfortunately, yes. As a working engineer, I was asked if English was my first language and whether I was a qualified engineer. I had to face the reality of being stereotyped, both implicitly and explicitly. It was tiring, frustrating and lonely. Over time, I learnt that the most important thing is to always remain authentic to myself.
Now that I’m an MP, I often say that Parliament is the most diverse working environment I’ve ever been in. That surprises people – until I say that I worked as an engineer for two decades before! But this doesn’t mean I haven’t faced stereotypes as an MP. People questioned whether Newcastle was ready for a black MP or whether I would only represent the black people in my constituency.
Recent research shows that 35% of MPs in Parliament are female. Why is it important for more women to get involved in politics?
Having women in politics is key to ensuring that we are fairly represented in politics and decision-making. Unfortunately, many want to get involved but can’t see politics as a realistic career choice due to stereotypes, online abuse and how the political environment is designed. But this is changing and we continue to work towards equality for all.
I am proud of Labour’s progress on this matter, with 51% of Labour MPs being women. Labour have proven themselves as the Party of equality, having delivered the Equal Pay Act, the Sex Discrimination Act, the Equality Act, the Minimum Wage and introduced Sure Start. Today we continue working towards equality for all and it’s great to have more women join us in this mission.
What advice would you give to women interested in getting involved but who may feel intimated by online abuse?
We must create a safe and welcoming space for young women to get involved in politics. The key to ensuring they are represented in Parliament is by encouraging them to represent themselves.
I want to reassure those women that there is a huge amount of support there for women in politics and that you don’t have to feel like you’re doing it alone. Each political party has a women’s network with the sole purpose of getting more women into politics.
Following the recent, tragic events with Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, what work is being done in our region to make women feel safer on the streets?
Women have a right to feel safe on our streets. But, as recent events have shown, there is still a lot of work to be done. It’s encouraging to see new generations of women organising and carrying on the fight for women’s rights.
The first step is accepting that we have a problem and I think having more women in top positions is important. This month, Kim McGuiness, the Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner, announced plans to spend £800,000 to make parks and public transport safer for women. Measures include body-worn cameras for transport staff, a new reporting app and parks fitted with CCTV and better lighting.
Women and girls from across our communities will be invited to help design new safety standards for parks across the region. We have to start listening to what women and girls actually need to feel safer and I hope this scheme is the start of that.
Do you feel like much has changed since last year’s Black Lives Matter protests?
The events of the past few years have shone a fresh spotlight on the pre-existing and continuing racism in Britain, the US, and internationally. There is no place for racism or discrimination in Britain, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. We still have a long way to go.
The North East has been home to some amazing protests, including a virtual BLM rally that attracted thousands of Geordies. We have a proud history of opposing racism in the North East, but we also have much more to do to eliminate it from our region and the UK.
What issues are you currently most passionate about changing in the North East?
As we emerge from the pandemic, we must support businesses and create job opportunities in all regions of the UK and not just in London. We need a responsible but ambitious plan to grow our economy, spread opportunity and develop a more secure economy.
If we are to get and keep the jobs, we need to be in charge of our own economic productivity and working people need to be empowered to become the wealth producers. I’d like to see this happen in many ways – research and development spending, digital skills and inclusion, transport and high skill jobs.
What are your plans for the future?
Now that we’re unlocking from Covid, I’m really keen to get out and spend more time with constituents and organisations in Newcastle Central to see how they’re recovering from the pandemic and building back better. I’m focused on helping Newcastle realise its full potential as a digital, STEM and advanced manufacturing centre. Newcastle has such a rich industrial history and great strengths in digital technologies, green industries and life sciences; we need to capitalise on that. And I also want to see the Tyne Bridge painted!