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New House Rules: Meet The 4 Women MPs Reshaping The Labour Party

For the first time in Labour’s history, women MPs outnumber men. Marie Le Conte meets four politicians leading the charge,

Born into a family of trade unionists, it is unsurprising that Charlotte Nichols, the MP for Warrington North, became interested in politics at a young age. From three or four years old, she was “absolutely obsessed” with then speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd. “My parents weren’t big on having a TV, so the only TV I remember as a kid was the news,” Nichols says from the flat that she rents in her constituency. “I didn’t understand what she did because I was too young, but I loved her shouts of: ‘Order!’”

More surprising, perhaps, is that one of the people who pushed her towards Westminster was her local Conservative MP, Theresa May. As a teenager, Nichols was roped into helping with after-school activities as punishment for her poor attendance. “For six weeks in sixth form, me and Theresa May ran the Youth Parliament for the year sevens. I remember her trying to give me career advice and me being really quite snarky and mean,” Nichols admits.

A dozen years later, Nichols – newly elected in 2019 and promoted last November to shadow minister for women and equalities – is hoping to bump into May to see if she remembers her.

It is an odd thing to win your parliamentary seat just as your party is losing others. In 2019, Labour handed the Conservatives its biggest majority in a generation. It was a gut punch to Labour, but came with a silver lining – for the first time, the opposition now has more female MPs than males: 104 to 98.

In fact, the snap election proved to be a historic success for women in Westminster. A record 220 of 650 seats went to women, with the Conservatives gaining 20 women MPs (inevitably termed “Boris’s Babes” by tabloids), though only five members of Boris Johnson’s cabinet are women, compared with 17 men.

It is within Labour that the changes are truly striking: out of 26 new MPs, 20 are women, 12 are from Black or ethnic minority backgrounds, and half are under 45. You’d be forgiven for not having noticed – there’s been a lot going on. Between Brexit and the pandemic, the first-time electees have barely had time to get used to the job, let alone make their mark on national politics. Nevertheless, this new generation of ambitious young women is not only poised to reshape their party, but Westminster, too.

They do not represent politics as usual; from their backgrounds to their views, ages and gender, women such as Charlotte Nichols, Taiwo Owatemi, Sarah Owen and Zarah Sultana are determined to shift the agenda. With recent opinion polls indicating that Labour is still failing to connect with the electorate, it’s increasingly clear that new blood is what the party needs. Passionate about workers’ rights, the climate emergency and public health, they go against their own leadership when needed, and are reminiscent of “the squad”: the group of progressive Democrat women in America, led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who’ve gained global recognition for their approach to politics.

Charlotte Nichols, MP for Warrington North. Charlotte, 30, was once the women’s officer of Labour’s youth wing. Now, after swapping a career in the GMB general trade union for one in politics, she is the shadow minister for women and equalities. © Charlotte Hadden

“There is a strong Labour sisterhood, particularly among the 2019 intake of female MPs,” says Owatemi, MP for Coventry North West. Though they may not always agree on everything, the women try to stick together despite being unable to meet up in person as frequently as they’d like. But, “It’s comforting to know that they’re only ever a phone call or message away. I find strength and solidarity in their friendship, and I make sure I’m there for them when they need me,” Owatemi says.

Brought up in south-east London by her mother (her father died when she was six, following a shortage of organ donors), Owatemi was “a free school meals kid”. “I remember leaving school quite often with police outside trying to deal with gang-related issues,” she says. “It was normal for us to either mourn the loss of somebody who died from knife crime, or somebody who went to jail for knife crime.”

“I got really angry and frustrated,” she continues. “And my mum said to me, ‘If you are not happy with something, you need to do something about it.’ And that is why I joined the Labour Party.”

Owatemi, similarly to Nichols, was introduced to politics by a senior Conservative, Oliver Letwin, though this time through an internship scheme with the Social Mobility Foundation. “He was a lovely man, and he was somebody who was always willing to hear your opinions – he taught me a lot,” she says. “But he also showed me why that wasn’t the right political party for me.” For Owatemi – who credits her tough upbringing for making her stronger and determined to be heard – what matters is “social mobility, and rectifying the inequalities that exist within society”.

There are childhood parallels between Owatemi and her constituency neighbour Zarah Sultana, too. Representing Coventry South, the latter is originally from Lozells, a working-class area in Birmingham, where the assumption from authority figures was that she and her peers were destined to end up in gangs. As a young Muslim growing up in a post-9/11 world, she identifies “a feeling of not really belonging, but not really being able to pin that on anything specific,” which contributed to her political awakening. At the height of the tuition fees protests in 2010, she turned to activism, joining campaigns at university on anti-racism and Palestine solidarity. From there, she got involved in the National Union of Students and Young Labour, serving on the national executive council of both organisations. The public profile she built long before Parliament partly explains her prominence on social media, where she tweets to her 129,000 followers about politics, activism and, occasionally, football and K-pop.

Sarah Owen, the MP for Luton North, has the most experience of the four. The daughter of a nurse and a firefighter, Owen’s first time on the ballot wasn’t in 2019 like the others; in 2011, she was chosen as the Labour Party candidate for Hastings and Rye, but ultimately lost out to Amber Rudd in the 2015 general election. She did not stand in 2017, but returned to the fray two years later at the next snap election to stand for Luton North. “I still had that fire, that passion to want to make really big changes,” Owen says. “And the levels of inequality had just continued to get bigger. I was seeing that working in the trade union, I was working with care workers one day and shipbuilders the next, and life was just getting harder and harder.”

The timing could have been better, as Owen was pregnant with her first child when the election was announced. By the last week of campaigning, she could barely stand back up after pushing leaflets through low letterboxes. But being elected is only half the battle.

Sarah Owen, MP for Luton North Born in Hastings, Sarah, 38, is the first Labour MP of South-east Asian descent. She is committed to raising representation and ending discrimination against the UK’s East and South-east Asian communities.
© Charlotte Hadden

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Written by Fenella Rufaro

Fenella Ruafro has been a film critic for Word Crew since 2013. She is the author of “Nobody’s Perfect.”

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