Dawn Butler: Jeremy Corbyn Is So Laid-Back Because He Lived In Jamaica

Kate Forrester

Jeremy Corbyn’s relaxed attitude is down to the two years he spent living in Jamaica, according to one of his shadow cabinet ministers.

Speaking to HuffPost UK ahead of the party’s women’s conference in Brighton, Dawn Butler, a key ally of the Labour leader, said his approach to politics had allowed more MPs to feel like they can “be themselves” and that introducing him ahead of a key speech during the general election was a “proud moment”.

“I think it was an additional triumph because of all the abuse that he got.  Being called all these names by the prime minister and just being able to rise above it and do your thing, knowing that in the end you would rise or fall on whatever you believe in,” she added.  

“All those people that have stood up to bullies related to his approach and the fact that he won’t do personal politics, he won’t do cheap personal attacks.  I think that is a really good lesson for us all.”

Butler, who became the first ever black female minister in the House of Commons in Gordon Brown’s government, said she felt Corbyn’s two years spent in Jamaica as a geography teacher had helped shape his approach. 

Dawn Butler says Corbyn's "laid-back" approach to politics was shaped by his time in Jamaica. (PA Archive/PA Images)

“Jeremy is a really laid-back character.  He really is.  I have seen him in very stressful situations,” she added.

“I attribute his laid-back-ness to the years he spent living in Jamaica, just kind of taking everything in his stride and being quite relaxed.

“He was there for just a couple of years but he loves it.  He still remembers how to get around and he says he learned a lot from the students.  

“I think it’s an attribute that is needed in Parliament and in politicians and it’s helped some politicians to be themselves, because there is always a lot of ’you have to do this, you have to do that, you have to say the party line’, and that’s when you begin to sound really robotic.  

“You can be on message, but also be yourself.  Do it in your own way, in your own style, and Jeremy encourages that which I think is great.”

Keen followers of politics will probably remember a stand-out example of Butler being herself during an interview with Sky’s Kay Burley in the midst of Labour’s 2015 leadership election - in which she was asked the same question repeatedly before responding: “What’s wrong with you?”

She said: “I think that repetitive, aggressive line of questioning is kind of what’s wrong with politics,” she said.  

“Journalists who try and catch MPs out and make them look stupid.  I was actually worried when I came out of that interview that more of the stuff I was thinking in my head had come out of my mouth.  

“I didn’t quite relax until I had watched it back. I was extremely pleased with myself that I was able to control everything that I said.”

More recently, Butler took over the women and equalities brief.  Her predecessor, Sarah Champion, resigned in August after she clashed with the party leadership over an article she penned for The Sun claiming “Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls”.

Butler said the fight for equality and diversity is one that has always been close to her heart.  She made history in March this year, when she used sign language to ask a question in the Commons, for which she was widely praised.

She said: “The response was phenomenal, which I really wasn’t expecting and found quite humbling.  I just did it because it was an issue close to my heart.”

Butler first learned to sign her name when she was at college studying computer programming, alongside two students who were profoundly deaf and later completed two stages of the British Sign Language course.

“I am a very sociable person, so I learned how to say my name but that was it.  I suppose I always felt I should have done more to make them feel more included, so it was a feeling I carried with me,” she said.

“When I started work there was a person working there who was also profoundly deaf, so I thought that was my opportunity to make more of an effort.

“I have always been acutely aware that if you see deaf person struggling in a shop or even if you can just say hello, you see the joy, sometimes relief, in their face that at least they know somebody will take a little bit of extra time to smooth that journey for them, whatever it is.  It could be ordering a sandwich, or it could be finding out medical test results from the doctor.  

“I think it’s our duty to make a more equal society and it’s the right thing to do.   And if people want to look at it from a business perspective, we are losing billions of pounds from a number of people who could be working, who want to work, and are unable to because of the barriers that have been put in their way.”

She said an increase in the number of disabled MPs, including Battersea’s Marsha de Cordova, means Parliamentarians are better able to see the adjustments that need to be made to make politics more accessible to everyone.

Butler said shadow home secretary Diane Abbott is one of her political inspirations. (PA Wire/PA Images)

“If you have MPs who are disabled, it will help you stop more and think more about what you do and how you do it,” she added.

“All these adjustments need to be made, but if we only have people in Parliament who don’t need any adjustments, it’s not given a second thought.  That just highlights the importance of having different people in Parliament.”

Butler, who has represented her Brent constituency since 2005, said she was also pleased to see an increase in the number of black women in Parliament and said she herself had been inspired by shadow home secretary Diane Abbott and former Labour MP Oona King.

She added: “I feel like I’m at school again and I’ve got some new friends and I’m terribly excited.  We’ve been having dinner together, playing silly games and just enjoying the fact there are other black women around.  

“It confuses some people because a lot of people don’t know who is who and we actually find that quite hilarious.  We’ve joked that we will all come in one day with our hair tied back to confuse people.”

But she said despite the progress that has been made, racism and sexism still exist.  Butler revealed last year that she was once mistaken by a cleaner by another MP - one of a number of unwelcome incidents experienced by non-white Parliamentarians. 

Some of Labour's female MPs outside Parliament. (PA Archive/PA Images)

She added: “Racism definitely still exists.  I also had an incident in the tearoom where a police officer essentially escorted me out of the room when I was in the middle of a meeting.

“He sent me a handwritten letter of apology afterwards, which I found the other day.  He is no longer in Parliament.

“That was a number of years ago - but it would never have happened to a white MP.  Unfortunately Parliament is made up of a cross-section of society, so whatever you find in society at large, you also find in Parliament.”

As Labour prepares to kick off its annual conference in Brighton - with more grassroots activists expected to be given a platform to speak than ever before - Butler said the party is the most united it has ever been since Corbyn became leader.

“We are more united and more focused, we have had a general election and the diff with that general election was that the [Ofcom broadcast] rules stated that everyone had to have equal air time,” she added.

“People were able to hear policies straight out of Labour politicians’ mouths, people began to hear and understand what a Labour government would look like, what it would feel like and they began to believe that it was a possibility because of course it is.  

“We really do want a country for the many and that is why we will consider what is best for the many.  That is the huge difference between Labour and the Conservative Party, who feel they have a right to rule, so just do what they want.

Dawn Butler: "Labour has the political will to deliver on its vision." (PA Wire/PA Images)

“I think in general life is about compromise and politics is about compromise.  It is not about being rigid - it’s being able to empathise and listen and appreciate other people’s points of view.”

A former trade unionist, Butler said she learned the art of compromise in earnest when she switched from being an activist to an officer.

She added: “I would go in and bang the table and make demands - and then I became an officer and I thought ‘Shit, things look different from this side of the table’.

“That was a real lesson to me.  It took a long time for me to settle into that.  But that is life and that’s politics.  

“You develop that as you go along, and that is why the Tories and their Brexit negotiations are in such a mess. They have no idea where they are coming from or where their starting point is.  

“It’s so internal - they are not looking at what is best for the country - it’s just their own internal bickering.

″Labour has the political will to deliver on its vision.  And that makes a huge difference in terms of where you come from in your political argument.”

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