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  • Hanna Bajwa

How to change the face and attitudes of Parliament

With the recent general election, new waves of MPs have been introduced to parliament. Although a nerve-wracking experience from them all, being mistaken for other politicians and for parliamentary staff members in the first few weeks working in Westminster is not the ideal way to start.

One such example came from Abena Oppong-Asare, the new MP for the London seat Erith and Thamesmead, who claimed that a Conservative MP saw her outside the Commons chamber and put his bag in her hands and asked her to look after it, not realising she too was an MP. Furthermore, in recent tweets about her experiences as a new MP, she said one MP had confused her with another black MP, and on realising his mistake said expressed surprise that there were ‘more of you’. More examples of this came from Florence Eshalomi who claimed a similar experience happened for her and Dawn Butler, who is running to be deputy leader of the party, said she was once mistaken for a cleaner.

The Twitter discussion was joined by Angela Rayner, who is also running for the Labour Party’ deputy leadership role, and said she had previously been confused with former Labour Leader candidate Jess Phillips, due to their similar accents. However, she later deleted her tweet and apologised after other users accused her of speaking over the experiences of black women and urged her to “simply listen and fight the urge to interject”.

Former Labour leadership candidate Clive Lewis said the Brexit campaign had ‘racism at its heart’ due to undertones of racism coming ‘from some politicians’. He also stated that racism in politics, particularly in the Brexit campaign, is used as a mechanism to divide our communities and our country.

1 in 10 of the 650 MPs are now from an ethnic minority background compared with 1 in 40 a decade ago, according to the think-tank British Future. Before the 2019 general election, there were only 52 MPs in the House of Commons from ethnic minorities and from those 52 members, half were women. In its wake, there are now 41 non-white Labour MPs, 22 Conservatives and two Liberal Democrats—37 of them women. Although 10% of MPs are from ethnic minorities, this is still disproportionate representation of the 13.8% of the UK population who are ethnic minorities. If the Commons accurately reflected the UK population, there were would be at least 90 ethnic minority MPs (of all genders). Ethnic minority women should, therefore, be welcomed into politics and assured that their views matter as it is vital for any well-functioning democracy.

So how can these attitudes be changed? Firstly, parties must acknowledge that racism and sexism requires a cross-party response. Focusing just on sexism while ignoring or subduing the racial component would not be effective or helpful. Parties need to send out a strong message clearly saying that racist behaviour will not be tolerated.

The government has yet to unveil any clear strategy for regulating Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, where much of the abuse occurs as research has shown ethnic minority MPs on twitter face more abuse than their fellow MPs. Diane Abbott alone received almost half of all the abusive tweets sent to female MPs in the run-up to the general election in 2017. Excluding Diane Abbott, Black and Asian female MPs in Westminster received 35 per cent more abusive tweets than white female MPs. People have a right to be protected from abuse, so restrictions must be put in place and fairly balanced against any free speech arguments.

Secondly, Twitter’s ban on political adverts in November 2019 has shown that social media sites are sometimes willing to alter their stance, meaning there may be some more crucial changes to the way that abuse is dealt with in the near future. In the meantime, it’s vital that the sites’ existing hate speech policies are fully enforced and when they fall short politicians should be holding social media companies to account.

Lastly, there should be greater encouragement for more ethnic minorities to get involved with politics and becoming MPs. More support and opportunities to involve other ethnic backgrounds would encourage the acceptance of those in parliament and hopefully discourage and reduce racist attitudes towards people of colour in power.

With racism and sexism still prominent in British politics, the state of our country and society is called into question, especially if such a powerful institution still deals with such major issues without much resolve. The development of attitudes across the nation towards racism cannot be changed if those representing them are racist and or sexist.There should be more done to establish and promote programmes that create a culture of equality at an early age. Regardless of gender and ethnic background, MPs must analyse government policies from a gender and race perspective and mainstream this into the general functioning of Parliament.

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