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Dawn Butler: “We Need To Insist That MPs Tell The Truth”

Labour's Dawn Butler speaks to Naked Politics, and lays bare the lack of honesty in Parliament, and the sweeping changes needed in the Met Police

By Marco Marcelline

Since kickstarting her Westminster career in 2005 as the MP for Brent South, and later becoming the MP for Brent Central in 2015, Dawn Butler has been one of the few Parliamentarians who regularly challenges powerful and increasingly unaccountable institutions such as the Government and the Met Police – and is unafraid to breach Parliamentary protocol to do so. 

Her propensity to speak her mind, even against her own Party leadership at times, further solidifies her name brand and has meant she is easily one of the most recognisable and well known MPs in the country. From correcting Keir Starmer’s description of the Black Lives Matter movement as a ‘moment’, to resigning from Jeremy Corbyn’s frontbench to vote against Article 50  (Brexit legislation), Butler has regularly put her personal beliefs before party obligations.

Speaking to Naked Politics, the conversation ranged from climate change and the PM’s endemic lying to the abuse she’s faced while sitting on the benches, and as expected, Butler makes her opinions clear on all of them.

Firstly, given climate change is on everyone’s mind and COP26 is happening right now, what do you think of the climate action that has been proposed and are you hopeful that it will be a success?

DB: We all have to hopeful that COP will be a success, but the action must match the words. There’s no point saying we’re one minute to midnight and then take a private jet back to London [Boris Johnson was criticised for this].

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What message does it send to people that so many heads of states have arrived in Glasgow on private jets? 

DB: I think we have to understand that we all have to play our part, and it means that we will have to make sacrifices. For some people, it will be big sacrifice, for others there will be smaller sacrifices. We know that the richest people in the world are more of a threat to climate change than the average person. Flights to space should not be a priority – they’re not going to help with the battle against climate change. 

Do you think that there is much possibility for a Green New Deal under our current Government?

DB: A Green New Deal is absolutely essential. And if you look at the [2019] Labour Party manifesto, where it talked about the Deal, it took so many things into consideration such as where and how we build and sustain businesses – and how we ensure that everybody is a part of the movement. It’s from the ground up. The Green New Deal means we build sustainable homes and housing, that we build sustainable vehicles, and that we make sure that people are well paid in their jobs. 

It’s also a change of mindset, which means that when you’re making legislation, you say, ‘Okay, this new law that we’re putting in, how is it going to affect the climate, how is it going to affect our commitment to be carbon neutral by 2030?’. It’s embedding it in everything that we do. It’s not just a one-off conversation, it’s a whole new mindset. 

A few months ago, in the Houses of Parliament, you called Boris Johnson a liar. Given that he has lied so much, do you think there is a genuine desire to create a new mindset?

DB: I don’t think Boris Johnson will change his mindset, or how he approaches things, I think he will continue to lie because he gets away with it. The only thing that can change Boris Johnson’s lying is us the people, us the United Kingdom. When we turn around and say, ‘look, we’ve had enough, we’re not putting up with this anymore’, then he’ll take it seriously. But while he thinks that he can continue to get away with it and that nobody is going to hold him to account, then he will [lie]. 

That’s why, in the end, I got so frustrated that he didn’t have the decency to come to Parliament and correct the record. He showed such a blatant disregard for our democracy that I had to say something and it wasn’t an easy thing to do. I had no support from my party, but in the end, I just felt that I owed it to the people and I owed it to the country to call out something that we all knew was happening, otherwise I was going to be a part of his lies, and I wasn’t prepared to be a part of them.

What happened immediately after you got told to leave the chamber?

DB: I got fined and kicked out of the chamber, but I also got kicked out of Parliament which was a bit of a shock if I’m honest. I thought ‘this is really harsh and unfair because I’m just calling out the lie, I’m not the one lying – I’m telling the truth’. But the person lying can walk around and get away with whatever but I’m telling the truth and I’m getting punished. It’s a good job I had my bag with me otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to get home [laughs].

Doesn’t it reflect badly on Parliament that you got kicked out for telling the truth?

DB: We need to be able to insist that MPs tell the truth. That’s why I’ve also put in an early-day motion (a motion submitted for debate that is used by MPs to draw attention to a specific issue or event) and I’m currently in discussions with Parliament to see how we can change the rules so that ministers and MPs have to tell the truth. It’s simple and basic and it’s embarrassing that we have to have this discussion, but unfortunately that is the time we’re in. I blame Trump for that. 

Given the murder of David Amess MP, what are your thoughts on the general situation of the safety of MPs and on what could be done?

DB: People should be able to disagree without descending into violence, and nobody should be killed for doing their job. Nobody should be murdered for being a politician. It’s been a very tough couple of weeks seeing that happen. It’s wrong and it should never have happened.

You’ve unfortunately had to deal with your own share of abuse…

DB: I’ve had to close my office partly because of the abuse. We’ve had missiles through the window. I’ve been attacked on the train. I’ve had people go to prison, and I’ve got several court cases that should be coming up very soon. 

I’ve put up with a lot of abuse, I don’t accept the abuse obviously and I report it to the police. And more and more people have been given either a suspended sentence or they’ve been locked up – and quite rightly so. 

Has any of the abuse made you wary of face-to-face surgeries? 

DB: I’m going to be very careful, and I have to ensure the police are aware of where I am and my movements. I am more alert and so are my team but ultimately, I feel safe in Brent [Butler’s constituency]. 

There’s been a lot of concern about the accountability of the police, especially in the context of women’s safety. 

DB: This is another thing that I’ve been speaking out on, and it’s quite scary because whenever I speak out against the police, I get attacked by a lot of people who proclaim to be ex-police officers. But because I know that they’re trying to silence me, I believe it’s my job to speak out. And so, when I was with my friend in his car and I spoke out about that, the ridiculous conspiracy theories that came out of that, people were saying that I was lying about the driver being Black. Why would I lie about something like that? 

Do you think that the Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick should go, or if not, what should be done to make the Met more transparent?

DB: So, Cressida Dick has said that the Met isn’t institutionally racist. You have to remember the Met has been accused of being institutionally racist, institutionally misogynistic, and institutionally corrupt by different investigations. It really does highlight there is something institutionally wrong with the Metropolitan Police, so therefore we need to have a change in the institution. I think part of that change is developing a social contract between the police and citizens, and I think we need to have meetings around London where people are talking about how they want to be policed. I think that’s important because different people are [policed] differently. 

The taking of the photograph of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman really does highlight how some people are not treated as a human being, because it is inhumane to take a photo of two women who’ve been brutally murdered, superimposing your face on that photo and then posting it on a WhatsApp group that has 40 other police officers. If that doesn’t tell you that there is something institutionally wrong, then what will it take? And let’s not also forget the brutal murder of Sarah Everard by a police officer was also accompanied by an inappropriate photograph that was taken at her last resting place and that was also posted on a police WhatsApp group. So, there is something institutionally wrong [with the Police] that we need to deal with. 

Do I think that Cressida Dick should go? On one hand, yes, I do. Because I think if you are presiding over an institution, and you refuse to believe that there’s anything wrong, you should go. On the other hand, I know that she’s not going to leave. So therefore, I’m willing to work with her to change and improve the police service because there are some good police officers and it’s the institution, not just the bad apples, that is letting them down. 

There are a lot of young people, including the activist group Sister’s Uncut, who believe that the issues run too deep to be resolved through reform and instead they’re looking towards police abolition in the long term. Is this a view that you sympathise with?

DB: What would you replace it with? 

That is what a lot of people ask, yes. 

DB: We need policing; we just need good and fair policing, and intelligent policing. 

Is there anything you would like to see changed about the Labour Party itself?

DB: There are a lot of things that the Labour Party needs to do to be better, to be representative, and to give people hope. We really need to be the Party of ethical action, and we need to show that more in what we say and what we do, but we are still much better than the Tories.

Do you think that the leadership has embodied those values well or has it regressed from the previous one?

DB: I think that the Labour Party has got a long way to go to build trust with people and to ensure that people vote for us in the next election. 

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