Chi Onwurah discusses her early life, career in politics, Labour Party, and refugee crisis

Chi Onwurah is a British Labour Party Politician and an MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central since 2010. Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, she currently serves as Shadow Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, as well as Culture Media and Sport. Onwurah was born in Wallsend and obtained a degree in Electrical Engineering from Imperial College London. Speaking exclusively to The Courier, she discusses her early life, political career and her opinions of Corbyn.

A&S: Tell us a bit about yourself first. Your father participated in the Biafran Army, and you yourself were involved in the Anti-Apartheid movement.

CO: Yes that’s right, my father was from Nigeria and he came to Newcastle to study medicine at the university. He met my mother and they married, had me, then my father wanted [us] to go back to Nigeria. Whilst we were there, the Biafran War broke out and he was drafted into the army as a medical doctor. We all moved to Port Harcourt which I can’t really remember as I was only a baby but then my brother was born during the Biafran War and things got really bad so my mum and us kids came back to Newcastle but my father stayed in the army. I don’t know if he couldn’t leave or he didn’t want to leave, but he stayed.

A&S: That must have influenced you greatly, Did that have an impact on you wanting to move into politics?

CO: It certainly influenced me greatly, One of my earliest memories was taking off in the plane in the dark because we couldn’t have any lights and there were air raids sirens so I think it influenced me about my views on war and peace and also my views on the importance of political solutions.

The other big influence was obviously my upbringing in North Kenton in Newcastle. When we came back from Nigeria we had nothing. We went to live with my grandma in a council flat – her one-bedroom pensioner’s council flat on the Montague estate – until the council rehoused us after about six months. We benefited a lot from public services: we got a council house, we all went to the local schools, which were fantastic and enabled me to get a great education, and the NHS.

My mother had breast cancer and she had to have a masectomy but the NHS saved her life. I would say it’s more my experience of fantastic public services when we had nothing that made me think how important it was always to struggle to get the opportunities to support people when they were in difficult times.

A&S: Do you think that could link as well to the refugee crisis at the moment? We’ve been hearing a lot that Newcastle wants to house a lot of refugees and migrants. What do you think about that?

CO: Well I was born in Wallsend, so I was both born here and returned here as a refugee which is quite a unique perspective. Interestingly, I know that the year that we came back, which was 1967, you had Martin Luther King getting a doctorate from Newcastle University, and the Lord Mayor’s charity that year was Biafra. So it’s clear that Newcastle has always had strong support for civil rights as well as that international outlook.

I went to the centre where they’re collecting stuff for the migrants a few weeks ago, it’s quite amazing the level of generosity. I think that we have basic things that make us human and humane, and supporting and helping vulnerable people is part of that. I think that it’s right that we take in refugees and that we support them.

Obviously we can’t take in everybody, and that’s where it gets difficult because just [from] Syria alone there are millions but it’s a small percentage that get through to us, so it’s right that we should support refugees, but also you need to put in the housing, you need to put in the school places to help make it easier for the refugees but also easier for the communities alone.

A&S: You mentioned in an article from the New Statesman (Anoosh Chakelian, 25th July, 2014) that you thought Parliament was the most diverse working atmosphere and the most gender balanced.

CO: Well, I said it was the most diverse and gender-balanced working environment I’d experienced, because I worked in engineering before going into Parliament. I worked all over the world in engineering but always women never got above 10%.

Image: Mike Urwin

Image: Mike Urwin

A&S: Apparently the amount of women working in such areas has decreased by 4% in the past 30 years of you having studied electrical engineering. Do you have any suggestions for women wanting to study STEM subjects in regard to this figure?

CO: Yes, I was speaking at the Newcastle University’s Department of Engineering on women in STEM. I was there for about two hours [and] it was really good to see so many female engineers. There were a lot of men there as well, interestingly! There were about 50 people there, I’d say 20 of them were men. So you’re absolutely right, it amazes me that since I graduated, figures haven’t got any better and in some cases have got worse.

One of the things I said [at the talk] is that there are lots of initiatives which are great, such as Athena SWAN, but I got a woman in science and engineering scholarship when I went to university, so they were trying to do it then as well!

What I hope has changed is two things really: leadership has changed, so I think it’s not just women who are talking about this, it is also business leaders and men as well who are realising that having all-male teams is not the best way to develop the kind of innovative products and services we need if we’re going to be competitive. We need to have a better balance; I also think that, for the younger generation, some of the stereotypes seem outmoded and outdated, more so than they did when I was in my teens.

A&S: I want to discuss another more serious topic relating to women: there have been many instances of sexual assaults, particularly against women, in Newcastle, especially the city centre. There is also this ‘lad culture’ that gives a really bad reputation to people on campus. What are your views on that, and what would you suggest we do in order to combat these issues and this behaviour?

CO: I think you’re right, that’s a really important question. I think it’s entirely unacceptable that there should be any kind of culture in the university or anywhere which promotes misogyny or the objectification of women or a frivolous attitude towards sexual assault and date rape, or spiking drinks for example.

I really hope that Newcastle University is on this and is making it absolutely clear that it won’t be tolerated. I’ve had examples of parties organised by Students’ Unions across the country which

I think you’re right, that’s a really important question. I think it’s entirely unacceptable that there should be any kind of culture in the university or anywhere which promotes misogyny or the objectification of women or a frivolous attitude towards sexual assault and date rape, or spiking drinks for example.

I really hope that Newcastle University is on this and is making it absolutely clear that it won’t be tolerated. I’ve had examples of parties organised by Students’ Unions across the country which I wouldn’t have said were supportive of women or of constructive relationships, For example with some of the language they use. I think all of that absolutely needs to be highlighted, I think it needs to be named and shamed. I think that’s what the authorities need to do.

I visited the Feminist Society [at Newcastle University] about two years ago. It was great having that strong voice for women and discussing these things. I went to Imperial University and I wouldn’t say it had a ‘lad culture’ but it had that public school boy culture, so some of the things that we did then was expose it in newspapers and also I remember feeling very empowered by a defence class that I took.

A&S: I definitely think our Feminist Society does do a lot, I think they’re very visible on campus, and they’ve got involved in the Student Union committee as well so I definitely think that organising defence classes etc. would be a really good idea.

CO: Yeah, that’s good. I liked the Reclaim the Night event a couple of years back as well because it was a celebration – there was drumming, there was dancing, it wasn’t a miserable thing, it was an empowering thing, which was really good.

A&S: Going back to engineering, both Sinéad and I do ‘arts’ subjects, so English Language and Classics respectively, how do you view arts subjects versus vocational subjects, and do you think more funding should be put towards the latter and science subjects?

CO: I’m now the Shadow Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy, so culture is part of my brief, and it’s always been a really important part of my life. The first Shakespeare I saw was at Northern Stage when I was nine or ten, it was Julius Caesar, so I think the arts, culture, creativity are really important in and of themselves.

Also you can solve [problems of engineering] better if you’re creative, and you have a rounded vision of humanity and the human experience. I emphasise STEM a lot because of the lack of women going into STEM and the lack of gender balance, as well as the fact that we need specific skills to deal with some of the challenges around climate change etc.

I don’t think it should be about moving funding from the arts to STEM subjects because they’re all very important. What I really want to do is ensure that young people particularly have a real freedom of informed choice, and then that the courses are there for them to choose, so they’re not influenced by gender stereotypes or by media images or whatever; informed free choice, and then you try and get the resources left to support them.

Image: Policy Exchange

Image: Policy Exchange

A&S: Great, I am glad you think that! We want to discuss another student issue now: housing and accommodation. We read in an article in The Chronicle that you have commented upon social housing and there was an image based on the Newcastle Metro map which provided the average monthly rent to show the stark contrast.

CO: Oh yeah that was brilliant, it was the amount per month for a two-bedroom flat per station.

A&S: Yes, students tend to live in Jesmond, for which the average is £713 a month, and West Jesmond is £863. Obviously one could live further afield to save money but still a lot of my savings have gone on rent alone – the student loan itself basically just covers housing with only a small amount of income to spare, and then you factor in the price of estate agent fees etc. Labour has addressed this recently – what are your opinions on all of this?

CO: Well I’ve got a lot of opinions on all of this! I think on a macro level, housing is broken in this country, particularly in London: you have the bubble of house prices rising so that ordinary people will never be able to afford to buy where they live, but even in Newcastle, as I think that map shows, you’ve got rental prices being pushed up and the council not having the means to invest in social housing to reduce those pressures on it, and many people are being forced into private renting who don’t necessarily want to.

In terms of private landlords particularly, we did a lot of work in this area and [there were] families having to move home every six months, the lack of security of tenure, the private landlords being able to evict people when they want to, and also there’s no incentive necessarily to keep up good conditions.

So what we wanted to do is not to scare people out of the private renting sector, because it’s important that that’s there, but to give some greater security to people who are renting, and also more rights on the quality of what you’re renting.

One thing the Tories hated was that once you had agreed to rent [a home] then the rent shouldn’t go up by more than the cost of inflation, and there’s also the issue of empty homes. We’ve got 4000 empty homes in Newcastle and about 4000 families on the waiting list for the council housing.

So yes, we think the housing market is broken, the Tories don’t agree with this but the government can do something about it. It does need government intervention, and that is in terms of supporting housing building, and also in terms of regulating private landlords. I’d also say that if students do have issues with their landlords then they should see their MPs, who might be able to help.

A&S: I am aware that you nominated Jeremy Corbyn but then you changed your mind to Andy Burnham in the Labour leadership election. What influenced your change of mind? What do you think of Corbyn’s leadership so far?

CO: I nominated Jeremy Corbyn because I wanted us to have a broad debate and the three candidates that were standing – Andy, Yvette, and Liz – were saying similar things on a lot of issues, particularly on austerity. I didn’t realise how successful it was going to be. There was very little chance ever that I was going to vote for Jeremy Corbyn as leader because there were some areas that I specifically disagree with him on, as does most of the Parliamentary party. For example on Europe, on unilateral nuclear disarmament, and some other areas.

Also, I think a leader has to be really credible with people when it comes to the economy. I nominated Corbyn early in the campaign and there were a lot of things that he was saying that I liked but it was more to do with what Andy was saying that I thought he was more likely to put us in a position to win the election without comprimising our values but 70% of the Labour membership disagree with me. It’s quite a stunning portion. Things that people like about Jeremy: he’s changed the way politics works – Prime Ministers Questions has really changed.

I think that’s very positive. He shows up David Cameron for being arrogant and under-briefed. Obviously [Corbyn] comes under attack a lot from the media and to be honest, he hasn’t handled the media or his communications as effectively as he could have done. He’s not accustomed to being in this position.

I’m not sure that he ever wanted to – he’s not particularly ambitious in a way. A lot of what he is saying resonates around austerity not being the only option. For example, about public railways being in public ownership which I agree with that, things around defence and our economic policies

A&S: What would you do differently in terms of economic policy? How do you feel Jeremy Corbyn isn’t quite credible?

CO: I’m not convinced by the idea that quantative easing pays for everything so what Jeremy and John put forward during the campaign was that printing money would be needed in order to invest in infrastructure etc. I’m not sure that printing money is the best way to do it as it might cause all sorts of other issues. I think there is good borrowing and bad borrowing. If you’re borrowing for everyday things, that’s bad borrowing. If you’re borrowing in order to build a school which is going to educate people to get great jobs and build the economy of the future, you might think that’s good borrowing. Businesses do a lot of good things in this country which doesn’t come off clearly in what he says. What Jeremy Corbyn built his campaign upon is not Labour party policy – it’s not the way we work. We’re not a dictatorship. Policies have to be developed and agreed and then we can go out and campaign.

A&S: I think that Corbyn has attracted a lot more people to join the Labour party, particularly those who are young. Why is this the case?

CO: I think Ed Miliband had lots of great qualities in terms of making it easy to identify what is the difference between Labour and the Tories. We weren’t effective enough in that, I think pandering more to the idea of austerity didn’t attract a lot of young people.

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