Before I speak to Dawn Butler, her assistant sends me a few choice examples of the messages the MP for Brent Central has received since Sunday when she tweeted about police pulling over her and her friend, who is also black, as they drove to lunch. In luridly violent language, people have called her a liar, told her she is promoting racist hatred and they hope she gets Covid, that she is undermining the justice system by criticising the police and far, far worse.
Twitter has been alight with hate and conspiracy theories about her, questioning her account, but despite being publicly torn apart Butler doesn’t regret speaking out. In fact, she is feeling optimistic. After our call she has a meeting with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick about how to improve policing, focusing on stop and search.
“This is what we have been trying to do for years,” says Butler, 50, who has previously called for Dame Cressida to resign over a lack of progress on tackling structural racism. “We police by consent in this country and there’s a growing unease around stop and search. It’s not actually a very successful tool, it only has a 15 per cent success rate and creates a lot of animosity.”
She isn’t against the police — “the man who stopped us was polite and pleasant and of course we need police officers, this is very different to the US where they are arguing about defunding the police”. What she wants is “a system that works, so that we can get rid of the crime that we see in our streets”. With Dame Cressida, she plans to discuss recommendations from the Macpherson report into Stephen Lawrence’s death.
The officer who stopped her apologised and the Met has said it was a mistake — they thought it was another car. But it has gone beyond this one incident; the backlash Butler faced for mentioning it, with people saying she had lied about the car’s driver and he was actually white, has made her realise “we need to go deeper and ask why we were stopped in the first place”.
It comes after other incidents of black people questioning how the police treat them. Last month the sprinter Bianca Williams shared footage of a stop, accusing the police of racial profiling.
The challenge is that for many people, stop and search is one way to address the rising rate of violent crime. The parents of 17-year-old Jeremy Meneses-Chalarca, who was fatally attacked near Oxford Street on Saturday, have called for greater use of stop and search, for example. Butler doesn’t think this in itself will reduce murders. “Unless you stop everyone walking down Oxford Street, how are you doing it fairly? I want us to get to a point where we have a system that can successfully identify people who carry knives and guns.”
That’s fair enough, but what does she suggest instead, with crime spiralling? There were 14 stabbings in London last weekend. Butler doesn’t elaborate on solutions, but lists organisations that have been working on this: StopWatch, Liberty and more. “If we can replace stop and search that would be phenomenal.”
A s she told the officer who stopped her on Sunday, Butler has been researching stop and search. The officer asked if she wanted to complain to the IPCC [the complaints body], “but my only thought was how to change the system so it works better; to use my platform for good.” Her friend agreed. “He doesn’t want to be the centre of attention but he has been stopped before and he carries his driving licence with him, sometimes his passport.”
We police by consent in this country and there’s a growing unease around stop and search
When she first saw people accusing her of lying about his skin colour on Twitter she “thought it was hilarious”. “Why would I lie about that? Anyone with any modicum of intelligence would know that would be the most ridiculous thing to lie about, especially as I filmed it.”
She can’t begin to think why someone would accuse her of lying, “other than to try to disprove my lived experience to say racial profiling doesn’t happen. Imagine if I didn’t have video evidence. People also said I was driving around for four hours just trying to get stopped. Why would I do that? I am tired, I want to enjoy my Sunday. This is not what I do to enjoy myself.”
Growing up in Forest Gate, Butler’s brothers told her not to trust the police. “They sat me down and gave me the talk when I was 12,” she says. “They said if I was ever in trouble I should call them, not the police. I felt it was sound advice. When I started driving they told me if a police car follows me I should only stop if there were lots of other people around.”
She’s lost count of how many times she has been stopped, but a few occasions stand out. When she was 27 and driving to work the early shift at a bakery, the police stopped her “and assumed I was a man because I was wearing lots of clothes, I don’t like the cold”.
Another time she was giving her intern a lift back from Parliament, “and I tried to ensure the stop was as good as possible because I didn’t want the intern to be scared. The police said they had stopped me because I looked angry.”
Does she regret not raising it sooner? “Once I was stopped and in such a hurry because I had to get to PMQs and I had just been cut up by an articulated lorry, who they didn’t stop.”
Butler is used to defending herself. In 2005 she became the third black woman to become a British MP, and has found that black politicians “are judged more harshly than our white counterparts”. “That’s just fact,” she states. “When ‘Sack Dawn Butler’ was trending on Twitter nobody was asking for the MP released on bail for a rape charge to be sacked, or the MP who sent inappropriate messages to his interns to be sacked. Some MPs are judged differently.”
Butler came to politics through working as an officer in the GMB trade union. Her politics is broadly to the left of the party — she rose fast under Gordon Brown, becoming assistant whip in 2008 and a youth minister. In 2010 she lost her seat after boundary changes. She spent five years designing learning programmes for companies and looking after her father before he died. He worked on the railways (her mother worked for the NHS and they are both from Jamaica). In 2015 she returned to Parliament, and has said she was surprised at how much her party had moved to the right.
At first, racism in Parliament was “a shock”. “I was quite green when I entered Parliament. I was excited to have been elected and thought I’d make all these changes, only to have people constantly undermine me and ask me to explain why I was there. That was soul-destroying. I wish I’d known what it would be like.
“I got into a lift and a couple of MPs told me the lift wasn’t for cleaners. I questioned them — there’s nothing wrong with cleaners, but why did they think I was one?”
She doesn’t want to list every single incident of racism “because it’s exhausting” but she does bring up the MP who told her, “this place is going to rack and ruin, they are letting anyone in these days”. She vowed that by the time she left Parliament there would be more black female MPs, “and there are now”.
Trolling and threats have made her “more mindful”, considering where she goes, how she gets there and not revealing whether she has a partner. “Last month I closed my constituency office after racist threats and a member of my team bought a stab vest to wear to surgeries,” she says. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer texted Butler after she reported the stop.
Butler was close to Jeremy Corbyn and when Sir Keir was elected, Butler left the Shadow Cabinet. She had stood for deputy leader, losing to Angela Rayner, and has said that Labour’s leadership election system is too expensive and needs reform.
But what does she make of the new leader? “How do you mean?” she says, momentarily cagey. “He’s doing well in the polls. There’s a lot we have to hold this Government to account on. We had two elections that should not have taken place where everything that shouldn’t have happened. This is the year we should have been preparing for an election.”
Labour’s identity is in flux, but Butler boils it down to “Labour is always the force for good and change, that instils hope and confidence in this country”. She condemns anti-Semitism: “Labour is an anti-racist party but we have to earn that again, on all levels, anti-Semitism, anti-black racism. We have a lot of work to do.”
Her views on gender are controversial, that babies are born without a sex. “Marsha de Cordova is dealing with this issue,” she says, referring to her successor as shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities. “The party is having round-table discussions. We shouldn’t roll back anyone’s rights.”
Butler laughs that she “didn’t really want to go into politics” in the first place. She was asked to stand in an all-women shortlist. “Then I realised I could make a change.”
That’s what she’s doing this week, not shying away from conflict. “We need to have these uncomfortable conversations to make society better. So many people have contacted me to say they didn’t realise the extent to which racism happened in our society. That means progress is being made.”