Speaking to Mhairi Black about Brexit, feminism and ‘subtle sexism’ in politics
Britain’s youngest MP says ‘young people have been shafted’
As the youngest MP in the Commons, by her very existence Mhairi Black shows that you don’t have to be an old, posh, white guy to be a political success. But she’s certainly not resting on her laurels. Not only is she providing a voice for women, she also represents young people and the LGBT community. I spoke to Mhairi about the issues that these minority groups face and how she recommends we make politics more diverse in future.
How do you think we could engage young people better in politics?
There’s a couple of different factors at play, I think. The first one is that young people can’t be patronised. When I think back to when I was at school, how patronising the old campaigns were, aimed at young people to try and be ‘cool’ or ‘trendy’, they were cringeworthy and turned you off. Also, there’s an element where people have to be educated as to how important politics is, and how much of an impact it has on them.
I mean, young people have been the ones shafted the most for a good number of years, getting resources cut from them or tuition fees. And as you do that, normally because they don’t have any real experience of life before that, it gives a cynical attitude that will exist until something changes it. The EU referendum was actually a chance to change it, because people have said “I really didn’t want that to happen, this is having a real impact on me”.
I was having a conversation with someone who said that when Thatcher was first elected, it was the first time he could of voted, but he didn’t as he thought “Surely no one is stupid enough to vote for that”, and of course she was elected, and the rest is history. It’s a combination of all these different things, and realising that this is your life, you’re the ones that are going to shape this. It’s trying to get that across to people.
When you first made the decisions to go into politics, what sort of reactions did you get?
This is one of the things I think is incredible when I was elected. When I decided to put my name forward, I did it because nobody else was really coming forward and I thought “Maybe I should do this”. Obviously, it was in Scotland so Labour was a given. We were going round the doors because of the Scottish referendum, the electorate became so educated and engaged.
You could talk about Economic policy with punters down the pub. When I was going round doors, people were asking me about policy, they weren’t going “oh you’re young!”. They were asking what I was going to do about things. I remember at the time the Guardian came with me and the journalist was shocked that nobody had mentioned my age, so eventually she brought it up. It’s more about whether you know your stuff.
Then when I got elected, there was an onslaught of media going “oh my god you’re so young!”. It’s just like – nobody in Scotland cares about this, why are you all talking about it? It was quite bizarre. It was quite testing though, as it was the first time a lot of Labour voters had voted for someone else, so it was a big thing.
Have you experienced sexism in your role at all?
Oh aye! In my first or second week, I was standing outside on the terrace and one of the male Conservative old guard came up to me and was chatting away. He was an arrogant sod, just being pompous, but I was alright. So I asked him: “When are the holidays again?” And he just looked at me and said “It’s not summer holidays, it’s recess, darling”. So I said “I think you’ll find I’m called Mhairi, sweetheart”.
He really didn’t take a liking to me after that.
There’s been quite a few things like that. Mostly it’s subtle sexism, whether it be in a meeting when somebody doesn’t look at you, they look at the guys. Things like that are rife. I ended up in the Lords for a bit, and had a run in with one of the Lords, having a bit of a ding-dong, and he just kept putting his hand on my shoulder.
I often wonder is this the worst for it or does it still go on elsewhere.
How can politics become more diverse?
I think there’s a couple of things that have to happen. The political parties have a duty to make sure they put forward diverse candidates. For example the council elections are coming up in Scotland. If only wealthy guys are putting their names forwards to be councillors that’s a problem. The SNP did things because we recognised this is quite a problem, so for example, if someone is unemployed or poor and want to be a candidate, there’s a fund there, to try and get other people involved. So it’s really a responsibility in parties.
There’s a responsibility on the general public as well, because one of the things that frustrates me as well is that people always complain “Politicians are all the same”. But the minute someone different comes along, they love to criticise them. Even with me, but I’ve managed to ride it out mostly.
From the get go, the volume of abuse I would get, purely for existing, the year I was born, my gender, the fact I’m gay, the fact I’m a Patrick Thistle supporter… And it’s the same with the media.
They’re constantly creating this “ahh look at them, they’re all self-interested” but the minute someone different comes along, they just dig until they can find something to put as a front page scandal, to twist things.
I remember a radio programme called off the ball, I got invited onto. It was scary, because they slag you to bits. I went on it and it was fine, and I mentioned that everytime I go out, my pals ask “you buying us a round now?”. The Daily Mail then took that and turned it into “Mhairi Black spends first wage on Beer and McDonalds”. That just didn’t happen. They can’t want politics to be diverse and different then crucify them the minute they are. People are starting to realise though.
SNP have proportionally the most female MPs, is that something you’re proud of?
Yeah, it’s been a natural progression as Scotland has become more educated now. The thing I find best about our group in Westminster, that the vast majority of us have never been politicians. The way we were elected was the way every election should be. People were coming forward to put their name in the ring to genuinely try and change something. No career ambition whatsoever- something needs doing here.
We’ve got the most gay people, proportionally the most amount of women, people from diverse backgrounds. None of that was planned- it just happened naturally.
At that point in time, everything was working the way politics should work. It’s trying to work out the magic ingredients, to make that happen and apply that everywhere else. That’s educating people and making them wise up against the media bias, and how stupid it is to insult someone because of what they’re wearing.
How do you feel about Theresa May being branded a ‘bloody difficult woman’ by Ken Clarke?
Aye I saw that. I always say there’s a fine line with that because, the minute you use the word “woman” in that way it immediately has sexist connotations. It’s “get back in your place woman”. At the same time, if somebody had said, “he’s a bloody difficult man”, you wouldn’t bat an eyelid.
Part of me is thinking he’s just describing what it’s like to work with her, but part of me thinks you can’t ignore that connotation to it. You can normally judge by the way someone says it if they’re being a chauvinistic pig or if they’re just describing. Maybe it’s wise to use different terms.
What would you say to anyone in under-represented groups in politics – be it LGBT, ethnic minorities, gender or class – who might feel reluctant to become involved in politics?
If I was talking to a whole group collectively, I would say go for it. The whole reason you’re under-represented is because nobody is coming forward – go for it.
But if I was in a room one-to-one with someone, I would say it won’t be easy. You’re coming from a minority, a disadvantaged group. You won’t have a lot of people in the same boat as you. It’s a lot of responsibility to take on. But if you believe you’re right, if you believe that something has to change and if you’re prepared to take on that challenge, then do it cos we need it.
It all depends on who’s doing it because there are people I know, for instance, LGBT, who would be phenomenal in the Commons but they just could not handle the abuse, the isolation, that’s why they don’t do it. It depends on who you’re talking to. Politics isn’t just something that gets done for you, it’s not something that just happens, that’s abstract or somewhere else, for somebody else. Politics is everywhere, and in all of our lives.
If you’re coming from a disadvantaged group, then politics is having a more negative impact on you than it should be. No one is going to change that until you demand to change it, and no one will do it for you. So fight for it. What’s the worst that can happen?