“It feels like I’ve been a feminist since the day I was born” – in conversation with Thangam Debbonaire MP

Emily Tierney-Lever met up with the Bristol West MP to find out her thoughts on issues including domestic abuse, homelessness, and the visibility of women in parliament.

Thangam Debbonaire became the MP for Bristol West in the 2015 General election. Having previously worked to prevent domestic violence, she has become known as a progressive voice in Westminster and is seeking reelection in the June general election. I wish that that all constituents of Bristol West could meet her as I have and see firsthand  how truly passionate she is about serving the people of Bristol West

I reached out to Thangam on Twitter quite frankly because I was procrastinating instead of doing my essay. I was excited when she replied that we could set up an interview and on Thursday 27th of April I went to meet her at her office. We went to a coffee shop near her office, where she ordered an Americano and noted that she normally drinks decaf but that caffeine is necessary during a general election! We sat down and began our interview.

Emily: Are you a feminist and if so why?

Thangam: Of Course! I can answer that in a heartbeat. It feels like I’ve been a feminist since the day I was born. Most of all it is to do with lived experience and the knowledge from an early age that things could be better for the main women in my life if it wasn’t for the patriarchy. I had two grandmothers who were very influential in my early feminism. My Grandmother in England had an amazing political brain and was an activist in the Labour Party and the Co-op Party. She used to tell me ‘hang on to your own money, get your own job, be independent’. Her husband was elected to council but it was always very clear to me that she would have been just as good if not better at the job – even though I love my Grandad.

My experience at an all girls school made it clear that as women we had something to offer equally to men. Now this may sound like ‘so what?’ to someone of your generation but it was the 70s and the equality and the sex discrimination act had only just passed. It was news!

Another early formative experience for me was seeing the extra work my mum had to put in to secure her own mortgage when she became a single parent. These are things we take for granted now but in those days it was really difficult. My mum is a strong woman and brought up three daughters as strong women. So my feminism is intrinsic but I do also have a shirt!

Emily: Of course! You have to have the T Shirt! Your mum sounds great! You obviously admire her a great deal and I was wondering who else you admire outside of your family?  

Thangam: Yes for sure, I admire my mum and both my grandmothers; my grandmother in India I admire for her survivorship and how she looked after her family.

Other people who I admire… Harriet Harman has been a huge inspiration as a role model and as a colleague, as a Labour MP but also as a Labour woman MP. There is a really iconic picture of her campaigning in the early eighties as a parliamentary candidate while pregnant; now that never happened. That was in the days when the number of women MPs had flatlined from 1945-1985 and stayed pretty static at around 40. Harriet is one of the reasons I’m in politics because she showed me that women can make a difference even though it’s a blood hard fight. She helped steer through government a lot of the domestic violence legislation that I was lobbying for on the outside so she’s been a huge inspiration.

There’s also Val Davey, the previous Labour MP for Bristol West, who showed me what a difference a politician can make if you work really hard. Another is one of the volunteers in my campaign, Rosemary Chamberlin, who has been volunteering for the Bristol West Labour Party since 1966. Also, a woman called Judy Wilson.

Emily: I met Judy she is great.

Thangam: She is brilliant. She used to be a campaigner for Unison and is recently retired but is still very involved in my own campaign. What she does is she brings people in: she inspires and she mobilises by finding out what different people’s strengths are and encouraging them to find a way to get stuck in. She reinforced my trade unionism. I am a member of Unison, which is one of the most women dominated unions and I believe they represent the low paid part time woman worker more than any other union.

Emily: Judy is really fantastic, I just met her on my first campaigning session and she was very helpful.

Thangam: Do you know what else Judy manages to do? As well as campaign and even when she was working at Unison, she has got an allotment, she makes the most amazing food, she’s a fantastic mum and she is a brilliant friend. Those are the sort of women you need in your life to show you that, yes, it is an unequal world but that you don’t have to let it turn you into a victim. It doesn’t necessarily have to toughen you up but it can inspire you to fight more and still do it with good humour and grace.

Emily: Exactly! So you mentioned Harriet Harman and her work on domestic violence. I know over the years you have worked to end and prevent domestic violence. It may seem obvious, but why do you think this is such an important issue?

Thangam: Because violence against women and girls is both a cause of and a consequence of gender inequality globally. It is one of the major killers of women across the world and is one of the reasons why so many women don’t get to fulfil their potential. When working with violent men, I often heard phrases such as ‘No I think women are great but…’ and ‘I wasn’t really abusive but my wife…’ and I got the sense that they felt they had a right to expect things from women. These expectations were clearly gendered.

Emily: There is a great local not for profit charity called No More Taboo and they are trying to tackle period poverty in Bristol. What can we do to help women who have become homeless especially if they have become homeless due to domestic violence?

Thangam: So this is challenging because a lot of women who become homeless because of domestic violence don’t end up on the streets but they are technically homeless and they will still suffer period poverty because they haven’t got enough money. They might be sofa surfing or camping out in a relative’s spare room, all the time struggling by on a low income and no where to move on to. For some women, domestic violence can cause homelessness and also job loss; others may be homeless because of drug addiction or petty crime, which some women are pushed into by abusive partners.

A few months ago, I went out on the dawn run with the St Mungo’s charity who do outreach to people on the street and I saw for myself just how badly the women are served by the system. Everyone who is on the street is vulnerable to violence and sexual violence. Many women are also vulnerable to exploitation in the face of having to make an alliance with a group of men. Now that is not to say that people who are homeless are intrinsically violence because they are not. It just makes women more vulnerable to that.

I have visited the hostel on Jamaica Street and I have met with people who talk about the different ways they have been affected. As we have been talking about when you are on the streets or just homeless, managing your periods can be a real problem.I have also been struck by the disadvantages that care leavers suffer. Young people are multiply vulnerable if they come out of the care system because exploitative people know who to target and young women are again more vulnerable by virtue of their gender to sexual exploitation. When working with violent men, I learnt that they know exactly how to spot that somebody is vulnerable.

I’m also really struck by the disadvantage that care leavers suffer, I have met male and female care leavers who say to me ‘look I have got no one to turn to, when I end up in trouble I have got no parents to go to, who I can reliably go and say look can you help me out’ they are up against it. Again young men and young women are multiply vulnerable if they come out of the care system and young women are again more vulnerable by virtue of their gender and vulnerable to sexual exploitation and by virtue of the fact exploitative people know who to target. I really learnt that when I worked with violent men, they are really good at spotting someone who is vulnerable and exploiting that. Also the fact that when you are homeless whether it is street homeless or off street homeless you quite often have to ‘toughen up’ to be able to get by because you have to get up in the morning and your life is in a mess and toughening up is one of the things you feel you have to do but that can in turn make you less warm and I think a lot of people want homeless people to be cuddly, warm, friendly homeless people and are off put, I think the best of us could admit to this by someone who is maybe a bit aggressive or a bit aggressive or maybe feels a bit different and that is really challenging because whatever situation you are in no one really should be homeless.

Emily: So how can we help?

Thangam: I think it is up to us as a society to work out how we can prevent homelessness in the first place because once you become homeless it is really difficult to get out of. Certainly when I went out with St Mungo’s, I met people of all ages who have been rehoused and not managed to keep their tenancy up for all sorts of reasons. I think the approach called ‘housing first’ is a really good one, which is where you can get someone a home and you pile in support.

I also think a lot of people want homeless people to be warm and friendly regardless of their situation. As a society, we cannot be put off from helping if someone appears slightly aggressive.

Emily: What inspired you to become an MP?

Thangam: To be honest, it wasn’t that straight-forward. I was a musician originally but in 2012 the Labour Party started to recruit for 106 seats to target in 2015. Bristol West was the 105th on the list because there was a sitting Liberal Democrat MP with a 11,500 majority. It was pretty much a no hoper but it was my local seat and I thought that if you want to win a Labour government, you have to be prepared to work hard for it. I had lived in Bristol since 1991 and I was kind of an uber Bristol West sort of person. I had worked in the voluntary sector, in the arts, with Bristol University and for parts of the council. I cycle and am sort of a Bristol West cliche .

My objective when I started was to build Bristol West up into a strong campaigning structure. Then as we got close to the General Election it became clear that there was some chance that I might end up becoming an MP and and that somewhere way back in my campaigning for women’s aid a little flame had been kindled. I knew that in order to change the law you needed activism on the outside and sympathetic supportive MPs on the inside. You can’t do it without the activists because MPs have to cover every subject from domestic violence to housing to health and the activists need the MPs to create legislative change. So I knew that us feminists needed both feminist activists and feminist MPs as allies. I was thinking that I had done so much as a feminist activist outside of parliament that it was time to put my heart and soul and time – and even remortgage my house – to be a feminist activist inside parliament.

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Emily: That’s a great answer! Do you think it is a problem that the conservatives have two female Prime Ministers while the Labour party has never a female leader?

Thangam: Yes. Actually, the Labour party has had two female leaders but they were never elected. We have had two female interim leaders: Margaret Beckett after John Smith died and Harriet Harman. But yes, it is obviously of great regret to me, especially because Labour has done so much more than any other party to bring the proportion of women MPs up. The proportion of women MPs in the parliamentary Labour party is close to 50%. it is 43%, I think we are getting there. I think we have done a lot to improve the visibility of women in parliament but it is still a matter of great regret that we haven’t had a female leader. Neither have the Liberal Democrats but the Tories, the SNP and the Green Party have.  

I also think  we have so many capable women and it is something I hope to see in my lifetime but at the moment I am campaigning really hard to get a Labour government and for Jeremy Corbyn to be the Prime Minister.

Having said that I think the fact that two women have been head of Government in this country does at least mean that women know that it is possible. On the other hand I don’t think either of those women have done near enough to encourage women into politics or for women generally. There are real problems with both of their voting records on equality

Emily: That moves me to my final question. What advice would you give to a young woman who is considering a career in politics?

Thangam: First of all, Do it! Do it! Do it! Despite all the challenges, all the heartbreak and all the sheer hard work it takes, it has got to be one of the most interesting jobs you will ever get to do. Even being a candidate. It is an absolute honour and a privilege to get to know your own neighbourhood.

I would encourage all women to get involved in politics because getting involved in politics is not just about getting elected. It is also about being an activist, whether that is within a political party or within another campaigning group. It is all politics. If you campaign to save your local playground that is politics; if you campaign for better sports facilities that is politics; if you campaign for  a Labour government that is politics.

So I would encourage all women to think about what is important to you. If you had to redesign the world what would you change? What would you put at the top of that list? For most of us, it is quite a long list. Then you have to look at which group of people or organisation is best placed to help you right that wrong. If there isn’t one, talk to people and see if you want to set one up. Nothing happens until someone steps out, even out of line sometimes, and says ‘Yes, I am willing to stand up and be counted, I am willing to go out there and campaign’. Nothing changes if people aren’t willing to speak up. Whether that is on climate change or gender equality. If there isn’t a campaigning organisation for what matters to you then you could be the change you want to see. I mean it is a cliche that phrase, but it has a lot of truth to it.

Emily: I think that is a great place to finish. Thank you so much for your time.
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