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By Edwina Langley
Name: Taiwo Owatemi
Constituency: Member of Parliament for Coventry North West (since 2019)
Road to parliament
aiwo has been interested in politics from a young age. At school, she was assigned a Labour mentor via the Social Mobility Foundation – a charity providing children from disadvantaged backgrounds with opportunities such as internships and mentoring.
Taiwo was offered an internship in the office of Conservative MP Oliver Letwin – who was Minister for Government Policy at that time.
“When I spoke to my mentor, she said: ‘Please do take this opportunity. It’s once in a lifetime. Go and see what it’s like,’” Taiwo recalls.
It was “a great experience,” she says, enabling her to learn about policy and the workings of parliament. It also helped to cement her own political views: that she was firmly a Labour voter.
Taiwo went on to study at the Medway School of Pharmacy at the University of Kent, graduating as a pharmacist. She later worked for the NHS as a senior oncology pharmacist, but turned back to politics “after years of frustration that decisions about the NHS were not made by the people who work there” – she once said.
She was elected as MP for Coventry North West in 2019 and continues to work for the NHS, alongside her role in parliament.
‘People never expected me to put myself forward, people did not expect me to stand and people did not expect me to win.’
How she voted
Taiwo has voted against a stricter asylum-seeker system, and in favour of measures to prevent climate change. In October 2020, she gave a passionate speech in the House of Commons arguing against the government’s decision to end free school meals over the Christmas and Easter holidays.
What she’s working on
Taiwo is co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Knife and Serious Violence.
“That essentially came from the fact that I attended a school where we had a high knife-crime rate,” she explains.
“It was actually quite common that either somebody went to prison from school for committing a knife crime or somebody died due to being a victim of a knife crime,” she continues. “I wanted to be able to bring my own real life experiences towards policy making.”
Taiwo is also on the International Trade Committee and a member of the Health and Social Care Committee. As would be expected, she has spent much of the past year focusing on the impact of COVID – in particular, workforce burnout within the NHS – and also on maternal healthcare. What she has found particularly distressing to learn with respect to the latter, is that black women are three to four times more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth than their white counterparts.
“Just think about how many women have gone through that,” she says. “It’s something that I don’t want anybody to have to experience. So a lot of my work has been having conversations with charities and organisations, and with the NHS, to [ask] ‘how can we make this better?’.
“How do we ensure that young, Black women don’t have those horrific stories, which I’ve heard. And how do we ensure that we are able to welcome the next generation of Black children into a safe environment?”
Advice for aspiring female MPs
While Taiwo says it’s important to “know your values” and to stand for a political party that “most aligns with you”, when it comes to work experience, she says take any opportunity that arises.
“There are many constituencies out there that have Conservative MPs, and I would say to a young person who was a Labour voter that if the only person that’s giving you experience is your local [Conservative] MP, then, yes, please go and get that experience.”
“One of the biggest challenges that Black people face, and many people face, is the fact that they haven’t been able to get proper policy jobs or jobs in their area of interest because they don’t have [the] experience,” she continues. “If that’s the only door that’s open, then please take it. Understand there’s always something to learn from it.”
Taiwo highlights the Fabian Women’s Network – an organisation dedicated to promoting the voices of diverse women in politics and public life – and advocates building a network of “really supportive women”.
Lastly, she underlines the importance of helping others with similar backgrounds and experiences to climb the ladder to success.
“Under representation is, as a Black woman, very high in many high-power workplaces,” she says. “If we want to see more representation, then we have to ensure that when we do get to these positions that we’re able to keep the door open.”
Taiwo says she has faced a lot of misconceptions in her work as an MP, one of which is the assumptions regularly made about her policy interests.
“They think, “Oh, you’re a Black person, so this must be your area of interest,’” she says. As an example, she explains she is often asked why, as the only woman on the International Trade Committee, she is interested in the sector.
She says she is also often underestimated. “People never expected me to put myself forward, people did not expect me to stand and people did not expect me to win,” she says. “It’s something that I always say to myself – I need to understand that people have their own vices, people have their own prejudice, but I shouldn’t let that get in my way.”
“The only way that we’re all able to progress in society is by pushing against those barriers and so I just keep pushing,” she says. “I need to keep opening the doors and ensuring that more women like me are in parliament so that people are not surprised by our stories and by what we’ve been able to achieve.”
Bet you didn’t know…
If ever Taiwo doubts whether she can do something, she plays loud music to drown it out. Her preferences are Beyoncé and Rihanna.
Taiwo Owatemi is keen to push against society’s barriers so that there are more women like her in parliament.
By Edwina Langley