In the wake of David Amess’ death, politicians have been in constant conversation about their safety and wellbeing. The murder of a colleague — the second time in five years — has left MPs feeling vulnerable and exposed.
But for some, threats and intimidation have been priced in from the very beginning. Not least for female Black MPs.
In an interview with HuffPost UK to mark Black History Month, Labour’s Florence Eshalomi, the MP for Vauxhall, reveals she never had the luxury of deciding whether or not to hold walk-in surgeries.
“One of the things that the police told me when I first got elected was that unfortunately as a Black MP, they wouldn’t recommend me having that,” she recalls.
Since the events of last Friday, Eshalomi says a number of venues have been in touch with her to offer their space and security so she can continue to hold face-to-face surgeries, something she is a staunch advocate for.
Home secretary Priti Patel has also ordered a review into MPs’ security following Amess’s killing.
“You’ve got to recognise that not everybody is online,” Eshalomi says. “A lot of the people that come to see us, they’re not literate, they’re not computer literate, they can’t write, they can’t read, so having that comfort of knowing you can speak to your MP is really important.
“I remember when my mum was going through difficulties, whether it was housing, whether it was trying to get an appointment, going to see our local MP was so valuable to her, and it’s really important that we do as MPs make ourselves accessible.
“But I think the review needs to happen so that it’s in a safe environment — not just for me but for my staff who accompany me and other residents.”
Eshalomi grew up on the Cowley estate and then the Barrier Block estate in Brixton with a mother who was unwell with sickle cell anaemia.
“I think I’d say I became politically aware from a young age; growing up on a council estate in Brixton you get to know the council very quickly, because if the council gets it wrong, it can mean a lot of misery for you,” she says.
“I always remember my mum moaning about the council and I thought, ‘When I’m older, I’m going to sort them out’. They just seemed to make my mum’s life hell and then you’d write to them about something and you’d get something completely, totally opposite back in the post.”
Eshalomi was the first member of her family to go to university where she first “got really political”.
“But I wasn’t in student politics because like many from my background, I was working. I didn’t have the luxury of going to debating clubs because when the lectures were finished I was rushing to work,” she says.
Eshalomi’s career in politics began at the age of 25 when she was elected to Lambeth council following her studies in the Netherlands as an Erasmus graduate.
“I was one of the youngest councillors and the main reason I stood was because I thought in a borough like Lambeth, where there are 63 councillors, out of 63 councillors when I stood to be councillor only four were Black or minority ethnic.
“And I’m like, this has happened in a very diverse borough — what’s the scale of this underrepresentation across the country, and the year that I stood in 2006 the Labour Party went from three BME councillors to 12. And it’s not just about saying, ‘Oh you need more diverse councillors and that will solve the problem’.
“No, it’s about what we bring in terms of political decision-making, because I was quite aware that things were being done to me instead of with me, and I wanted to change that.”
Eshalomi is often referred to in conversation as a “rising star” in the Labour Party. When the position of women and equalities secretary was made vacant after Marsha de Cordova quit, rumours circulated that the role had been offered to her.
Asked if such rumours were true, Eshalomi replies with a smile: “I couldn’t possibly comment.”
If not that role, is there any other on the frontbench she aspires to?
“I’m really enjoying being Angela [Rayner’s] parliamentary private secretary right now,” she says, referring to the party’s deputy leader who is still facing criticism for calling the Conservatives “scum” at party conference in Brighton.
“I think people underestimate Angela. She’s a hard worker, her heart’s in the right place, and like many of us, she just wants a Labour government returned.”
Growing up in Brixton was “quite tough”, Eshalomi recalls, recounting memories of police raids on her estates.
“I remember people used to look down on us because of where we came from.
“Barrier Block looks like a prison from the outside — it’s quite brutal and big.
“But I saw another side to people on that estate — I saw people who are working hard to make ends meet.
“I saw people who got up every morning to go to work. I saw those same boys that people wanted to label as gang members and troublemakers, we were all in Granville arcade [now called Brixton village] on Saturday helping our parents.
“And I think to me, I thought, this isn’t fair, because of where you live or your background people are trying to write you off.”
As a young councillor, Eshalomi experienced this herself. “I don’t know if I would call him a racist, but I always remember a situation when I first got elected onto the council, this elderly gentleman came to see me at an advice surgery,” she says.
“And he turned up and said he would like to see the councillor now. I said ‘I’m one of your councillors’, and he said, ‘No I’d like to see a real councillor’.
“What he meant by that was that he’s like to see the white, male councillor, who happened to be Steve Reed [now shadow communities secretary]. And there was almost a standoff between me and this gentleman, and the security guard came and asked me if I wanted him to leave.”
Eshalomi says the man’s mind began to change as he saw others coming into speak to her.
“I think he thought maybe she’s not this imposter and maybe she can help me.
“There are some people that no matter how you try and help them or engage with them, they’re just set in their ways. But it’s important for us to teach others that that’s not the way that you should treat other people.”
Like MPs from across the political spectrum, Eshalomi has experienced her fair share of abuse, but for her and her Black colleagues, the abuse takes on a more sinister, racist tone.
There was a moment of reckoning for the UK when England’s football players were subject to a torrent of racist abuse online during Euro 2020 — something Eshalomi witnessed from the stands of Wembley herself.
And during the Covid lockdown, she received a letter from an unnamed person who told her had waited in a long queue at the post office to send her a torrent of racist abuse.
“I just thought, well at least he queued up to post a letter to me, right,” she jokes.
Considering all that MPs endure, has she ever regretted standing for parliament?
“I had the same conversation when I was selected as the candidate for Vauxhall,” she says.
“For me, it’s a case of you can’t let those people who want to spew out hate and division win.
“And this isn’t just about me, this is about the people I’m here to represent. This is about the issues that I see in my inbox on a daily basis. I’m here to do a job to represent their views to key ministers, I’m their voice in parliament.
“I want to do that work well, and I think by saying that if I wasn’t here, someone else could do it — well actually no, why should it be someone else?”
She adds: “I don’t regret becoming an MP. What I do regret is that by becoming an MP I can put my children and my husband and wider family at risk, and it’s not fair on them.
“People need to recognise that we’re human beings. By all means disagree with me, argue with me and tell me I’m wrong. I’m not going to profess to know what all the answers are, not at all. I’m still learning.”