The front runner for the safe Labour seat of Lewisham East has said that her decision to turn down an MBE has been vindicated by the Government’s treatment of the Windrush generation.
Phyll Opoku-Gyimah rejected the award in the 2016 New Year’s Honours list in protest at the British Empire’s treatment of LGBT communities.
In an interview with HuffPost UK, she said that the Windrush scandal had proved why she’d been right to criticise the “toxic legacy” of the Empire.
Opoku-Gyimah is among the lead contenders to become the next MP for the rock-solid Labour constituency, following the decision by current incumbent Heidi Alexander to work at City Hall with London Mayor Sadiq Khan.
Installed by bookies as the favourite, her candidacy is backed by senior allies of Jeremy Corbyn as the party searches for a new face to represent the seat, which has a huge 21,000 majority.
Known as ‘Lady Phyll’ to her friends, the trade union official and co-founder of UK Black Pride also said that Labour should use an all-women, all-BAME [Black and minority ethnic] shortlist to better reflect the diverse make-up of the south London constituency.
Expected to formally declare her candidacy on Wednesday, she told HuffPost that her 2016 rejection of the MBE was a good example of how she stood up for her principles.
David Cameron’s government had wanted to offer her the award in recognition of her groundbreaking work in campaigning for BAME gay and lesbian rights.
“I stand by my decision, as much as my mother was upset she didn’t get to go to the Palace with her matching bag and hat,” she said.
“The important point for me is that Windrush was a scandal, an absolute travesty for people of that generation who have faced deportation, detention and other suffering.
“All in the name of the British Empire, they came to this country and helped rebuild it after the Second World War and to be treated in such a heinous way. Everything about what the Empire stood for, how it left such a toxic legacy, this is playing out through the Windrush scandal.”
The issue has already led to the resignation of Home Secretary Amber Rudd and the Home Office revealed this week that 8,000 cases of possible mistreatment were being looked at.
“I’m glad that we are now seeing people get partial justice. I don’t think if you’ve been detained you’ll ever have full justice. So I stand by my decision of rejecting an MBE,” Opoku-Gyimah said.
“But also it was about the fact that you do have over 36 countries around the world which may be part of the Commonwealth but still torture, persecute and kill LGBT people and whilst that is happening I cannot take any form of accolade which elevates itself over the people I’m setting out to represent.”
‘Lady Phyll’, a longtime Jeremy Corbyn supporter who works for the PCS union, said that the key in Lewisham was to properly listen to and represent the constituents.
“In Lewisham as a whole we have 48% from BAME backgrounds, that’s a figure we have to recognise.
“Yes it’s a safe Labour seat, more importantly this is about inclusion and representation. And seeing hopefully an all-women shortlist, an all-women BAME shortlist because there’s no doubt about it we are lacking representation from women who are leaders from the BAME community.
“We’ve got to think about the constituents. While Heidi has done some great work and has built up a really great portfolio, there’s time for change right now and time to make sure members are engaged.”
With a daughter recently graduated from university, education and tuition fees are high on her list of priorities.
But so too are NHS cuts and the mental health provision, “especially with such a high proportion of BAME men in those institutions”, she added.
“As someone who has grown up on a council estate, and looking at the fact that my daughter will never be able to get on the property ladder, housing is also obviously very important. Most of all, I want to hear from members their priorities,” she said.
“Labour should be about listening to people who haven’t had their voices heard. I am not some person who has been groomed or mollycoddled into an MP’s role, I am grass roots. I am somebody who always puts the people at the heart of what I do – and who puts people over profit.”
Other possible contenders for the Lewisham East seat include local councillors Brenda Dacres and Sakina Sheikh, as well as Claudia Webbe, a member of the ruling National Executive Committee (NEC).