For Baroness Lola Young everything is political. Every decision you make, every path you choose. She is an amazing woman who has had a fascinating career from Actress to Professor of Cultural Studies to Head of Culture at the GLA. She received an OBE for her work in 2001 and is now a Baroness and sits in the House of Lords. She is a real change maker, the work she has done and is doing helps to change and amend the laws that affect us all. As part of this she Co-Chairs two parliamentary groups. The first is Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion, the second is Sport, Modern Slavery and Human Rights. She has been on several Select Committees – the most recent being, Sexual Violence & Conflict which is addressing the disproportionality in the criminal justice system and the vulnerability of traumatised women and girls. And is currently working on legislation to eliminate modern forms of slavery in supply chains.
‘I really do believe that the narrative is changing and one of the signs of that those who don't like the prospect of that change are really lashing out, that says to me all we’re having some success. They feel really threatened by all of this activity and the whole notion of, ‘me too’ or ‘Black Lives Matter’, which you could kind of equate to the historical abolitionist and anti slavery and suffragettes’ movements: this is the 21st century versions of those. With the continued harassment of women and the killing of women…domestic violence in this country is rife. Sometimes I can't understand why people aren't storming parliament saying this is unacceptable: you know two women a week are murdered by their partners. What's going on? When there's a terrorist outrage where people are killed, we’re quite rightly outraged but we are talking about two women every week, and the knock-on effect of that. I don't know why we can't galvanise government, so we have to keep on at them.’
D: The politics of fashion. I have to say that until I met Tamara (from Fashion Roundtable) I was unaware that it was a thing at all, but it's very important to bring about change. It feels like your whole life has been pointing you towards what we now call intersectional environmentalism, which advocates for both people and planet and you have done so much and I will get I'll get to this soon. For now, I would like to look back at your childhood. Because our childhood shapes us, for the good or bad depends on your perspective and your experiences. I didn't want to skip this with you even though I know it's a harder question to ask.
L: Haha yes.
D: You grew up in care what was that like?
L: Ooof, well actually, I'm writing a memoir about my childhood and you can't do that without thinking back. At the time, I was quite a solemn, serious child. I read a lot, reading was my refuge. I loved it and wanted to read all the time; I mean literally. I even remember walking into a lamp post because I was reading. Or I'd leave books in places because I was reading, for example, in the queue in the butcher shop and forget. So reading was a great salvation. That's one of the things that I recall. Looking back, my foster mother, she must have been an exceptional person because she was white and was known as one of the few foster mothers who would take Black children at that time (in the 50s and 60s). She died when I was 14, so life was kind of okay up until then. Although, as I look back over the circumstances under which we lived I sort of think, what? That can't be allowed surely, that can’t have been allowed. It was devastating when she died, obviously, because she was the only person I’d known as a carer. I used to call her Mum even though she was a white haired old lady. There were lots of other kids there, that she was fostering, but most of them had parents who would visit on a regular basis. My mother and father had split so they only came independently and then maybe, a total of four or five times each. My mother went back to Nigeria when I was about seven or eight and my father went back when I was about 12. That was the last I saw of them until I was in my 20s. When my foster mother died I went into children's homes. That was really awful, I have to say, pretty grim.
D: And at such a pivotal age, at 14.
L: Absolutely, and there was no such thing as grief counselling or people recognising that I'd actually felt bereaved. One of the most interesting things, is that unlike most children brought up by their families, I have a complete official record of my life in care. From when I was eight weeks old until I was 18. Obviously, it doesn't tell you everything. But it was quite a revelation to read those notes, to see things that I didn't know were going on in the background. Things that people had said about me. It was quite extraordinary.
D: Like reading your school report.
L: To the max, times 1000. Because, hopefully your School Report doesn't include letters from people saying that you were a waste of time and that they would never contemplate fostering you. It was tough reading.
D: So in those 4 years, the years where your education is pivotal, where you choose your
O’levels, then your A’levels you were in a children's home?
L: That's right. For my A’ levels, there were no real special considerations (in the children’s homes) that they could have made for me even if they wanted to. It was quite hard to study, when first of all, everybody else left school at 14 or 15 and they thought there was something wrong with me because I read books. They thought that you were a snob because you'd rather read a book than hang around outside scratching cars. There was that. Then you had to share a bedroom with five or six other girls. So nothing was private. Then there's a playroom, with kids from the age of 3, and you're doing your homework in the playroom. Unsurprisingly I didn't do very well in my A levels and didn't get my place at University, as my grades weren’t good enough.
D: That did come eventually though.
L: Yes, but much later. Not for a long time. At the time I felt I was a failure. There was a weird kind of perversion about it, I remember the social worker I was assigned to saying ‘Ohh, you're going go to University, you're going to be one of the few, I'm the only one who's got a child in care who is going to University.’ So there was this expectation, yet at the same time, there was no way of helping me achieve it.
I remember that same social worker when it turned out that I didn’t get the grades, saying ‘oh why don't you retake your A’ levels’? I said ‘no’ where was I going to live whilst retaking A’levels? At the time I was staying with a friend. Because I over 18 I couldn't stay in the home anymore. What was I going to do? So she asked, ‘what do you want to do?’ When I replied, ‘I want to go into publishing’ she replied ‘you can't do that, that's only for middle class girls. Not people like you.’
D: Somebody used those words to you……
L: In one sense she was right, and it's still true today. If she had said something like, ‘you know what, it's going to be really tough for you, because there are so few Black or working class women in that space, that's going to be really difficult, but go for it. You know, go for it. But instead, she was saying ‘forget it’.
D: Was that the catalyst to push you on…..
L: No, because I was clinically depressed, I was so depressed by then that I really just accepted it. I remember the friend I was staying with, speaking for me at that social worker’s meeting because I couldn't. I couldn't say anything, I couldn't speak. Because, my friend, as far as I could see, did no work, yet she got two A's and a B at A’ level. And I'm thinking, wait a minute I got two D’s and an E and I worked really hard while living in this children's home.Yet she was going off to University and I was I wasn't. That wasn't the catalyst. It was like, ‘no you're right, why would why would I have even thought of achieving such a thing’.
D: I was I was going to ask how you were supported after you come out of care. But they cut loose and that's it.
L: They did then, it is a little bit better now because I think you're more or less guaranteed somewhere to live, but not then. I had whatever belongings I had, which was virtually zero and found myself a temp job through an agency, working for North Thames Gas Board. Eventually the job became permanent. The catalyst was more of a self-confidence issue. Hard as it may seem to believe now, I was really lacking in self-confidence, so my cousin and I, who had also been fostered, and who was also quite shy - we decided to go to amateur dramatics and see if that would bring us out of our shells. We had quite a hard time there, because as we were both Black, we weren't allowed to be in anything much to speak of. It's like Black people didn't exist before 1950, so we couldn’t appear in historical dramas. But we had small parts and I really, really enjoyed it. So that was that that was the catalyst and encouraged the subsequent decision to go to drama school –
D: I was going to ask about that, do you think that training to be an actress has helped you forging your career? Giving you the ability to stand up and present yourself well.
L: You can learn it. My son when he was about 15 or 16 could walk into a room full of academics and MPs, find his way through and talk to anybody, do the introductions because that's the way we brought him up. But that wasn't how I was brought up and it was really, really difficult. So, drama really helps me to do that self-expression thing.
D: Now you're highly educated.
L: Overeducated some would say, (laughs).
D: It's brilliant. It’s taken you to the point where you've received an OBE for your work around culture and social justice and then to become a Peer. How did you become a Peer?
L: Sometimes I wonder. The simple answer is, that when Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister in that first round in 97’. One of the things he said he would do was to reform the House of Lords. What they managed to do was to get rid of some of the hereditary peers and introduce something which they called the People's Peers, which of course was totally shouted down in the press. Nonetheless that's what it was. In the previous system if you donated money to a political party or did trade union work or other work for a party, you could be nominated for the House of Lords. If you weren't involved in that way, the only other way was if you came to the attention of a political party, and they nominated you to be a Crossbencher. With the so called Peoples Peers you could become a Crossbench Peer by applying to become one. I suppose there was a part of me that thought, ‘yes I can do this’ but there was also a huge part of me that thought ‘never in a million years are they going to ask me to do it’. It’s one of those things you know what they say ‘be careful what you wish for’ because once you're on that path you can’t very well turn it down.
D: As a woman it's not something that I had even imagined was possible and cross party, what does that mean, and why was that important for you?
L: Cross bench is kind of a historic thing. Literally the actual benches where crossbenchers sit run across the chamber as opposed to, in the adversarial position, facing each other. I would never have been able to join the Conservative Party as it is so diametrically opposed to 99% of what I stand for and what I identify with. Although I had some sympathy with the Labour Party I knew I wouldn't be able to fit into a structure that required me to vote for things I didn't believe in, or that I wanted to contest. The same goes for all of the political parties -the Liberal Democrats would be the same: I don't feel a strong an affinity to them either. So, I thought this People’s Peers route was the right one for me because I would not be aligned to a political party and therefore I could vote whatever way I thought was the right way to vote. I wouldn't have contemplated being in a political party.
D: So, if you're part of a political party, is that what it means to be whipped, that you have to vote yes for something your party leaders want you to vote for, even if you don’t agree?
L: Yep absolutely. So, they have what is called a three-line whip, which means you must vote with your party. A two line is discretionary. If you do not vote when you've been whipped and you're in government, if you're on the government benches you will be punished. You will be hauled to a room by the Whips and you will forgo any kind of possibility of being promoted, or if you're in the Shadow Government you won't get a prominent role. Some of the tales…….. I know people in and all of the parties that have resisted the whip and what they say has happened to them, it's like being shunned. Is it in the Amish, or Jehovah's Witnesses, where you get shunned if you don't adhere to the religious faith in its truest, purist form. It’s like you get shunned from the political party. Even down to things like not being invited to parties. You know, party, parties.
D: So that would affect your effectiveness as a politician.
L: So, you wouldn't do that. Not every politician, but a lot of politicians are really ambitious. If you're going to defy the whip, that is a very conscious decision that you don't want to be involved at a particular level within your party. It might be things like, you are not nominated to be on a Select Committee. It has all kinds of ramifications. For Crossbench Peers there is no equivalence to that. We don't have a whip, we have a Convener which as the name suggests, is someone elected to convene members of the group. So politically within the crossbenchers that entire political spectrum is represented on those benches.
D: That's scary.
L: Yep, I'm saying nothing.
D: Well, you see I'm learning. I read some of the things that have been said about female Peers in an article you did with the Guardian in 2008 ‘that women in politics are highly distasteful, that they are organising pushing and commanding’ for me that read getting things done.
L: Those quotations were historic. It was to mark, I think 50 years since women were admitted into the House of Lords. At the time I found it quite shocking that it was only 50 years ago. Women had not been allowed into the House of Lords, which is part of the legislature. It was only open to hereditary peers. So there was basically a cohort of, 1200 or so males, in that chamber who had the say so, to scrutinise bills, to reject, or accept them. I know it is not ideal at the moment as we are non-elected, but then, it was absolutely unbelievable. I did a bit of research and found some amazing quotations, for example, ‘to admit women into the House of Lords would be like acid eating into steel’. How about that, and there were a couple that sort of signal that the speakers obviously had mummy issues.
D: Back then, when you joined there were only 20% female Peers. Now 13 years later there are still only 28%. A little bit of a of an improvement but like all society it’s slow moving. It’s the same for female photographers 80% of photography students are female yet in the marketplace are awarded 20% of the commissions.
L: As I always say to people, ‘okay, so this is this is how it is, you can accept it, you can sit in a corner and cry about it, or you can try and do something about it’.
D: I would like to talk a little bit about fashion. As we know fashion is one of the biggest polluters on the planet yet for an industry that is creative it is extremely destructive and abusive, you have a very positive outlook to this which is great. In 2010 you set up the all party group that looks into ethics and sustainability in fashion, four years ahead of the Rana Plaza disaster. How can politics help to change the scenario around fashion? To move things forward, to help create change.
L: I think the simple answer is, governments create legislation, but they also create political cultures within which, it can seem possible to do something or not to do something. In 2010 when I started up that group there was a sense that parliamentarians and the government weren’t really interested in fashion as anything other than as a bit of a contributor to the GDP. Creative industries great, great for the economy blah blah blah London Fashion Week, blah blah blah. It was much more difficult to get people in parliament, and outside to some extent, to listen to the other arguments – about sustainability for example. As you say there was Rana Plaza in 2013 and the horrible thing is, 1100 mainly women had to die before people really began to think in any concerted way about what a problem this was. However predating Rana Plaza there had been several fires where hundreds of people had died, locked in factories, burnt to death. Really gross as I say. After Rana Plaza 2013 Orsola De Castro and Carrie Somers set up Fashion Revolution and it's brilliant what they've done. It's a real textbook lesson in how to be that change that you want to see happen within your expertise and field of knowledge. Another important thing in 2009 for me, but also for parliament and wider society, was the criminalisation of forced Labour and domestic servitude in this country, because it wasn't a criminal offence before 2009. It was a civil tort, not a crime. So there was no way of taking it to a criminal court or the perpetrators going on trial. I helped to propose an amendment that changed that scenario. If you then fast forward to 2015 and the Modern Slavery Act, those two things come together, and you've got people talking much more about exploitative and abusive labour systems and practises. At that time they were mainly talking about the problems happening elsewhere. It was always Bangladesh, Vietnam, China or India. However, most of us working in the sector knew then it was also happening here, but it seemed that few people wanted to hear that. With the 2015 Modern Slavery Act, transparency in Supply Chains, companies have to give an account of what they are doing eliminate modern slavery. So government had a huge impact in that respect. Although the legislation was flawed, we have subsequently fought to strengthen it. Regulation, legislation and creating the kind of climate which says, these kinds of practises are not acceptable, that I think is government/parliament's role in all of this. And of course that applies not only to fashion but elsewhere too.
D: How effective has it been? Can you tell brands for example that they have to abide by these laws? How are they getting around the fact that it's still happening?
L: First of all I think it's only fair to say that it would be virtually impossible for a brand to say we have 100% eliminated these practises from our supply chains. I think that we have to cut them a bit of slack. There are some companies and brands that we know about, that try really hard and as soon as they find something wrong they try and deal with it. I don't want to be beating them about the head in the press and saying how awful they are if they're trying. Serial offenders, where the same thing is happening over and over again and trying to white wash what they do, that's another story. My feeling would be, that there's movement in the right direction with brands. Self-regulation has very limited impact that's why you need laws. Some people say ‘oh we need more laws’ I say ‘we don't need more laws, we need to implement the ones we already have’. We need to monitor the effectiveness of the ones we have and when necessary improve them. Until we've actually implemented them in a way that has teeth….. for example, under the Modern Slavery Act, if you do not as a company with a certain turnover, produce a modern slavery statement, it's within the Home Secretary’s powers to take out an injunction against that company, which is a very serious thing. Not one company has had an injunction taken out against it in six years. Now we hope to have a new strengthened version of the Act, and that it will come to parliament shortly. It should mean that they will be introducing penalties and fines. With other Acts, like the Bribery Act for example, a Director of the company has to take responsibility for making sure they are compliant with the Bribery Act. If they don't and, and there is found to be an instance of bribery for which they are culpable, they will be struck off and not allowed to be a Director. That is a really big thing. That's an incentive to make sure that everything is working well. We wanted to put that into the Modern Slavery Act but the government didn't think it was a good idea. So I think we have to make sure that the laws that we have passed, and the regulatory mechanisms that we have endorsed have an impact, by monitoring them and putting resource into it, you have to pay for it. It's not up to you or me to have to research say John Lewis for example, read their modern slavery statement, assess whether it's really good, checkout what they've done around due diligence, see where all their supply chains are happening and then make a decision as to whether we buy from them or not. We need to be able to trust they are doing the right thing.
D: We need them to be transparent. Which is obviously what Fashion Revolution or are pushing for. And yet brands still use the excuse of, ‘well they are not directly employed by us’
L: That's the whole thing about supply chains; you know that they're not employed directly by the company. But that doesn't exempt them from their responsibilities. You can't outsource your responsibility.
D: So that's coming to an end.
L: Well, one day it will. Probably not in my lifetime.
D: Is your group, Environmental Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion still sitting?
L: Absolutely we are very active. We have a session next week on the crisis in China in relation to the Uyghurs.
D: What happened to the Audit committee? That failed?
L: It didn’t, this is where it’s really difficult if you're not involved in parliament, to understand how those wheels and mechanisms work. What I've been talking about is our All Party Parliamentary Group. That has no formal status within parliament, we don't have the powers to summon people to parliament to give evidence. They inevitably do, almost always do, but we don't have the power to enforce that. A Select Committee such as the Environmental Committee is a whole other story. In theory you can go to prison if you don't respond to a summons to appear. Do you remember the fuss about Mark Zuckerberg declining to comment about Facebook or Rupert Murdoch when he got splatted? They were called before a Select Committee. The Environmental Audit committee is a Select Committee, which is a House of Commons mechanism, it's all MPs and they're still going. They made a whole raft of recommendations which famously were de facto rejected by government, but they go again. This is the thing, if you're going give up because somebody said no to you…… for example, originally the government wouldn't accept either of my Private Members Bills to strengthen the Modern Slavery Act (2015) and now they appear to have strengthened it in almost exactly the way that campaigners, supporters and I wanted. So you keep going at it in different ways. You gather the support to do that. We are absolutely in support of the Environmental Audit committee who will take up those issues again.
D: That's good, I was wondering where the link was. Working with fashion and politics, how did you bring the two together as it doesn't seem like a very likely mix.
L: Well that depends on what you think politics is. To me everything is political. If somebody chooses to show clothes that cost 15 or 20,000 pounds that's a political act. Because you know that there are a very small group of people who are able to pay that, or would want to pay that for an article of clothing. You have made a conscious decision to work in an environment that produces stuff that 95% of the world can't afford. I'm not saying that that's wrong, I am saying, that's the decision you've made and that it has implications. Especially implications when - you know everybody goes on about how detrimental fast fashion is and you can see that. It's obvious. But actually, a lot of those high end, not Couture, but a lot of the high end, high end of the high street, high end fashion companies, don't pay people any better. And in fact some of their garments are made in exactly the same factories as Primark, H&M and New Look etc. What's the difference? The difference is maybe that the quality of cotton is a bit better. But the difference in price is £65 for the high end t shirt and £3.00 for the high street one. So, yes, that's political. Making money. To me there’s no dichotomy. It's like any other any other thing that you encounter in your life.
D: Because in amongst that huge price range the person who's making the clothes, picking the cotton, growing the fabric, growing the cotton are being paid next to nothing.
L: There was some scandal, I guess it must have been a couple of years ago now with a Bond Street type store/brand, they were paying on a piece rate basis, Italian women, the equivalent of a dollar an hour. To produce, to sew coats, that were selling for £5,000.
D: That is as you say shocking, but not surprising. The fashion business is important for the UK economy. There's been a lot of talk, especially around Brexit where fashion seems to have been missed somewhat, in the in the agreement for the divorce. That coupled with the effects of Covid, recent percentages have shown that it's pushing back women’s equality by decades, because women are losing more jobs than men. We can't afford for the fashion industry to collapse, it's such a big employer, and brings a lot of income to the UK.
L: If you think about what's happened to retail, who were the staff in most of those stores that are now closing down or closed down, like Topshop. Yes, you could argue that what's happened during the pandemic is the acceleration of online and digitisation and digital services and it has been absolutely phenomenal. We have heard evidence on our Select Committee (on the Covid 19 pandemic and the implications for the social and economic future of the UK) to say that we are now digitally where we thought we'd be in five years time. So the decline of the high street would have been more gradual and people could have thought through what's going to happen. It has had huge implications for city centres and employment. Plus during the pandemic domestic violence has risen, it’s absolutely appalling and the impact that has had on whole families and children, as well as the women who have suffered.
You've got fashion brands cancelling orders. When you say to a factory in the global south, ‘make me 10,000 purple dresses’ - they buy the fabric, they have employed the staff. Suddenly to say, ‘sorry we’ve got a pandemic we don't need those dresses anymore, we are cancelling the order. How can that be right, without any kind of compensation, or any thought of what that means? And again, it's mostly women affected. Which means women are forced to turn to other ways of trying to earn a living. Traffickers are very adept at spotting the vulnerable. They move into these spaces. Not to mention what happened here in in Leicester. Like environmental sustainability, or the lack of it, these practices have global consequences too. We need to be able to work through how those two issues and other issues fit together into one unpleasant, tangled web, as interconnecting injustices. Which also includes racism. When it happens here we quite rightly call it out. So why is it alright to say it's okay if it happens over there?
D: It all got worse after we started off shoring a lot of the work that was happening here.
L: I don’t know. I think it's more nuanced than that. I sort feel like an ancient monument when I say this, but I know that in the 60s and 70s in the UK there were sweatshops around where I live and in fact some of them still exist today. A lot of them were migrant women. They would go in there 8:00 o'clock in the morning and come out at 8:00 o'clock at night. Or they would be working at home on garments. So I don't think it's as simple as saying if we onshore, everything will be fine. Plus you got to think about those other countries now, those places, especially where they do have decent employment structures. If their economy collapses, what happens to the people that have invested in the sector? What happens if we say, ‘no sorry they were fed up with this we're going to bring it back home’. Sustainable development goals, we are committed to these frameworks. Obviously you could bring back more production and manufacture, but, part of the problem is we haven’t got the skills here to deal with it anymore. How would the government subsidise the building of factories, training, upskilling, reskilling etc? It's not just something you can do overnight.
D: Absolutely true, because it didn't descale overnight either. Something that concerns me with everything going digital, is that the people who used to work on the High Street, will end up working in huge industrial sites in fulfilment and be hidden from sight.
L: Oh my God the fulfilment centres. I mean you know I couldn't believe it when I got a letter from huge company, with one eye on their reputations during the pandemic, offering some of us to come and look around their fulfilment centre. And I'm thinking, pfff, why would I want to do that? I won't be shown anything that is dodgy. It would be like the Truman Show or something. There would be these happy smiling fulfilment people, specially selected and if you were even allowed speak to them…well, you wouldn't be allowed to ask them much. You are not allowed to take your phone in and film anything, so what's the point? I'd rather somebody went in there undercover and see what they brought out.
They are low skilled jobs but will eventually be done by AI. So, fulfilment centres will not be providing many jobs for people in the long term, it will eventually done by robots.
D: The second party group that you're involved in deals with Sport and Modern Slavery and Human Rights which we touched earlier. Especially when you were talking about what happened in Leicester over the past year and the news that came from there. What's surprising with that is that it still going on. In 2010, eleven years ago now, a Channel 4 Reporter did an undercover report from there and it's like nothing has changed. If women in those factories are earning under £3.00 an hour, how could we expect them to be able to buy anything more than the clothes that they are actually producing themselves, if they can even afford to buy those. It’s not good for them or the economy.
L: Also if you're in work and you're earning such a small amount you've also got to claim benefits because, how else can you live? So, you're induced into this world of fear and fraud, and it becomes very tangled, it's not simple it's not easy. There are levels of exploitation and criminal activity that you really do not want to get involved in.
I think it was about for three or four years ago I went on a tour of the factories with a major fashion brand not only their own factories but others too, in this country. We saw the good the bad and the ugly on that little tour. One place we went to is notorious, one look at that building and I could see straight away that it didn't conform to health and safety. You don't have to go inside to see there was something wrong there: bare electricity wires, windows boarded up, doors locked. As I was saying before, we have plenty of health and safety measures. Why haven't the fire service, the police, HMRC, the DWP and the local authority had a joint operation to sort that that that place out?
D: Why not?
L: There are a lot of stories that I can tell you that might explain that, but…….
D: Again as you say, people are still being locked in. I've heard that happening in America too. These fast fashion brands have made an absolute fortune during the last year, to the point that they could float themselves on the stock market. One from the UK recently had their goods refused by the US because of evidence of modern slavery in their supply chain.
L: I haven't heard about that. It’s quite paradoxical in one way, because even under the last President of the USA, there were some really good statutes from the states about not admitting goods, about addressing this issue in quite a serious way in terms of public procurement and so forth. The first piece of transparency in supply chain legislation, I think, in the world, came from California. That was about 2005. So when we came to create our Modern Slavery Act, there was a kind of model there already. It may surprise some people to learn that the USA can be quite strict on these issues. Other things that aren't so great like when Rwanda, I think it was Rwanda, said we're not accepting any more of your old clothes to put into our landfill….in that example the Rwandans were threatened with sanctions by the USA.
D: Having read Fashionopolis, the US do have modern slavery as well.
L: I don’t think that there is one country in the world that doesn’t.
D: It's shocking. And then we have what is happening to the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
L: Effectively a pogrom really, ethnic cleansing in inverted commas. We should think very carefully about why it is that some minorities are being persecuted, and some are more, quote unquote popular, that is some are more likely to have their plight addressed than others. Why is that? Why is it alright for these Muslims in various parts of the world to be persecuted in this way?
D: And they are native to the country. It's not like they've just arrived, not that, that would be an excuse, but these are people belong there, that is their country. Why does this ever happen?
L: It’s because it's in somebody's interest to do it. There are some really good documentaries on Netflix. I was watching one called Rotten, which is really interesting. It exposes some of the dodgy practises in food which does touch on modern forms of slavery. It's about prisoners in China being used to skin garlic. Apparently in the USA, the chefs demand that the garlic is skinned so that you only get the bulb with that none of the papery stuff on the outside. In China they use prisoners to do that. I won't tell you how they do it and what the consequences are, because it's awful. Campaigners and activists keep prodding away at this, saying this has not been solved simply because it's not in the news anymore.
D: Because you can't see it doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
L: We are complicit because we're buying fish. Not me personally I don’t eat fish. We want to buy cheap fish, and of course if you're struggling to put food on the table why would you think further than that?
D: You have brought young people into parliament and I know that you are championing their voices which we are seeing more since the school strikes are happening with Greta and with Extinction Rebellion. It's more in the public consciousness with the voices of social justice and the Black Lives Movement. How do we keep that cross pollination and keep kids interested in keeping all of this going, going forward?
L: Those of us who can, should. Those of us who are in positions to engage with the movers and shakers of now, and the future, and who may not even see themselves as such, like young people, who have been told they can't do this, and they can't do that. The reason I try and work with as many young people as possible is to think about that succession. Who is going to carry on this work into the future? We need to make sure we have as many younger people as possible, who feel intellectually and emotionally become equipped to be able to use the mechanisms, that exist, use them back against the mechanism. What I mean by that is to understand how politics work. I think it's appalling that we don't teach politics in schools. By that I don’t mean to indoctrinate people, young people into party politics. It is about understanding. I remember doing some work with the cultural sector, creative sector not fashion at that time. But art, museums and archives. We did a lot of work around leadership, a lot of programmes around leadership and diversity. I always remember saying to a group of highly intelligent very articulate younger people who were moving into these leadership roles who's the local MP for the area where your arts organisations situated? Most of them couldn't tell me. So I said, well what about your local councillors, who's got cabinet responsibility for culture in the boroughs in which your organisation is situated? Again, you need to know this, because if you think that you're going to get anywhere simply by moaning about there not being enough money for the arts…you’re wrong! You've got to be able to navigate your way through the system, and the mechanisms that are put up to stop you protesting and complaining about things in an activist way. These things are important because you can't only have a relationship with them when it's election time and only saying then that they should spend more money on the arts and culture. I was talking about that then, and I think that's equally important now. Some people laugh when you say you should write to your MP. They have to reply to you. They say, ‘well why should I do that? What's the point?’ Well what’s the point in doing nothing? As I say you can sit in a corner and moan, and cry, and complain which is good, because it means you recognise that something's wrong. But if that's the limit of what you can do, then okay, that's your limit. But you should seriously think about whether there's anything more active, more proactive that you can do that would chip away at these, very well established systems and ways of thinking.
D: If it was taught in school, it would give you the tools to know how to write to your MP and approach properly.
L: It is important, I always remember talking to one MP, and she said that she would literally get calls from people, where Argos hadn't delivered the washing machine on time saying, ‘Talk to Argos for me’. Another group in her constituency would say ‘that this side of the grass is being cut quarter of an inch lower than the other side why is this?’ So remember, those people will be on your MP's case, so why shouldn't you be? Especially on some of these really big important issues that require an MP’s intervention. Get involved. In schools, people don't even know what the House of Lords does. I mean, I'm very critical of the House of Lords as an unelected chamber. But you have to look at what it actually does, and understand what the function is, so that if you say abolish the House of Lords and put nothing in its place, you've got a rampant government, an executive with no checks and balances.
D: I wrote something here that I wanted to say which was, progress needs to be linear and fashion needs to be circular.
L: That's interesting, because I've been telling people for the past week or so that progress isn't linear. Really you have to decide what it is you're progressing towards. At the moment and historically there are thousands of different views on what we should be progressing towards. What you and I might identify as progressive might seem deeply abhorrent to somebody else. Certainly fashion and other goods could be much more circular, particularly fashion, because with textiles you've got the ability to reuse, in a myriad of different ways.
D: Historically the fashion industry is a huge beast, that started in the UK. We were treating people diabolically in Manchester etc, way back a hundred or so, ago. Even my mother and Aunts worked in a linen mill in Ireland when they left school. Now it's now across the globe and my I'm hearing that the next place that they're going is Ethiopia.
L: Oh, they are there already. There are shoes and things being made there. But the continent of Africa is at a very interesting moment with regard to its relationship to former colonisers. There’s recognition of its own power and internationalism and its pan Africanism. I think that the Chinese intervention there was a bit of a shaking up and unnerving for a lot of British people. But the fact it is already in Ethiopia’ is because it wants to expand in a particular way.
D: It feels like Africa is on the verge of hopefully fantastic things and not further exploitation.
L: Gosh, don’t let’s even go there, because, the reason we are able to converse via our phones, smart phones and iPad is because of the extraction of cadmium and other minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo, etc, etc. Then if you relate what’s happened and is still happening there, it can be seen as a continuation of the Belgian colonisation of that country - then it was rubber that was extracted, and people were mutilated if they didn't produce enough of that substance. Now, they send children down these mines to extract those minerals for our smart phones.
Lots of work to do.