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Chi Onwurah

Member of Parliament for Newcastle Upon Tyne Central 

 

And - Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science & Innovation

When I was younger I remember thinking being the MP for the place you grew up would be the most amazing thing - I didn't think that would be me, I just did not see anyone like me who was an MP.

What do you do?

I represent the people of Newcastle Central in Parliament – the best job in the world! This means regularly speaking up for Newcastle on everything from the economy, jobs and skills, to local health and transport services, to arts and culture.

 

I’m also the Labour Party’s Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation. It’s my job to push for the Government to invest in more jobs and infrastructure, and to speak up for our scientists and the importance of innovation to the UK economy.

Before this I was an electrical engineer for 20 years. As an engineer I specialised in building out infrastructure in new markets and standardising wholesale Ethernet access. My last role before entering parliament was as head of Telecoms Technology for Ofcom, the Communications Regulator.

Why did you choose this field?

"I became a politician for the same reason I became an engineer 20 years earlier - to make the world work better for everyone."

I always wanted to study engineering since I was nine years old. I wanted to know how the world worked. I remember learning about Archimedes and the displacement of water (the so-called ‘Eureka!’ moment). I went home, filled the kitchen sink with water, and put various utensils into it to try and see how much water I could slop over the side. My mum was not particularly keen on this method! I also remember going to the science museum with my mum where I’d see the Turbinia, the first turbine-powered steamship, built in Newcastle in 1894. It was just such a work of beautiful engineering and the fastest ship in the world at the time it was built, but also powerful and useful. That really did inspire me.

 

The original inspiration for my interest in politics was my mum who was a hugely committed Labour Party member. She was born in 1927 and grew up in the Depression years in real poverty on Newcastle’s Quayside. She made sure I knew that council houses, schools and hospitals didn’t just erupt from the ground like brick and mortar mushrooms, they had to be struggled for – by generations of working people who fought to make them a priority for Government. I joined the Labour Party when I was 16 and was elected as the Labour MP for the Kenton School in mock elections when I was 17.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

Becoming MP for Newcastle Central!

When I was younger I remember thinking that being the MP for the place you grew up would be a most amazing thing - I didn’t think that would be me, I just did not see anyone like me who was an MP. In fact if it wasn’t for all women shortlists I wouldn’t have stood for selection in Newcastle Central. I would have assumed that some man had already been tending the constituency for years and knew all the right people. I wasn’t going to throw my hat into the ring if someone else had already bought the circus…

Now in retrospect I think I would have had a really good chance in an open selection. But I didn’t know that at the time. I underestimated my abilities and I overestimated the requirements of the job. Don’t get me wrong, this is a really challenging job and politics isn’t easy. But I overestimated the requirements because I thought you had to be perfect and a genius. 

Why do you love working in STEM?

Since science has such a universal impact, and is part of everything, which surrounds us, it never gets boring. This is crucial, because being interested and excited about your work when you get up each morning is the luckiest position to be in. The great thing about science is that you are always inspired.

Best advice for the next generation

You don’t have to have your A-levels; you can start from the very beginning. For me the very beginning is one plus one equals two. If you can understand that you can go forward step by step to learn the skills you need to have a role in engineering and science.

 

Engineering is absolutely everywhere: it’s understanding the world about you, how it works and being able to make a difference. It's never too late.

Fun fact

I drive a 1991 Saab car. It’s not very environmental so I don’t drive it often, I’ve recently taken to cycling as much as possible. But it’s ironic that as an electrical engineer I prefer an older, simpler car when today’s cars are in some ways more electrical and computer engineering than anything else!