The rich history of BME MPs

By Sacha Ismail

11 June was the 33rd anniversary of the election of four black and Asian Labour MPs – including Diane Abbott, the first BME woman elected to the UK Parliament.

This is an anniversary we should celebrate. For socialists, who gets into Parliament is not near the top of the list of significant political changes. Nonetheless, it does have political, practical and symbolic importance. The story of BME MPs highlights a rich wider history of struggles.

I’m using “BME” to avoid both “non-white” and any ambiguity around the term “black” (which can obviously mean black, Asian, etc, or just African-Caribbean).

Of course, “BME” could also cover Jewish-background MPs. Until 1858, there were restrictions on Jewish people entering Parliament, but this was a religious and not in any sense an ethnic qualification. Not long before that various Christian denominations, including Catholics, had also been excluded.

The 19th century saw numerous Jewish MPs; it is a different history from the one I am discussing here. It should, though, be pointed out that the first Jewish Labour MP, Manny Shinwell, was not elected until 1922.

The consensus is that the first BME MP was the part-Indian Whig David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre, elected in 1841. Sombre was only in Parliament until 1842, when he was unseated by a petition for corruption. Henry Galgagus Redhead Yorke, son of a mixed-race Barbudan ex-radical, was also a Whig, MP for York 1841-8.

There is then a big gap, as there would also be in the mid-20th century. In 1892 Finsbury Central elected the Indian nationalist and radical Liberal Dadabhai Naoroji. Naoroji was much more clearly “BME” than the MPs mentioned so far. When he stood unsuccessfully for Holborn in 1986, the Tory Prime Minister Lord Salisbury intervened to say he did not think English voters would elect a “black man”.

Naoroji lost his seat in 1895 but did not disappear from political activism. He was not only central to the development of India’s national independence movement, but drew close to the Socialist International.

Naoroji came from India’s tiny Parsi community – descendants of the Zoroastrians who fled to India in the wake up of the Islamic conquest of Iran. Ernest Staples, Liberal MP for Barnstaple (1900-11), was half Indian, his father from Goa; in terms of how he was seen, he fits more into the Dyce Sombre mold. Remarkably, the next two unambiguously BME MPs were also Indian Parsis.

Mancherjee Bhownaggree was Tory MP for Bethnal Green 1895-1906. And most importantly for this story, Shapurji Saklatvala was MP for Battersea North, 1922-23 and 1924-9 – the first BME Labour MP.

Soon I will write about Saklatvala specifically. Still not widely known despite a recent revival in interest, he is an utterly remarkable figure, not only historically but in terms of potential political importance for the socialist movement today.

From a junior branch of the capitalist dynasty which owned the Tata empire, Saklatvala came to Britain to recover from ill health, became a socialist, joined the Independent Labour Party and then after the Russian Revolution Britain’s new Communist Party.

In 1922, when Communists were still active in the Labour Party, he was selected as the Labour candidate for working-class stronghold Battersea North – with the help of John Archer, himself a pioneer of BME representation. Archer, who was half-Barbadian and half-Irish, was a pan-Africanist activist and mayor of Battersea, the first black mayor in London.

Part of the post-war global socialist upsurge, Saklatvala championed working-class struggles in Britain and both working-class and independence struggles in its colonies, above all India, from which the British government at various points banned him. His politics, character and role are summed up by the fact he was the first person arrested during the 1926 General Strike, after a speech calling on soldiers to support the strikers.

After 1925 the Communists were purged from the Labour Party. In 1929, John Archer helped run the Labour campaign which ejected Saklatvala from Parliament.

After that, there were no BME MPs until the 1980s! In 1983 two mixed-ethnicity Tory MPs who did not see themselves as being minority ethnic, Richard Hickmet and Jonathan Sayeed – and then in 1987 Bernie Grant, Keith Vaz, Paul Boateng and Diane Abbott.

Now, with many new BME Labour MPs, socialists should celebrate and learn from the history and tradition of Diane Abbott – but even more so from the history and tradition of Shapurji Saklatvala.

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