My previous post BME Conservative MPs - the pioneers has attracted some interest and I know that several people have been surprised to learn that the first non-white Conservative MP was elected as long ago as 1895.
But what is also surprising is that Labour's first BME MP has equally been forgotten in some quarters. This week Diane Abbott wrote a piece for The Times entitled Labour democracy is strangled by these unfair rules: There will not be a single woman on the ballot paper in which she stated "We elected our first ethnic minority MPs more than 20 years ago." My attention was drawn to this by Daniel Hannan's Daily Telegraph blog post "The case for Diane Abbott" in which he highlighted the comment (and countered with "We elected our first ethnic minority MP 115 years ago" but I'll leave it to others to go into bat alongside Hannan). Abbott has overlooked one of the more interesting characters from her party's history but this may be deliberate. However I'm often one to bust the odd myth in the media and so here goes.
Shapurji Saklatvala managed the astounding feat of sitting in Parliament for no less than three parties simultaneously. Until the 1930s the Independent Labour Party was a "party within a party" within the Labour movement and it was not unusual for Labour MPs to also be members of the ILP. However Saklatvala was also a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, at a time when the Labour Party allowed dual membership. It was not until 1924 that the Labour Party introduced rules barring both dual membership and the endorsement of Communist candidates. In the meantime Saklatvala (who was born in Bombay in 1874 but came to the UK in 1905 to train as a barrister) was first elected for Battersea North in 1922 as a Communist endorsed by Labour. (Battersea was for a long time thought to have been the first place in the UK to have had a black Mayor, John Archer in 1913, but he is now known to have been preceded by Allan Glaisyer Minns in Thetford, Norfolk, in 1904.) He lost the seat in the 1923 election but won it back in 1924 without a Labour opponent. Finally in 1929 Labour fielded an opposing candidate and Saklatvala was beaten into third place; a final candidacy in 1931 produced much the same result. General histories tend only to mention Saklatvala's initial victory as one of the first Communist MPs but virtually nothing else of his Commons career - A.J.P. Taylor comments "he never made much mark" (English History 1914-1945 p.200) and otherwise mentions only that the atheist Communist rallied to the Protestant cause in the Prayer Book debate (p.259). Sunder Katwala's piece in Total Politics: A journey towards equal representation has little more to say beyond Saklatvala's "local popularity in the Independent Labour Party and trade union circles" that enabled his unusual candidacy in the first place. The Communist International's tribute upon his death in 1936, In Memoriam—Comrade Shapurji Saklatvala, offers a bit more, noting how Saklatvala was part of the Indian Nationalist movement and was denied entry to the US, Egypt and India, as well as being briefly jailed for activities during the General Strike. In addition he undertook many speaking tours. I am reminded of George Galloway and other hard left MPs over the years who have made a much greater impact outside the Commons than within it.
Given the complexity of his label, not to mention the Labour Party's desire to first cut all Communist links and then airbrush them from history, it is understandable that Saklatvala has slipped through the net of Labour history. He occupied an ambiguous border area in left wing politics, and when the borders were tightened up he was left outside it so it's understandable if people assume that was always the case.