Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Asian or non-white to be elected to the House of Commons, was remembered as top British politicians gathered to celebrate the growth in the number of non-white MPs from four in 1987 to 41 in 2015.
Recalling the distance Britain has travelled in accommodating diversity over the years, ministers and MPs said at the event on Wednesday evening that there is much ground to be covered, since the House of Commons is still not representative of a more diverse British population.
Of the first five non-white MPs, three were of Indian origin: Dadabhai Naoroji (elected in 1892), Mancherjee Bhownagree (1895) and Shapurji Shaklatvala (1922, 1924). Ten MPs of Indian origin were elected in 2015.
Until the early 1980s, only one non-white MPs was elected. It was in 1987 that for the first time four non-white MPs were elected: Keith Vaz, Dianne Abbott, Paul Boateng and Bernie Grant. Vaz and Abbott were present at the event organised by Operation Black Vote (OBV), a major charity organisation.
Vaz said: “OBV is one organisation that always celebrates the achievements of black and ethnic minority (BME) people. We should celebrate so many MPs now, but also need to inspire new communities such as the Somalis who also want to be in parliament. There is much to do.”
The event was attended by home secretary Theresa May, business secretary Sajid Javid, and several of the 41 BME MPs, who constitute 6% of the strength of the House of Commons. Britain’s BME population is 14%, which ideally numbers nearly 65 MPs.
Shailesh Vara, minister of justice in the David Cameron government, said: “I am the son of a carpenter who came here in the 1960s. I remember the racism in those days, but Britain has come a long way.
“We must pay tributes to this country that has made it possible for a person like me not only to be an MP but also a minister. There were no role models in politics for our community earlier; now there are so many of us on the front bench of both parties.”
One of what Simon Woolley of OBV called the “gang of four” of 1987, Abbott said: “We have to have a parliament that looks like Britain. It is hard to remember what it was like in 1987, when we were just four of us.”
Theresa May said: “Eighteen years ago, when I first entered parliament, I looked across the green benches around me and saw a chamber that was too white, too male, and with too many people from the same walk of life. Thanks to the fantastic work of organisations like Operation Black Vote, we’ve come a long way and parliament is better for it. There is a record number of black and ethnic minority MPs, more women than ever before, and an increasing number of openly gay MPs.”
She added: “But we still have so much further to go. This is something I have found all too often in the Home Office – and it’s why I’ve been determined to open up the closed shop of policing and ensure that police forces properly reflect the communities they serve. We want greater diversity in policing.”