First, I want to express my deep gratitude to the people of Leicester East for electing me to this place. It is truly an honour to represent the city where I was born and where I grew up — the city my parents made their home. Leicester, of course, is full of surprises. I mean, who would have imagined that it would become home to the most famous car park in the world, where the remains of King Richard III were found, and who would have imagined that Leicester City football club, ranked 5,000-1 outsiders, would be crowned premier league champions in 2016?
Leicester is bursting with talent and inventiveness. We have the National Space Centre on the edge of my constituency, vibrant theatres and concert halls, and our world-famous Diwali festival on the Golden Mile. Leicester’s Attenborough arts centre is one of only five in the country to be purpose-built for disabled artists and audiences. You know, in any fish and chip shop across the country, you will find no better pie than Leicester’s Pukka Pie. There is no better cheese than Red Leicester, no better packet of crisps than Walkers, and no better vegetarian curry house than in my constituency of Leicester East.
I would like to pay tribute to my predecessor, Keith Vaz, the longest-serving British Asian MP, who represented Leicester East for 32 years. The 1987 election, when Keith Vaz was elected, was a watershed moment in the history of race relations in this country. There had been no black MPs for over half a century. Keith Vaz became only the third British Asian ever elected to this parliament. That election also brought to this House pioneering black MPs Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant and – my inspiration – my right hon. friend the member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, the first black woman ever elected to parliament.
I am proud to be part of the parliament with the highest number of African, Asian and minority ethnic MPs ever. Over his long parliamentary career, Keith Vaz advanced the cause of representation and race equality while also holding major positions, including minister for Europe and, famously, chair of the home affairs committee. Keith is of course a passionate campaigner on the issue of diabetes. He also did truly important work in highlighting the UK’s involvement in what he rightly called the “forgotten war” in Yemen. Madam deputy speaker, I am sure you will join me in wishing Keith Vaz and his family well in his retirement from this House.
As a feminist, it is a privilege to be addressing this House as the first female MP for Leicester East. I am also proud to be the first British-born member of parliament of African descent from the beautiful Caribbean island of Nevis. My parents came from Nevis to the UK and, remarkably, given a Nevisian population of just 11,000, they met for the first time here. They settled in Leicester, where I was born, so Leicester of course runs through my veins.
I am a daughter of the Windrush generation, and we must never forget the history of struggle of African, Caribbean and Asian people in this so-called United Kingdom, without whose blood, sweat, toil and tears there simply would be no kingdom and no form of modern prosperity. I have no doubt that my ancestors are here with me today. And I share the pain of their suffering because of the historical injustice of slavery and colonialism, but I also share their joy at the liberation that brings me to this place today. Throughout the centuries my foremothers argued for and suffered and died for the freedoms I enjoy here today in this place. With my presence in this House, Commonwealth history and the British empire cannot hide.
We cannot talk about the present without recognition, apology, returning what was stolen and reparations for the past. One fifth of the billionaires in Britain owe their wealth to the transportation of my ancestors, because they benefited from the compensation of the equivalent of £20bn in today’s value for the ‘human property’ they somehow lost at sea. It is to our shame that members of this House during the mid to late 1700s represented slave plantations, and let us not forget that British colonialism reduced India from holding 23% of the world economy to 4% by the time the British left.
How many in this House know or care about the British torture camps in 1950s Kenya, where members of the Kikuyu tribe were systematically tortured, starved, beaten, mistreated and raped? How many in this House know or care about the massacre committed by British colonial groups in the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar massacre? And let us not forget that working people here from all over the Commonwealth died in their thousands in both world wars, only to see their descendants shackled and deported in the continued shame that is the hostile environment.
My father, along with his his identical twin brother, worked as an engineer’s hand at the former Wadkin factory on Green Lane in what is now my constituency of Leicester East, but those unionised factories, jobs and industries of the past were destroyed, along with Leicester’s manufacturing base, by Thatcherism in the pursuit of free-market capitalism.
Leicester is considered the home to the garment industry. My mother was a home-worker, skilled as a dressmaker, a seamstress and an overlocker. But in Leicester’s garment industry today many workers, overwhelmingly women, earn well below the minimum wage — as little as £3 an hour in conditions that most people would find unthinkable in modern Britain. That is the legacy of Tory deindustrialisation, yet Leicester is the place where working women fought back. It was Asian women who went on strike for equal pay at Leicester’s Imperial Typewriter Company factory, and it was those women who led the way in equal pay, race equality, and employment. I pay tribute to them.
I am incredibly proud that Leicester is one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse places in the UK. Our city’s identity is forged from a proud history of immigration from the Commonwealth and beyond. Over two thirds — 68% — of my constituents are from an African, Asian or minority ethnic background, and nearly half of our residents were born outside the UK. We are home to 240 faith groups across 14 different faiths and our residents hail from 50 countries across the globe.
This is what makes Leicester East so special. We are the city where the minorities make up the majority, and we are richer for this vibrant exchange of cultures. But racism and the far right have left an indelible stain on the history of my constituency. Enoch Powell’s racist “rivers of blood” speech in 1968 gave rise to the National Front and its message of hatred and intolerance across my constituency, but the history of Leicester’s anti-racist activists, campaigners and organisers who fought back against the rise of organised racism is a source of great pride and inspiration.
In April 1979, when the National Front organised a 1,000-strong rally in Leicester starting at Welford Road recreation ground, they were confronted by 2,000 anti-racist protestors who withstood police violence to send the message out loud and clear that racism shall not pass through Leicester. It was a turning point in the decline of the National Front. We even renamed Welford Road recreation ground: fittingly, we renamed it Nelson Mandela Park.
The right for different communities and cultures, and for people of all faiths and none, to live side-by-side has been won through generations of struggle. I do not take our unity and solidarity for granted. This government, a government for the super-rich, the oligarchs the tax dodgers, are still trying to divide our communities based on the colour of our skin, our religion or where we come from. I know only too well the hurt that my constituents feel when the government legitimise the dehumanisation and marginalisation of African, Caribbean, Asian and minority ethnic communities by deporting our people and embracing institutionalised racism, as was revealed by the Windrush scandal and the hostile environment. The continued detentions, deportations and charter flights are simply barbaric.
In communities like mine, this government have normalised hunger, poverty and hopelessness. It should be a national disgrace in the sixth richest country in the world for a single person to be without food, and for just one parent to have to choose between heating their home and feeding their children. Yet more and more families in my constituency are relying on food banks every year, and fuel poverty is growing. Nearly 40% of children in Leicester East are growing up in poverty. As the 1% increase their share of the national wealth, our regions are pulled further and further apart in terms of income inequality and life chances.
Leicester was recently shown to be one of the most polluted cities in the UK. I vow to fight for clean air. I vow to fight for clean energy and climate justice, so that my constituents and people across the world, particularly the global south, can have a liveable future. It is vital that those responsible for climate chaos, the fossil fuel companies and big polluters, are not allowed to profit from climate breakdown, and instead pay their fair share so that future generations can inherit a habitable planet.
I am proud of my party. I am proud of the leadership of my right hon. friend the member for Islington North in opposing austerity, opposing corporate power, tackling inequality and the climate emergency, and for having rewritten the terms of political debate. Madam deputy speaker, I stand before you today in the lineage of people who fought to keep our culture and traditions alive, and to keep the shackles off our feet. I come from a people who survived: survived the evils of slavery. Today, and every day, I am grateful that they never gave up. I vow that as Leicester East’s new MP, I too will never give up. I will work hard to protect all my constituents and fight against those who wish to pit our communities against each another.