Parmjit Dhanda’s new book, My Political Race, is a modern political tale of the highs and lows of political life. It is also, more importantly, a tale of aspiration to succeed against the odds, to rise up from a poor immigrant background from the farmlands of Punjab, to be elected to an overwhelmingly white constituency and then ultimately promoted to ministerial level under two prime ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Parmjit’s book is a timely reminder of the need to have a parliament which looks like the country as a whole. He is the only Sikh to have served as a government minister and, following the May 2015 general election, there are no longer any Sikh members of parliament. Reading the book you get a real insight in to the hurdles and prejudices that many ‘white’ aspiring politicians do not encounter. This makes Parmjit’s achievements even more remarkable. The book gives a great insight what you have to go through to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. When Parmjit was selected over the hot favourite Janet Royall (later to become Baroness Royall and Labour’s leader in the Lords) in Gloucester prior to the 2001 general election, it was a triumph not only for the tall gangly brown-skinned union official from west London but a triumph by the Gloucester Labour party, looking beyond the race of the candidate. At that moment, there seemed to be hope.
The book is fast paced and moves swiftly through Parmjit’s life starting from his formative years in Southall in the 1970s and 1980s, starting work as a Labour party organiser, becoming selected in Gloucester and then his years in parliament. What comes through is his Sikh faith and family providing the guiding principles to do his best and to make a difference to the lives of people. Parmjit is justly proud of the Old Docks regeneration in Gloucester that he made happen and which he recounts with pride in the book.
What comes across in Parmjit’s story is his ability to do things his way whilst maintaining an air of grace and good manners. I think he would put this down to his good Indian upbringing. He tells of him rebelling in the Iraq war vote even when Blair tried consistently to persuade him personally of the case for military action. However, this did not stop Blair promoting him to the government following the 2005 general election, which must be a testament to the way Parmjit conducted himself.
I was surprised to read about his audacious attempt at standing for Speaker of the House of Commons, which was won by the current speaker John Bercow. What was not surprising, having begun to understand Parmjit from his book, was that he focused his campaign on changing parliament, to open it up, to move away from archaic traditions and away from the Westminster bubble. Despite losing, his vision won plaudits from David Cameron and Nick Clegg.
While Parmjit lost his seat in 2010, the book is not a downbeat story. It is full of witty and humorous anecdotes such as Prince Phillip’s two-fingered salute to him, his encounter with Margaret Thatcher in 2007 and the campaign visits from the force of nature that is John Prescott. Ultimately, the book poses fundamental and serious questions to us as to what diverse political representation should look like and a warning for Labour that the ‘Asian’ vote is eroding.
Whatever Parmjit’s done in his political life, he has made winning with ‘pyar’ his priority. You will have to read the book to know what that means!
Vijay Singh Riyait is a councillor on Leicester city council. He tweets @vriyait
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