Britain’s first Black female MP

When I first started this blog for my MA in International Journalism I knew that one of the areas I really wanted to cover was the impact of Caribbean people on British politics.

As a child of the ’90s I was acutely aware that in 1987 the first four Black MPs to serve in the House of Commons had been elected including the first Black female MP Diane Abbott who is of Jamaican descent.

As I dug deeper I was surprised to find that these trailblazers were actually preceded into public office by two members of the House of Lords, Sir Learie Constantine and Lord David Pitt, and that they had followed Dr Allan Glaisyer Minns who had become the first person of Caribbean descent ever elected to public office in the UK as far back as 1903.

But I guess Diane Abbott stands out from this group because she was the first Black female MP so when I started this blog I really wanted to talk to her about her experiences not just as an MP but as a Black Briton.

I contacted her office for an interview and her PA returned my email and asked for my questions which he said he would put to Ms Abbott even though she is busy campaigning to become Labour’s candidate for London Mayor – I sent back a long list including:

– what was it like growing up as a black child in Britain in the 60s and 70s
– did you feel any conflict between being Black and being British
– what was it like being elected in 1987 along with Keith Vaz, Bernie Grant, Paul Boetang
– what were your main goals as a young black, female politician
– was being in public office all that you expected

Unfortunately Ms Abbott did not get back to me and I am still waiting for any sort of reply.

However this week I read that she had given an interview to the BBC’s Witness programme, during which she talked about her political career and what it was like to be the first Black female MP, and if you can take a listen I recommend it – BBC witness: Britain’s first Black woman MP.


The winds of change

In 2010 27 Black and Ethnic Minority (BME) MPs were elected to serve in the House of Commons which was 12 more than in the previous Parliament although this is still only 4.2% of 650 MPs.

The 27 BME MPs are significantly short of the estimated 84 required for the Commons to be representative of the ethnic composition of the wider British population, however any increase is an improvement and shows the positive contribution people from differing backgrounds are making in British politics.

All of the current BME MPs represent a range of ancestry including Uganda, Ghana, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria among others, but there is no doubt that they all owe a debt of gratitude to the black politicians that went before them either in the House of Commons or the House of Lords.

Below is an infographic showing the history of black Caribbean parliamentarians in the UK from the first peer in 1969 to the current representatives.

Black Caribbean parliamentarians

References / further reading:


A revolutionary politician

“Some black people regard me as an Uncle Tom, while some whites regard me as a Black Power revolutionary. So I imagine I got it about right.” – Lord David Pitt

If someone asked you who was Britain’s longest-serving black Caribbean parliamentarian I suppose you wouldn’t have a clue.

I didn’t either until I started this blog and researched it and that is why I think it is so important for people to know their history and to learn about influential figures from the past who faced trials and challenges but never let that stop them from making a contribution.

The answer, by the way, is Lord David Pitt.


Lord Pitt was probably not much different from any other person of Caribbean birth who moved to the UK in the early 20th century, hoping for a better life, but he was obviously filled with a passion to use his talents to help others and that is what he did in the spheres of medicine and politics.

Lord Pitt was born in Grenada in 1913 and he came to Britain at the age of 20 after winning a scholarship to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh. As a student he worked hard but he also actively took part in political debates and societies and in 1936 he joined the Labour movement mainly driven by a desire to help the poor working class.

When he finished studying Lord Pitt went to Trinidad and Tobago, started his own medical practice and got married. But he also continued his interest in politics and in 1941 was elected to the San Fernando Borough Council. Two years later he became a founding member and leader of the influential West Indian National Party.


In 1947 Lord Pitt returned to England and set up a practice in Euston, London. In the 1950s he was involved in local politics and in 1957, after he gave a speech at the Labour Party conference, he was asked to stand as the party’s candidate in the 1959 General Election for the north London constituency of Hampstead.

As one of the first black political candidates in the UK, Lord Pitt received death threats and abuse and the campaign became more about his colour than real issues, so it was no surprise when he lost the vote to the white Conservative candidate.

But he did not let defeat deter him and he continued to play an active role in politics, and in 1961 he was elected to the London County Council (which later became the Greater London Council or GLC) as member for Hackney. He was deputy chair of the GLC from 1969 to 1970 and in 1974 he was the first black person to chair the GLC.

Despite all that he had been through Lord Pitt decided to run for parliament one more time in 1970 as the Labour candidate for the ‘safe’ seat of Clapham. The outcome was inevitable at a time when Enoch Powell was stirring up racial hatred and discrimination and Lord Pitt lost the seat to the Conservatives.

In February 1975 Lord Pitt’s long-standing and immense contribution to politics in Britain was recognised by the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson who gave him a life peerage in the Lords and he was created Baron Pitt of Hampstead in Greater London and of Hampstead in Grenada. As a peer he continued to play a significant role in politics especially in shaping the 1976 Race Relations Act and in condemning apartheid in South Africa.

City of London Corp

City of London Corp

In 1985 Lord Pitt was made president of the British Medical Association, which he described as his most valued honour, and this underlines the high esteem he must have been held in by his peers in the medical profession. He died in 1994.

Lord Pitt’s political career could have been very different if people had been prepared to look beyond his skin colour but what his achievements over the course of a lifetime ultimately highlight is how important it is not to let other people tell you what you can and can’t do.

I have learnt so much from reading about Lord Pitt’s remarkable life but most of all his response to setbacks and knock downs demonstrates to me how important it is to keep moving forward and to use your God-given talents to try to make the world a better place – if not for yourself then for people like you who will come afterwards.

References / further reading:

Politics and race in the UK

A General Election is just around the corner and as poll after poll seems to suggest that this result could be one of the tightest ever, people from Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority (BAME) communities are set to play a huge part in who takes power in May 2015.

The major parties are jumping on the diversity bandwagon so it’s hard to cast your mind back to May 1987 when the face of British politics was changed forever and four Black MPs were elected to the House of Commons for the first time.

Two of those MPs had Caribbean origins – Bernie Grant was born in Georgetown,Guyana and Diane Abbott was the daughter of Jamaican immigrants.

Grant was the Member of Parliament for Tottenham from 1987 to his death in 2000 and Abbott, who was also the first Black woman MP, has represented Hackney North and Stoke Newington for 28 years.

But before these trailblazers took their seats in the UK parliament they were preceded into senior public office by two lesser known Caribbean pioneers, Dr Allan Glaisyer Minns and John Archer.


Dr Allan Glaisyer Minns

Dr Minns was born in Inagua in the Bahamas in 1858 and was educated at Nassau Grammar School before moving to the UK to train as a doctor at Guy’s Hospital, London. The records show that Dr Minns’ paternal grandfather John emigrated from England to the Bahamas in 1801 and married a former African slave called Rosette.

Dr Minns moved to Thetford in Norfolk after his medical training and worked as the medical officer at Thetford workhouse and the Cottage Hospital before seeking election to the town council.

In 1903 he became the first person of Caribbean descent to reach public office in the UK when he was elected as a councillor. A year later he became Britain’s first Black Mayor and kept that position for two years.

He moved to Dorking in 1923 and died in 1930.


John Archer

Born in Liverpool in 1863, John Archer was the son of a Barbadian ship’s steward and an Irish woman.

After moving to Battersea with his Black Canadian wife Margaret in the early 1890s, Archer tried his hand at many different careers including professional singer and medical student before opening a small photographic studio.

Archer regularly took part in open air public meetings and debates and around 1900 he joined the Battersea Labour League.

In 1906 Archer was elected as a councillor on Battersea Borough Council. He lost his seat in 1909 but was elected again in 1912 and was promoted to leader of the council or Mayor of Battersea in 1913 – he served in that position for a year before the outbreak of WWI.

John Archer died in July 1932 in St James Hospital, Balham, after a brief illness.

Archer’s biographer Sean Creighton had this to say about his achievements:

“He is a key figure in the story of the Black contribution in Britain in the early part of the twentieth century; not only was he active in black politics, arguing for social justice and more rights within the African and West Indian colonies, but he represented Battersea’s white working class on the Council and the Board of Guardians, and he championed the rights of the poor, the unemployed and First World War ex-servicemen.”

References / further reading: