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My experience as Camden’s first ethnic minority leader

What follows is the text of speech given to the Camden Black Workers Group on May 21st this year.

I think that I am being asked about my experiences as Camden’s first ethic minority leader. It was a long time ago and the period was very short but I think that I can just about remember it.

The first thing that I would say is that being an ethnic minority does not define the views that you take or the positions that you adopt.  But you are shaped by your experiences – be you Asian, Black or white, gay or straight. ; Being of a different colour, a different religion, a different upbringing all of those experiences  helps shape the person that you become and perhaps the decisions that you take.

The first questions is what is that experience ; I was born and brought up in Northern Ireland – where I lived for 18 years of my life ;  I grew up during the height of the troubles – bombings, hunger strikes were part of a daily backdrop  – and the understanding of what can happen in extreme circumstances when societies ate unequal and divided.

My father had come to Northern Ireland in the 1950s  – he literally had £5 in his pocket and somewhere with his brothers; He was a door to door salesman – going around Catholic areas because other traders wouldn’t do that. My mum came over a couple of years later not speaking a word of English – raised the kids – helped out with the business – the first Asian woman in Northern Ireland to pass a driving test.

Initially it was that clichéd immigration experience; three families lived in one house. They went on doing door to door sales, then market trading, before owning their own businesses and came out doing quite well. (certainly by the time I came along)

There are a few things that I take from that

1.    Firstly, however difficult and frustrating life is for me or indeed for for us at times – it is nothing compared to the generation that went before.  We owe them a great debt.

2.    Secondly, don’t let anyone ever say to you or imply or infer that immigration is bad thing. I am the child of immigrant and god damn it, I am proud of it and I am proud of what we have done.

Growing up in that environment can certainly make you feel the outsider,  segregation in Ireland, the difference of being Indian in that environment.  I sometimes classify myself as an Irish-Asian – and you cannot get more of an ethnic minority than that.

I have been in Camden for about 15 years. I  have always been a card carrying member of the Labour Party. It was one of the excitements on coming to England from Ireland because in Ireland, you were actually banned from being a member of the Labour Party. In 1991, you could be a member of the party in Baghdad but not Belfast.

I only became involved in local politics after the race riots in northern towns in 2001. We had had the riots in the 80s where large number of ethnic minorities had taken part – they were really riots against the police; against the state for the discrimination that they were suffering.

To me 2001 was different; these were race riots; different parts of the community fighting against each other. There was much talk in the press afterwards about a lack of leadership, a lack of community cohesion; I thought, if I care about this stuff, then I should participate – I should involve myself and I did. I stood for the local council; I have been an active citizen of this Borough ever since. I became Leader in 2005.

So inequality or discrimination is not something that I put on a list of things that we should talk about or act on. It is the very essence of why I was interested in politics in the first place and the very reason that I became active in Camden.

I will share with you, my first meeting with the then Chief Executive Moira Gibb. She said to me – we have lots of things to do, provide better services, show community leadership – what is it that you want to achieve when you leave as Leader. I replied – one measure – (however we measure it),  to reduce inequality – That should be our guiding aim our guiding principle that every other decision can be measured against.

I didn’t quite have long enough to implement that but I remain committed to it as the guiding philosophy.

Being Leader of Camden is perhaps something one of best things you can do. It is a unique borough, with its diversity, its challenges (often from staff); It is a fantastic organisation.  I have only got admiration for those that commit to public service ethos and make things better for our citizens. It is still one of the proudest things that I can say is that I led the organisation called Camden Council.

Is it more difficult as an ethic minority? – no – there are different challenges. There are at times those that seek to highlight differences as if you are not “one of them” – but the advantage is that you can draw on the richness of your experiences to lead.  After 7/7, I could understand and feel the fear of Muslim communities and it was important to reassure as well challenge any irrationality.

Whatever others say, having that richness of experience only adds to your skills and enhances what we can achieve.

I want each of you to reach what achievements you can make. I want to see if the first ethnic minority leader in Camden can really be a short footnote in history of this borough because we have had the option of so many others ; to go along with ethnic minority Chief Officers and Chief Executives.

Comrades – over to you.