This article is from the January issue of Total Politics
What was it like coming into Parliament in 1987 as the first Asian MP in a long time?
Absolutely amazing. From representing a constituency like Leicester, which is very multicultural, to then come to Westminster to be able to get elected here was amazing. It was a Labour gain: unlike for Diane [Abbott] and Bernie Grant and Paul [Boeteng], who won Labour seats, we won a Conservative seat in Leicester East from high-prolife MP Peter Bruinvels. I didn’t expect to win – it was a big shock. Then, to come into a completely different political culture from that which I was used to was an amazing experience.
Religion has been part of your politics. You were involved in a march to have The Satanic Verses banned…
I’m a Roman Catholic, so that was a march for the Muslim community, in particular. In those days we used to have marches that were pretty well organised. It was about raising the concerns of my constituents, who were very worried that this book was causing a lot of problems to people.
You’re a Labour MP, yet you’ve spoken about banning video games, which can strike people as ‘small c’ conservative. You’ve also supported homeopathy and things like that, which strikes me as quite liberal. How would you define your political centre?
I’d say that I was in the centre of mainstream politics, with different views on different moral, social issues, but with a common understanding, as a Labour MP, that we still live in a society where people are not equal. The overriding importance of having Labour in government is to prosecute a policy of equality, in all senses of the word. Social equality, economic quality, a sense of fairness: that’s what underpins my political philosophy. I don’t think that’s changed in the last 25 years, but the Labour Party has changed in the last 25 years.
Who’s been your favourite party leader to serve under?
Ed Miliband, of course, because he is a person of enormous courage, and he is there now. Therefore he’s giving the party a fresh impetus, and he’s absolutely real, middle-of-the-road Labour. And I’ve known him the longest. I’ve served under Blair, and although he was a superb PM, I’ve known Ed since he was very young, so I feel more affinity towards him. I can text Ed. I’m not sure that I ever texted Blair or Gordon Brown.
Do you text about Labour issues or about personal stuff?
Everything. We text everybody. I think everyone texts him, and he texts everybody.
He’s new generation, so he’s constantly tweeting. I don’t tweet. I haven’t made that one journey beyond, simply because I can’t trust myself with what I say.
Are people a lot more careful about what they say now?
Yes. Over the quarter-century, there have been fewer and fewer individualists in the chamber, or maybe it’s because I was new, so I was in awe of them. People are much less willing to say individual things. The party system’s very important, because that’s what binds us together, but I think the American system is better. There, members of the legislature are much more independent. Though accepting the party label, and accepting that they only got elected because of that label, they’re able to do things in a more individualistic way, without falling foul of the party rules. That’s why I like the select committee system; it enables you to rise above party politics.