MPs with ethnic minority backgrounds have been elected since the 19th century, but numbers still remain low. Sunder Katwala looks at the history of the multi-racial Commons

Today Brent South; tomorrow Soweto." Paul Boateng's rallying cry after his election count symbolised the spirit of insurgent optimism with which Boateng, Bernie Grant, Diane Abbott and Keith Vaz entered Parliament in 1987, very much conscious that they were the first black Britons to bring the multi-racial make-up of post-war Britain to the green benches of the House of Commons.

Apartheid crumbled quickly, allowing Boateng to later fulfil his own prophecy in an unexpected way by becoming Britain's High Commissioner in South Africa in 2005. Perhaps the story of the ethnic minority presence in Parliament has been more complex. It might, according to taste, be viewed as a tale of radical idealism lost, even betrayed, or of the evolution of a more complex story of race and representation as ideas about Britain's multi-ethnic society have changed.

Minority representation in the Commons did not begin in 1987. The pioneer is usually regarded as Dadabhai Naoroji, who represented Finsbury Central for the Liberals between 1892 and 1895. But a counter-case can be made for David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre, mixed race of Indian and European descent, and the adopted son of the ruler of Sardhana. Sombre was elected in 1841 in Sudbury, a constituency long notorious for corruption but he and his Whig colleague Frederick Villiers were thrown out the following year as the Commons declared the result invalid for "gross and systematic bribery", with the constituency itself disenfranchised and abolished after a Royal Commission inquiry.

The early history is a strikingly cross-party affair. Naoroji, a Parsi intellectual and cotton trader had long campaigned on the inequities of British rule in India. He entered the Commons largely to further India's cause - to which London's radical Liberals were sympathetic - though he spoke out for Irish Home Rule too.

Naoroji's presence in the Commons helped to inspire a fellow Parsi and political opponent, Sir Mancherjee Merwanjee Bhownagree, a vocal supporter of British rule in India who had been made a Companion of the British Empire. Bhownagree convinced the Conservatives of the potential for a publicity coup in running an Indian candidate to strongly challenge the idea that Indian voices were pro-Liberal and reformist. Offered what was thought the unwinnable candidacy of Bethnal Green, Bhownagree defeated the Liberal incumbent with a strongly patriotic campaign against Irish Home Rule and Church disestablishment.

He was mocked as Sir ‘Bow and Agree' for his pro-Establishment views, but Bhownagree made common cause with nationalist opponents in highlighting the terrible conditions of Indians in South Africa, and on education in India. His reelection followed in 1900, before eventual defeat in the 1906 landslide.

Labour's first Asian MP Shapurji Saklatvala was a Communist candidate in Battersea North whom the Labour Party decided to endorse, a highly unusual arrangement influenced by Saklatvala's local popularity in the Independent Labour Party and trade union circles. Defeated in 1923, he won as a Communist in 1924, without either Labour support or a Labour opponent, before losing to a Labour candidate in 1929.

In the decades after the SS Windrush arrived in Britain in 1949 carrying Caribbean men and women, race was often more central to British political debate than before. Those heated controversies may, paradoxically, help to explain why there were no ethnic minority MPs to debate Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood speech or Roy Jenkins' liberal vision of multiculturalism, the urban riots of 1981 or the growing economic contribution of minority communities. Our all-white Commons passed the Race Relations Acts of the 1960s and 1970s, pioneering pieces of anti-discrimination legislation, yet the political parties believed minority candidates faced rejection by the voters.

The infamous racist slogan "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour" had helped defeat Labour's Shadow Foreign Secretary Gordon Walker in Smethwick in 1964. And that seemed to be confirmed by the experience of another forgotten pioneer, David Pitt, the first Afro-Caribbean candidate, standing for Labour in Hampstead in 1959. He faced open racial prejudice during that campaign, with race widely thought to have been a factor in his defeat in Clapham in 1970 (by which time Pitt had been a London county councillor for nine years and deputy Chair of the GLC).

The 1987 breakthrough arose from a fierce battle for black representation. With four out of five black and Asian voters consistently backing Labour, a vocal black activist mobilisation argued that representation would not be achieved by asking nicely, and argued for official ‘black sections' to give black members voice and power.

That this cause was resisted was often as much about internal party politics as arguments about race. Black sections were an insurgent campaign from the left of the party, when the left's influence was waning, and sought to use the Bennite tactic of deselecting moderate or rightwing candidates. Paul Boateng succeeded, in deposing former MP Robin Corbett to be Labour's candidate in Hemel Hempstead in 1983, which deeply divided the local party, and finished a poor third in the general election.

The ‘black sections' were themselves the site of major battles over what black representation meant. Bernie Grant and Diane Abbott were proudly on the Campaign Group left of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and attacked in the media as the "loony left". But the question for some black sections activists was whether they were nearly radical or left-wing enough. Those activists did not think the goal was to have a number of Labour MPs in Parliament who happened to be black, but promoted the idea of a powerful "black caucus" in Parliament, whose primary focus would be to represent ethnic minority communities and causes first. Organising within Labour - the dominant party of Britain's inner cities - was simply the means which the system offered to that end.

The ‘black sections' saw one parliamentary candidate Sharon Atkin deselected ahead of 1987 after saying: "I do not give a damn about Neil Kinnock and a racist Labour Party." The remaining candidates made clear they were Labour politicians, running on the Labour manifesto, not a black party within a party. They identified as ‘black politicians', speaking up for marginalised voices, but not at the expense of representing all of their constituents. They were not likely to be the most on-message of party loyalists, but those actively hostile to Labour stood for would have to take their chances running against the party.

And the class of 1987 developed different political trajectories: Bernie Grant retained much of his community activist ‘firebrand' image until his death in 2000; Paul Boateng and Keith Vaz became New Labour ministers, while Diane Abbott remained a leftist critic developing a high media profile.

"Sad to say, many of the voters of Gloucestershire have yet to reach the advanced state of consciousness to accept a foreigner as their local MP," wrote the Gloucester Citizen ahead of the 2001 election, writing about the Labour candidate Parmjit Dhanda.

The newspaper had argued that "Labour can kiss goodbye to this seat", having "made the same mistake as the Tories in Cheltenham" evoking echoes of John Taylor's loss to the Lib Dems in 1992, after vocal racist objections from some local Tory activists. Cheltenham was not a "safe Tory seat" in 1992, and the five per cent swing to the Lib Dems was barely greater than that which unseated Chris Patten in nearby Bath. But it was the mythology rather than the psephology of Cheltenham which entered the collective memory of the political classes. Dhanda's victory in Gloucester was undoubtedly an important counter-example, challenging the idea of ‘ethnic candidates for ethnic voters', though Ashok Kumar had been a typical hard-working northern constituency MP in 99 per cent white Middlesbrough.

The parliamentary history has been very strongly of ethnic minority politics in one party. One Tory British Asian MP Nirj Deva represented Brentford from 1992 before being swept away in the 1997 landslide. Other than that, the Tory benches remained all white until 2005, when Shailesh Vara and Adam Afriyie were elected for North West Cambridgeshire and Windsor respectively. Chippenham candidate Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones has built a successful "The Black Farmer" brand to juxtapose ethnic and traditional identities; while Mark Clarke in Tooting has been included on Central Offi ce lists of black and minority ethnic (BME) candidates while stating that he refuses to complete questions about ethnicity on forms. For the Lib Dems, there has only been one MP from an ethnic minority background - Parmjit Singh Gill, who won a by-election in 2004 in Leicester South, only to be beaten by Labour a year later at the general election.

More candidates - across parties - believe an aspiration to a ‘colour blind' politics must mean challenging racial disadvantage as one of the barriers to meritocracy. Several MPs take pride in their role in speaking up for underrepresented communities, rejecting the idea that is in tension with representing all constituents.

Tooting MP Sadiq Khan has written of how he did not want to be a "Muslim MP" but was expected from all sides to shoulder particular responsibilities, as the only Muslim MP in London at the time of the July 2005 bombings. On this view, only more equal representation will fully enable different politicians to make different choices.

The children of the 1970s have different life histories and experiences to the children of the 1950s. Some may overstate the case that race is irrelevant; others will engage in a debate on what a ‘new politics of race' could or should mean. But it will be worth remembering how the breakthrough achieved by a more traditional politics of race activism provided a platform to make that debate possible.

Sunder Katwala is General Secretary of political think tank the Fabian Society