In 1922, sixty-five years before before Diane Abbott and three other Labour MPs of colour entered Parliament, Indian-born Shapurji Saklatvala was elected MP for Battersea North in South West London.
Like some other Labour candidates more recently, Saklatvala was a bourgeois figure standing in a working-class constituency which was not his home. There the similarity ends.
The first “BAME” Labour MP was a revolutionary socialist who attacked Ramsay MacDonald for failing to oppose British colonialism and Gandhi for failing to champion working-class and peasant struggles (Gandhi replied, and they debated at length). He was the first person arrested during the General Strike, and imprisoned for his speech calling on soldiers to support the strikers. He was banned from India for the last decade of his life because the British government feared his popularity there.
From early 1921, shortly before he was selected in Battersea, Saklatvala was a member of the newly-formed Communist Party of Great Britain. Then there were three general elections in 23 months. “Sak”, as his local supporters called him, won his seat as the Labour candidate in 1922; lost it to a Liberal by a whisker in 1923; then, standing as a Communist with Labour support, regained it by a whisker in 1924. With the growing Labour-Communist breach from 1925, and the CP’s turn to “Third Period” policies, he finally lost it to Labour in 1929.
Saklatvala was not parachuted into Battersea, but chosen as the standard-bearer of a strong local labour movement which respected his record as an educator and activist in the class struggle, and the internationalism he represented.
He used his platform in Parliament to aggressively champion the interests and struggles of his working-class constituents, and of the wider working class – in Britain and globally. He was so active in anti-colonial struggles that he was attacked as “the Member for India”.
This was not just a matter of speeches in Parliament, though he made extensive use of those. Saklatvala saw his role as a radical version of what Bernie Sanders called “organiser in chief”. He used his position to help organise the working class and left and to educate for socialism, in Britain, in India and wherever he could reach.
Saklatvala was born in 1874 in Bombay (today’s Mumbai) in a bourgeois Parsi family. The Parsis, a religious-ethnic group descended from Zoroastrians who fled the Islamic takeover of Iran from the 7th century, were disproportionately wealthy and influential. At the turn of the 20th century they were perhaps 100,000 out of 300 million Indians. Yet three of the first four Indian MPs in Britain (one radical-Liberal, one Tory and Saklatvala) were all Parsis.
Saklatvala’s father was a merchant; his mother was the sister of Jamsetji Tata, the owner of India’s largest commercial and industrial empire.
There are indications that his Parsi heritage helped shape his combination of a deep-rootedness in his background with universalism and internationalism. Conflicts with richer, more powerful and arrogant family members, including when he worked for Tata - he was central to the prospecting work which led to the birth of the family's iron and steel empire - may have contributed to growing beyond the strong Parsi tradition of upper-class philanthropy as an answer to the poverty and suffering he saw around him.
His daughter Sehri speculated that the seeds of revolutionary politics were planted in Saklatvala’s mind when he volunteered to help Ukrainian Jewish bacteriologist Waldemar Haffkine, a former populist-socialist and political refugee working to combat the plague which killed hundreds of Bombay’s people every week for years at the turn of the century. (His first meeting with Haffkine was at Bombay's European Club: he found himself barred due to his race, and was only let in at the back of the building.)
Accounts depict Saklatvala as a kind and humanitarian, independent-minded and very bright young man. By the time he left India for Britain in 1905 he was decidedly hostile to British rule and sympathetic to the rights of India's working people. He was not yet a socialist: in Britain he would quickly become one.
Frustrated with his relatives running the burgeoning Tata empire and plagued by serious ill-health – for quite a while he walked on crutches – Saklatvala came to Britain for treatment and recuperation. In 1906 he fell in love and began a relationship with a young working-class woman, Sally Marsh, who worked at the health spa he stayed at in Derbyshire. They would get married and have five children.
Despite growing family commitments, and holding down (relatively junior) jobs with the family firm (and briefly with electrical engineering company British Westinghouse), Saklatvala became increasingly engaged with left-wing politics. This was not long after the great upsurge of British workers in the 1880s and 90s, the rise of socialism as an organised force, and the emergence of what became the Labour Party. The year after Saklatvala arrived, a long period of Tory rule ended with the election of a leftish Liberal government, carrying out reforms under heavy pressure from the labour movement.
In 1906 he still sympathised with the Liberals, but already conceived his frustration with their limits in terms of their attitude to the working class. He attended left and labour movement meetings in Derbyshire and quickly moved to clearer socialist ideas. A low opinion of the effectiveness and sincerity of prominent Liberal supporters or supposed-supporters of the Indian national movement reinforced this shift. By 1907, after moving to London, he was involved in his local branch of the Marxist Socialist Democratic Federation.
He retained membership in the SDF and its successor British Socialist Party until it merged into the CPGB in 1920. It was relatively common to be a member of more than one socialist organisation, and from 1909 Saklatvala was active mainly in the larger but woolier Independent Labour Party, which he joined while living in Manchester.
A great lover of political debate ever since school, he also attended various non-socialist forums and meetings at which he could hone his skills and arguments. A commitment to free debate and exchange and clash of ideas is something he would champion as a communist politician.
He met many prominent figures, from Ramsay MacDonald to Keir Hardie to Sylvia Pankhurst. His first political demonstration was one Pankhurst organised for women’s suffrage, in 1908.
Foreshadowing a central strand of his later activity, in 1911 he was involved in an unsuccessful project to interest British unions in the formation of a General Workers Union in India. He planned to return to India permanently, but after a visit with his family in 1912-13 abandoned the idea.
Before the First World War Saklatvala joined a number of organisations and took part in a wide range of meetings and activities. He was already actively noticed by Scotland Yard. However, it was the war and the Russian Revolution which turned him from a committed citizen of the movement to a zealous and virtually fulltime agitator to overthrow capitalism.
War and revolution
During the war, despite restrictions, the ILP’s membership tripled to 16,000 – driven by the growing minority in society hostile to the war. Saklatvala was increasingly active in this growing milieu, making a major name for himself as a speaker. From the start he was strongly against the war.
The central themes of his propaganda were the need for workers to replace capitalism with a radically different socialist system; and for socialism to be international as well as universalist in its values in order to succeed. His international and internationalist conception of socialism was strongly connected to anti-racism and anti-colonialism.
Saklatvala was active in the ILP’s City of London branch, alongside a number of other well-known internationalist socialists, including John Walton Newbold, who would be elected a Communist MP in 1922.
The City branch became known for outspokenness and activity in international solidarity, including support for anti-colonial movements. It organised not just around the well-established left cause of India, but also African struggles, despite many in the labour movement seeing African peoples as less deserving or capable of freedom. In 1919 it held a major meeting on labour conditions in India, which was attended by delegates from the Indian National Congress, and another on South Africa with activists from the predecessor organisation of the ANC. Saklatvala was central to this work, also writing about India in the ILP's national press.
From 1917 he toured extensively, speaking at ILP meetings in many parts of the country. His tirelessness is demonstrated by the fact that during the 1918 election he travelled to Leicester every day after work to campaign for Ramsay MacDonald, whom at that time he admired.
He was a delegate to national ILP conferences, explaining to the 1918 conference the motivation for his punishing schedule: he “wanted to do one thing, and that was to spread socialism from one end of the world to the other”.
His commitment was strengthened further by the Russian Revolution. The revolution’s impact on Europe’s labour movements was profound, and Saklatvala was one of thousands of socialists in Britain who felt transformed and energised, particularly as he saw such strong parallels between Russia and India. In 1918, he was involved, along with Sylvia Pankhurst, in founding the People’s Russian Information Bureau to support the Bolsheviks.
At the same time he was travelling in a Bolshevik direction, he also became active in the London Labour Party, to which both the ILP and the British Socialist Party were affiliated.
He was part of the minority of the ILP who favoured joining the Communist International, founded in 1919. When, after two years of struggle, this battle was decisively lost, a few hundred resigned from the ILP to join the Communist Party of Great Britain, formed in 1920 by merger of the BSP and other smaller revolutionary groups. Saklatvala stayed and fought a bit longer than most of the resigners.
When he did finally leave there was - typically of the time and the man - little animosity or personal hostility involved, but his political diagnosis was sharp and harsh. A resignation letter to the ILP paper Labour Leader criticised “a spirit not at all creditable to socialism or communism… the new life on which ILP members are launching out, namely of seeking municipal and parliamentary advantages at the sacrifice of the spirit of true socialism”.
Despite leaving the ILP, Saklatvala maintained many of the connections, national and rank-and-file, he had made in and through the party. This is how, just as he joined the Communist Party, he was adopted as the Labour parliamentary candidate in an area where the labour movement was strong but the Communists were not – Battersea.