Marsha Singh: Politician who championed the people of Bradford
Thursday 19 July 2012
There are some – not very many – parliamentary constituencies where the demands of constituents are so pressing, and casework so overwhelming, that the MP just cannot play a significant part in broader national politics. Bradford West was one of them. Marsha Singh was a softly spoken colleague of great intelligence, careful judgement and an impressive knowledge of world affairs who could have made an even greater impact in Parliament had he represented a normal constituency.
My abiding memory of Singh, who resigned his seat through ill health in March this year, is of one evening in 1998 towards midnight in the House of Commons library a few months after he had been elected. "Marsha", I said, "what on earth are you doing with such mountain of paper?" "These are my constituency cases," he replied. I asked him, "are you sure that most of them should not be dealt with by councillors or the Health Board?"
"You do not understand," Singh replied. "The people who elected me did so in the expectation that I would personally help them." Precisely because Singh had been enmeshed as a member of Bradford's Community Relations Council, the Bradford Law Centre, Bradford Council's Directorate of Education and the Bradford Community Health Trust, he found it more difficult than an outsider like his successor, George Galloway, would have done to disentangle himself.
Mrs Alice Mahon, MP for Halifax and his close Labour colleague, told me: "at a personal level I found him extremely caring and kind. He had a gentle sense of humour. Anything in Yorkshire that we were working on as a Labour group of MPs, we could count on Marsha always being there. In his own way he was a great Yorkshire man." Many of us admired Singh because as a Sikh representing many thousands not only of Indian, but of Pakistani constituents, we heard about his huge efforts as a conciliator.
Marsha Singh was born in Punjab, but went to Belle Vue School in Bradford and Loughborough University. Returning to Bradford, he became chairman of the constituency Labour Party, and so was in a good position to be chosen when Max Madden decided not to seek re-election in 1997. People who say that it was a coup by Asians are simply plain wrong. Madden liked Singh, and told me that he respected him greatly. When I asked Madden why he had to resign he said, "I simply can not go on shouldering the burden of that particular constituency. When I was MP for Sowerby [1974-79] I found it possible to cope like any other MP. Bradford West is simply different."
Singh was elected in 1997, and in April 1999 he campaigned with great effect on the level of financial and human resources that the Government had committed in support of the International Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. His experience in the health service in Bradford had convinced him that cheap cigarettes were extremely deleterious to the health of the Asian community. Singh pinpointed the issues which he should take up in Parliament, and in November 1999, during the passage of the Immigration and Asylum Bill, he condemned the previous Conservative government's removal of cash benefits from asylum seekers and challenged his own Labour government, asking ministers if they were going to continue what was "a disgraceful and inhuman act". On the Home Affairs Select Committee, perhaps he did not endear himself to the government whips because he was unafraid to challenge government hesitations over kindness to immigrants and asylum seekers.
Singh made a passionate contribution in the chamber over his opposition to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. David Winnick, who shared his view, told me: "Many others who opposed government policy on the Labour benches were more well-known. Singh's opposition attracted the attention of quite a number of colleagues, who were surprised." He added: "Marsha was not on the Home Affairs Committee for long and did not have the opportunity of making the impact that he would have done so." Winnick attributed this to the burden of his constituency casework.
One of the most powerful speeches I have heard in recent years was Singh's contribution to the debate on 22 January 2003 on "defence in the world". He said: "As we continue with the war against terror it is worth remembering some of the causes of terror. During this debate it is worth remembering some of our responsibilities for the situation in the world today." Singh gently reminded us that in India we were responsible for Partition and had left behind the dispute in Kashmir.
Throughout his time in parliament Singh asked us to support a concerted international response to resolve the Kashmir problem peacefully. What, he asked, had been the international response to three wars between India and Pakistan and another two near wars ? "Our response," he said, "has been to try to sell India 16 Hawk fighter training aircraft." As for Palestine, he asked the Commons why Britain had licensed the components of F16 fighters to be sold to Israel despite the fact that it regularly used them to attack Palestinians. He had no hesitation in asking uncomfortable questions.
"In the 1980s we armed Saddam Hussein to fight Iran," he said. "We turned a blind eye to his use of chemical weapons against Iranians, never mind his own people. We are responsible for that. Again in the 1980s the US poured arms into the Mujahideen to fight the people of Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. The Taliban inherited the weaponry, and the policies led us to recent events in Afghanistan. Was that a price worth paying?"
The questions that Marsha Singh so honestly put, when received wisdom was that we should be in Afghanistan, look prescient nine years later. He was a thinker, and in his own quiet way enhanced the British Parliament.
Marsha Singh, politician: born Punjab 11 October 1954; MP, Bradford West 1997-March 2012; married 1971 Sital Kaur (died 2001; one son, one daughter), 2006 Kuldip Mann (one stepson, one stepdaughter); died 17 July 2012.
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