Asian, female and conservative?

Baroness Sandip Verma of Leicester is a Conservative life peer she gives her thoughts on women and diversity in the sometimes cutthroat world of politics and business

“I’ve been a rebel all my life,” says Indian-born Baroness Sandip Verma of Leicester; who was made a Conservative life peer in 2006, but has never been a constituency MP. “But my strong belief in the value of entrepreneurship and in people standing on their own two feet makes me more at home in the modern Tory Party than it would do in the Labour camp.”

Born in the Punjab in 1959, Baroness Verma was raised and educated in England. A visit to her overwhelmingly white school by the then Tory MP Greville Janner, now Lord Janner, helped politicise her. “I was one of only two non-white faces in my school and I rarely saw other people who looked like me, but it was Greville Janner who made me feel that I was important too.”

Some two decades of involvement in community politics followed, but at the age of 40, after raising a family, Baroness Verma decided that it was “time to turn my attention towards national politics.” Selected as the Tory candidate for Hull East in the 2001 general election and as candidate for Wolverhampton South West – Enoch Powell’s old constituency – four years later, she has little doubt that politics can be a dirty game. “In the first election, my colour was an issue for my party, while in the second, it was the fact that I was a woman – not to mention a woman of only five feet two inches in height.”

“In both campaigns, I learned to ignore all the jibes; some more overt than others, and I also learned how to campaign politically without much in the way of resources or manpower. Although others might have taken the view that I was simply a token black face, I was determined to do my best for my party and rise above any racism or sexism.”

The Tory Party of today, she adds, is “a far friendlier place” to non-whites. “My experience of all three main parties is that racism comes in many different forms and none of the three are immune from prejudice. The Conservative Party in particular has made significant strides in combating the racist attitudes that were once tolerated and once again, now occupies the middle ground in politics.”

Although failing to be selected as a constituency MP has been a disappointment, Baroness Verma now combines her political career with running a small, family firm which supplies agency staff to the social care sector. “I started my first firm at the age of 19; supplying designer fashion to High Street stores and from then on, I have always had business interests to occupy me.”

“Although many of the politicians coming into the Commons today have opted for the very comfortable route of university followed by political researcher, their lack of real-world experience of something as basic as tax credits can be a problem.” She adds: “My businesses and my longstanding community work have given me a good grasp of how most constituents live and I have always found this to be invaluable in politics.”

Although she came from a non-political family, Baroness Verma says that self-belief and effective networking are the two biggest assets for any politician. “There is no doubt that you have to be tough and you have to believe strongly in yourself if you are to make it as a politician – especially if you are a non-white woman.”

“But equally important is building up your own networks and having people you can rely on and trust. After all, there’ll be no time for a decent family life once you enter the fray.”

“What I’m really saying is that I accept that the British political scene is far from perfect, but if you keep strong and focused, you really can make life better, whatever the colour of your face.”

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