Surrinder Chera

Surrinder Chera

Surrinder Chera is an activist working as the diversity lead at Make Votes Matter. To help celebrate Black History Month, he’s been delving into the past to uncover the contributions black reformers have made to help make Britain a better place.

The killing of George Floyd shook me up, and I immediately felt like I really wanted to channel this energy of outrage. Yet I also felt stuck in the midst of the Covid pandemic caring for my 82-year-old mother, knowing that as an older Punjabi woman with underlying health problems she was in the most at risk category. Perhaps like many others, I felt a tension between the personal and the societal. Being on furlough from Make Votes Matter, I decided to take a break from all things political as I felt I had no energy to spare. However I was inspired watching the global Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement reshaping history.

So when I recently returned from furlough, in the midst of Black History Month, I was thinking how the very term ‘Black History’ in the UK implies a difference with British History. However, for me the two are intimately connected. For example, as a young girl my mother lived through the partition of Punjab as ‘British’ India was dissolving. 

I have also had time to reflect on my role as the diversity lead for Make Votes Matter. In 2019 we set up Black Votes Matter to engage with BAME communities about changing the voting system. Getting the vote was a giant step indeed, for women in the UK via the suffragette movement, and for black people in the USA via the civil rights movement. 

But a vote into what system? Does my vote really count in a practical way, and is that also true for others no matter where they live? In what way does that vote reflect me, and does voting result in the fair and meaningful representation of people from different communities? First Past the Post just does not satisfy these questions affirmatively. Now more than ever, it seems to me that the time is right to be pushing for a good form of Proportional Representation, which so much evidence shows does emphatically address these questions affirmatively. 

As always, the best place to start is at home; being the change you want to see. We want to make MVM more diverse. We want to engage BAME people and communities in this fight for a fair system to implement the political changes that will benefit us all.

“Black History Month provides an opportunity to reflect on BAME contributions to electoral reform in the UK (and around the world). And it got me thinking, who are the ‘hidden’ BAME electoral reformers, and who are our modern-day pioneers of reform who are helping to create history right now, paving the way for Proportional Representation?”

– Surrinder Chera, diversity lead at Make Votes Matter

How about the many black and asian women who fought for the vote in the UK, and the inspiring example of Mary Church Terrell, one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree, who became known as a national activist for civil rights and suffrage in the States. 

Looking back to the first black MPs to be elected, it began with John Stewart, Tory MP for Lymington, 1832 to 1847. He was the first mixed race MP, but his record shows that he actively fought against equality for black people. Then we had Henry Redhead Yorke, Whig MP for City of York, 1841 to 1848, and Peter McLagan, Liberal MP for Linlithgowshire, 1865 to 1893.

More recently, the Commons saw trailblazing BAME MPs including Bernie Grant take his seat as Labour MP for Tottenham from 1987 to 2000. And Diane Abbott, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington was the first female black MP to be elected to the house in 1987. She was Shadow Home Secretary under Jeremy Corbyn and is the longest-serving black MP in the House of Commons. 

And Dawn Butler, the MP for Brent Central and former Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities from 2017 to 2020 is a supporter of Proportional Representation. Dawn recently appeared in a Guardian list of 100 great black Britons and she elaborates on why we need electoral reform in this article she wrote for Labour List

All of these people helped us make real progress in the fight for equality, but the struggle for true democracy is clearly not over. I would love to hear from BAME and non-BAME supporters who would like to get involved in our diversity work at MVM. If you’d like to volunteer for this, go to MVM’s volunteers needed page and sign up for the BAME Engagement Volunteer role – and I’ll be in touch with you shortly. I’d love to hear from you!

A selection of interesting articles for further reading: