Monday, May 17, 2010

Nigerians take seats in British Parliament

By Tosin Sulaiman/234 Next

Three politicians of Nigerian descent will take their seats in the British House of Commons tomorrow, following hard-fought campaigns in the recent general election.

Helen Grant of the Conservative Party was elected in Maidstone & The Weald in the south east of England; Chi Onwurah of the Labour Party becomes the new MP for Newcastle Central in the north east; and Chuka Umunna, also of Labour, will represent Streatham in south London.

They are the first candidates of Nigerian heritage to be elected to Westminster and will join more than 600 other MPs when the House of Commons formally reconvenes tomorrow. Their presence and that of 24 other minority MPs means Westminster has never been more diverse. In the last Parliament there were only 14 black or Asian MPs.

The new faces include the first three Muslim women to win parliamentary seats, one of whom is also the first Bangladeshi MP. In addition, the Conservative Party has its first two Muslim MPs and its first Asian female MP. The number of women elected to Parliament also increased from 126 to 142, although women now make up only 22 per cent of MPs.

Ms. Onwurah, who was born in Newcastle to a Nigerian father and British mother, polled 15,692 votes, almost twice as many as her Liberal Democrat rival who came second with 8,228 votes. The Conservatives were third with 6,611 votes. The turnout was 56.4 per cent, down slightly from 57.3 per cent in the 2005 general election.

Ms. Onwurah, an engineer by profession, is the first black woman to represent the north east of England, as well as the first female MP of African descent in the House of Commons. Her father is from Awka in Anambra State and served in the Biafran army shortly after she was born.

After the results were announced, she said: “I want to thank, above all, the voters of Newcastle. Tonight they have chosen a message of a positive future.”

Mr. Umunna, an employment law solicitor, received 20,037 votes, with the Liberal Democrats in second place with 16,778 votes and the Conservatives in third place with 8,578 votes. The turnout rose by 22.4 per cent to 62.8 per cent.

Speaking after the results were declared, Mr. Umunna said: “this has been an extraordinary night.” Addressing his opponents, he said the campaign had been tough on all the parties.

“We have really been tested in this campaign, which has been perhaps the toughest for us since 1992,” he said, referring to the year in which his party took the seat from the Conservatives. Since then, it has been a safe Labour seat.

Getting emotional

Mr. Umunna ended by thanking the people of Streatham, saying: “for me, it’s quite an emotional thing I suppose. I was born and bred in this constituency and the fact that so many of my neighbours, my close friends and people that I’ve known in the community for a very long time have chosen to entrust me to represent them is something that makes me deeply humbled.”

Mr. Umunna is of mixed Nigerian, Irish and British descent. He told NEXT before the election that he was inspired by his late father, Ben Osi Umunna, who stood for the governorship of Anambra State in the early 1990s but narrowly missed out.

Mrs. Grant, who is the Conservatives’ first black female MP, helped the party retain Maidstone & The Weald with 23,491 votes, compared to 17,602 for the Lib Dems and 4,769 for Labour. The turnout was 68.9 per cent, up from 65.8 per cent in 2005.

Brought up by a single mother on a council estate, Mrs. Grant, whose father is Nigerian, went on to study law and set up her own firm, Grants Solicitors, in 1996. She joined the Conservative Party in 2006 after what she describes as a “brief flirtation” with Labour. On her website, she attributed her election victory to “two and a half years of good old-fashioned hard work and positive campaigning.”

The Conservatives’ other Nigerian candidate, Kemi Adegoke, failed to capture the safe Labour seat of Dulwich & West Norwood in south London. The seat was held by Tessa Jowell, a former government minister, who polled 22,461 votes, against 13,096 for the Lib Dems and 10,684 for the Conservatives.

Mrs. Grant, Ms. Onwurah and Mr. Umunna will be among 232 new MPs in Westminster following a general election that resulted in Britain’s first hung Parliament since 1974. It forced David Cameron’s Conservative Party, which received the most seats but not enough for an overall majority, into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who came third behind Labour.

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