Springingtiger's Blog

Neelam Part Two

Sitting with Neelam as her birthday draws to a close, she is telling me how many people have sent her greetings on Facebook. I’m not surprised, over the years she has touched many peoples lives.

In 1985 Neelam left John Smith and Son’s bookshop and joined the Inland Revenue as a Revenue Executive. The bookshop had been determinedly non unionised so at the first opportunity she joined the Inland Revenue Staff Federation (now PCS) where she became branch chair. She had already been a member of the Labour Party for some years. When she was a student I took her canvassing for the first time, as I had been involved in a few elections I assured her I’d show her how to do it. The first door upon which we knocked was answered by an Indian who didn’t understand a word I was saying so Neelam had to take over in Hindi, she may not walk the easiest road but she walks it and she walks it well.

In the mid eighties the Labour Party’s ethnic minorities officer was about to visit Scotland to meet black members, but the Scottish party didn’t know who its black members were, so they approached the Race Equality Council for names Neelam’s was one of them. The meeting was only scheduled for an hour, Neelam objected that it was not long enough for them to raise their issues so Virendra Sharma invited them to come to the meeting he was attending that evening. The meeting was with the Scottish Labour Party’s Anti-racism Working Party none of whom was black. They were organising a conference and needed a woman speaker to run a workshop. In the event Virendra Sharma, the keynote speaker, was unable to attend and so at short notice Neelam became the keynote speaker. It was to be the first of many speeches. At the second conference organised by the Working Party she spoke again, the main speaker was Bernie Grant MP who after hearing Neelam speak asked the question, “Why is that woman not a councillor?” Years later when asking Charles Gray the former leader of Strathclyde Regional Council for a reference, she reminded him of the first conference when she stood in for the speaker from London, to which he replied, “We thought you were the speaker from London!”

Not long after our local Regional Councillor decided not to stand for reelection and Neelam won the selection to challenge for the Maryhill seat which she won. Neelam has a commitment to integrity which was unusual for a politician and made her enemies because of her refusal to indulge in underhand deals and she prevented at least one group from bypassing the proper funding procedures. As the first Asian woman to be elected to public office in Scotland Neelam attracted a considerable amount of media attention, to the chagrin of some long standing and senior councillors in both the Regional and City Councils. Back in those days Councillors were not salaried so Neelam had to negotiate time off work for her council duties, she also had a young daughter and I was unwell for some time with CFIDS. Despite the pressures she managed to develop a reputation as a speaker and was much in demand. Although she spoke at many events, particularly during the first Iraq War, the speech of which she was most proud was probably her intervention in the funding debate for the Zero Tolerance Campaign against the abuse of women. She spoke from the heart, she spoke from personal experience, she moved people and she made an impression that remained with some listeners for years; Zero Tolerance received one hundred percent funding. The full story of her work as a councillor is too long for this post.

In 1988 when Tony Benn and Eric Heffer were challenging for Leader and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Neelam was asked to chair some of their meetings; Doris Heffer described her as one of the best Chairs she had ever seen. Neelam was always on the left of the party and shared platforms opposing war, nuclear weapons, and racism. She was one of the organisers and the chair of the first two St Andrew’s Day Anti-Racism Rallies in Glasgow. When the Thatcher government destroyed Strathclyde Region Neelam’s role as a councillor ended. Her political activity continued for a while but as a socialist there was no future for her in Tony Blair’s New Labour Party. However her political activity did give her experiences she was to use in her post political career.


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