Where Are They Now? Eleanor Smith
In 1968 a man gave a speech at a Conservative Party meeting in which he warned that one day “the Black man will have the whip hand over the white man”. He was Enoch Powell, MP for Wolverhampton South West, and his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech would stoke the fires of racism in Britain. Nearly 50 years later, Eleanor Smith became Wolverhampton South West’s first Black MP.
Upending Powell’s suggestion that white Wolverhampton residents would not want to live with Black people, when Smith lost her seat at the 2019 general several white constituents came up to her to say, “I’m really sorry you lost.” Smith, 65, takes as further evidence of the lack of tension that throughout her two-year term the billboard by her constituency office “never got vandalised or anything”.
Born to Barbadian parents in Birmingham, Smith’s childhood was one in which family would often talk about politics, and so she would often talk about politics at school – “it was something people used to find a bit odd”. After school she became a nurse and was a steward at Birmingham Women’s Hospital before becoming the first Black president of Unison.
As a trade union activist, she helped Steve McCabe become MP for Birmingham Hall Green in 1997 and again in 2005, after which she “just thought, you know what? Why couldn’t I do this?”
God gave me my heart’s desire. What more could you ask for?
Despite little support from her local Labour Party, she finally became an MP when “pushed forward by Unison” to become the candidate for Wolverhampton South West in 2017.
The lifelong Brummie moved to Wolverhampton upon her election, finding her staffers a great source of support. “They’re still loyal. They’re still lovely. We still keep in touch.” She says she didn’t make lasting friendships with other MPs, however. “Politics is a very strange place. Once you’re there, you’re OK. But once you’re gone, you’re gone.”
Nothing prepared Smith for life as an MP; illustrating this, she points to her official parliamentary photo, in which she looks like “a frightened cat”. She felt uncomfortable with some parts of the job, particularly Prime Minister’s Questions, which she says often deteriorated into a “shouting match”.
She told the then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn that she didn’t “‘believe in shouting, so, if you want that, it ain’t gonna happen.’ And he just looked at me as if I was on another planet!”
Smith is, however, proud of some work she got to do as an MP. She was a vocal supporter of the African Caribbean Leukaemia Trust and, in 2018, commissioned a review into Black, Asian and minority ethnic blood, stem cell and organ donation – an issue close to her heart as her daughter, who is a nurse, has sickle cell disease.
If Smith hadn’t lost her seat in 2019 (“it was Brexit, at the end of the day”) she would have done more. “I was very passionate about the NHS. I think I would have made a much bigger impact if I’d been in longer.”
Yet, although polls suggest her marginal former seat is likely to swing back to Labour, Smith has no plans to return to politics.
“I’ve reached an age where I think it’s time for the young ones. [Voters] are not going to want someone for just five or 10 years, they’re going to want somebody that can be in a bit longer.”
While still a party member, the retired nurse now spends most of her time volunteering at her church. Faith is important to her. When she was an MP she was vocal about her Christian beliefs, and occasionally prayed with some of her constituents. Smith is grateful the girl who grew up discussing Harold Wilson and Ted Heath at the dinner table had the short privilege of being an MP.
As she puts it: “God gave me my heart’s desire. What more could you ask for?”
Eleanor Smith was Labour MP for Wolverhampton South West, 2017 to 2019
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