48 hours that changed my life

In mid-2015 my entire world came crashing down. Everything I understood about life and my purpose on this journey was shattered in an instant.

Thankfully most of us have an extraordinary ability to adapt and rebuild. To salvage some strength from adversity. To find happiness from deep sorrow.

A remarkable study by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert demonstrates precisely this. Our ability to feign happiness and trick our minds into becoming happy once again is a built-in human trait.

It’s how many prisoners are able to cope with prolonged incarceration. It probably explains how those with little property or prospects can lead normal fulfilling lives. And it’s how most of us are able to dust ourselves off and move on in life if we don’t get that job we wanted or if an important relationship breaks down.

So I’m able to share this story thanks to my genetics – our shared genetics – and the fact that I have managed to rebuild my shattered world.

As a former City Councillor and parliamentary candidate it’s fair to say politics has always been a big part of my life. I was one of those weird 90s teenagers who always preferred Newsnight over Neighbours and Channel 4 News over Changing Rooms.

My passion for politics began at an early age. Indeed it is part of my own family history.

I am the son and grandson of Ugandan Asian refugees who arrived in the UK with nothing following the 1972 expulsion ordered by Idi Amin. This was a major political event, an African holocaust in the making.

Thanks to the intervention of the British government – and the compassion of the British people – thousands of lives were saved, including those of my family.

My parents and grandparents chose to settle in Leicester and I was born and raised on the St Matthew’s council estate. Life was incredibly tough for all of us and we experienced great hardship. As my father struggled to find work and provide for his young family, food was often scarce and new clothes were always a luxury.

Luckily, although my upbringing was extremely poor, my family was able to survive – and later thrive – thanks in part to our welfare state. We had a home thanks to the Council. Health care was free and easily accessible. And I had free school meals for much of my early education.

My grandparents were a big part of our family life and I frequently sat on the sofa with both of my grandfathers to watch the news whenever it was on. My maternal grandfather in particular was an avid news watcher. He would always explain to me the nature and relevance of world events.

As I grew up I began to understand more and more each day that we lived in an unjust world. I saw there were countless other families and children in Britain and elsewhere who were also suffering disadvantage and discrimination.

Looking back I think it was at the age of around 8 or 9 where, having experienced injustice – both first hand and vicariously – that a seed was planted in my head; not only that politics was really important, but that the decisions made by powerful people could affect many lives.

I was incredibly lucky to be taught by some very kind and compassionate teachers and several of them clearly saw something in me that I was unaware of.

At age 12 I was encouraged to get involved in student politics at Babington Community College, representing my class and later my year group, on the student forum. Later at Regent College when I was 16 another teacher prompted me to stand in the NUS elections and I was elected Vice President of the student body.

Over the following 10 years my passion for politics and my desire to help people, particularly those who were being badly treated, continued to grow.

I went to Brunel University in London to study politics and history. I became an active member of the Labour Party. And after finishing law school in Leicester I qualified as a defence solicitor, working primarily on Legal Aid cases, helping some of the poorest people in society to have access to justice.

All the while I would share my achievements and happy milestones with my family, but particularly with my grandfather; the man who kick-started my interest in politics – and the only person who really enjoyed watching Question Time as much as I did.

In 2011 at the age of 29 I was elected as the youngest Councillor in the city of Leicester. It was an incredible feeling to have been chosen to represent my local community on the Council.

It just so happened that I was also the first non-white politician ever to be elected – at any level – to represent Beaumont Leys, a predominantly white working class area of Leicester.

But for me this wasn’t particularly noteworthy at the time. It was the area I had grown up in and gone to school. White working class people were my community and it was now my job to fight for their interests.

Over the course of my 4-year term I worked incredibly hard – along with my Labour colleagues – to resolve disputes, champion causes, save jobs, and make a positive difference.

By my early 30s it seemed a logical next step to seek a prominent political role, and try to continue putting my beliefs and values into practice, working to help people and challenge injustice.

In August 2014 I was selected as a parliamentary candidate for the Harborough constituency in Leicestershire.

I was set to stand for a national political party in a UK general election. It was a surreal moment, but something that many friends and family members had been predicting ever since I was a teenager.

Of course in reality the prospect of me becoming an MP in 2015 was very slim. The constituency was considered to be a very safe seat for the incumbent Conservative Party.

But I persisted and from January 2015 right through to early May we ran the most exciting and enjoyable election campaign the constituency had seen in decades.

A relatively dormant local party was enthused and revitalised. My team and I attended public demonstrations and campaign events. I took part in hustings and debates at the secular society, a Hindu community forum, the chamber of commerce and the National Farmers Union.

For the first time in years we ran Council candidates on every ballot paper and in every ward. And I took dozens of local activists out to campaign with me in some of the most marginal constituencies across the East Midlands, helping many of my party’s candidates in the key winnable seats.

Whenever I had a few spare hours I’d pop over to see my grandfather to update him on the latest campaign event and opinion polls and generally put the world to rights.

We even sat together on his couch and watched the Leaders’ Question Time debates on Thursday 30 April 2015. Sadly it was to be the last time I’d see him alive.

On Wednesday 6 May 2015, the day before the general election, we received a distressed phone call from one of my aunties. She said my grandfather was unwell and told my parents to get over to the house. I was upstairs on the computer and oblivious to what was going on.

A frantic phone call from my father 20 minutes later spurred me into action and I began getting ready to head over to my grandfather’s house.

It was one of those strange moments, which many people will have experienced, where an otherwise ordinary day becomes extra-ordinary. You experience time in slow motion, with heightened senses, and remember every little detail.

Before I had the chance to put on my shoes another phone call confirmed the awful news. My grandfather had died. His heart had suddenly stopped working and he had collapsed at home. His name was Jayantilal Narsidas Dattani and he was 80 years old.

I’ve always found it really strange how we experience the death of a loved one. It’s as if the whole world stops turning and nothing makes sense any more.

It even sometimes makes us angry to see other people just carrying on with their normal lives, chatting away, laughing, behaving as if everything’s okay. Grief really is a complex emotion.

The suddenness of my grandfather’s passing hit me like a tonne of bricks. Not just because I had lost someone whom I loved so dearly. But because this was the man who had inspired me to dedicate so much of my life to politics.

It didn’t make sense for this to be happening the day before the General Election. We were supposed to be experiencing the election together. We were meant to discuss my result and consider the next steps.

In the Hindu tradition, a death prompts the beginning of two weeks of prayer and rituals at the home of the deceased, with extended family coming together to support one another.

On Election Day I was away from my campaign team and the constituency. I spent the day covering my grandfather’s lounge floor with sheets, and helping to rearrange the furniture, to prepare for the many inevitable visitors coming to pay their respects.

Soon after 10pm once the polls had closed, I forced myself to shave and put on a suit, and made my way over to the result counting venue – a dreary leisure centre in the middle of nowhere; a typically British democratic custom.

During that election count – as night turned to day – I experienced a rollercoaster of emotions, not least because of the many surprising results from around the country.

On a personal level I was blown away by the kindness and compassion shown to me by my political adversaries, including the incumbent Member of Parliament, who would go on to be re-elected.

Unfortunately Harborough was the last constituency in the entire East Midlands to declare its result. We were up all night and I gave my concession speech at around 9.30am on Friday morning.

We managed to come in second overall, and it was the best result for my party locally since the 1979 election, which was before I was even born.

I didn’t immediately know it at the time, but the events of those two days – the sudden bereavement and the exhaustion of election night – had a monumental impact on my life.

In the short term I experienced a crisis with my mental health. I was signed-off from work for several weeks with bereavement-related stress.

Up until that point I had never experienced any problem with my mental health and, if truth be told, I never really used to believe that a mental health problem could be as debilitating as a physical health problem. This was the first of my epiphanies.

In the longer term my entire life was completely changed by those catastrophic 48-hours. My whole world was knocked off its axis, causing me to re-evaluate everything, not just in my own life but philosophically as well.

It prompted me to engage on a journey of discovery. To try to make sense of life and our purpose here on Earth. To learn more about humanity. And to understand our place in the known universe.

Most importantly of all I learnt to truly value family bonds and friendships much more than my career and ambition.

In this new age of social media, with constant global news coverage and information overload, I have come to realise that our most meaningful relationships – with the people we care deeply about – are the best way to stay grounded, to be happy.

And to find the strength and resolve we need to work hard and make this a better world.

Dedicated to my grandfather Jayantilal Narsidas Dattani

Resignation Statement – Stepping down from Leicester City Council

“I have decided to step down as a Leicester City Councillor in May 2015 to focus on my parliamentary election and my new full time job. It has been a huge privilege to serve as a Labour and Co-operative Councillor for my home ward of Beaumont Leys, the place where I grew up and went to school.

I have worked extremely hard over these last four years to help local people and represent their views and interests on the Council.

I was proud to sit on the planning committee and vote to rebuild my old secondary school, Babington Community College. I also raised money for charities in Beaumont Leys; opposed illegal traveller encampments on behalf of residents; highlighted the damaging impact of Tory and Lib Dem policies on my constituents; and sought to inspire the next generation.

On behalf of the city more generally, I led efforts to save 200 policing jobs back in February 2012, and I spoke about policing cuts at Labour’s national conference.

I also brought conferences to the city to boost business; pushed for a new riverside memorial space to scatter ashes; supported asylum seekers who had settled here; raised the issue of ever increasing homelessness; campaigned to reduce the amount of sugar in school meals; and stood up for Leicester when outsiders sought to create division.

As the son and grandson of Ugandan Asian refugees it was a particular honour, on the 40th anniversary of the expulsion, to bring a motion in Council recognising the contribution Ugandan Asians have made to our city and our country.

On a personal note it was also quite wonderful to drive my parents to the polling station on 5 May 2011 so they could vote for me – or at least they said they did!

All of the above successes and the many other positive changes we have seen in Beaumont Leys and across our city have only been possible because we have a Labour-controlled Council here in Leicester, as well as three brilliant hardworking Labour MPs in Keith Vaz, Liz Kendall and Jon Ashworth.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time as a Councillor and I believe I have made a positive contribution. I would like to thank Liz Kendall MP, Cllr Vijay Riyait, my fellow Leicester Labour Councillors, and all my family and friends for their support and guidance.

I also want to thank Beaumont Leys Labour members for selecting me, and Beaumont Leys residents for electing me, back in 2011. I will fulfil my duties for the remainder of my term but I will not be seeking re-election to the Council in 2015.

I remain committed to the Labour Party and the Co-operative Party and I will be working hard between now and May 2015 to help elect a Labour government.”

Cllr Sundip Meghani

Marking the 70th anniversary of D Day

I visited Gilroes cemetery in Beaumont Leys earlier today to pay my respects on the 70th anniversary of D Day.

Leicester’s Gilroes cemetery contains 110 Commonwealth war graves from World War I and 160 from World War II. There is also a memorial in front of the crematorium which commemorates the 31 service personnel whose remains were cremated there.

The weather today was sunny and bright and it was very peaceful. There was a funeral taking place inside. Outside, tiny squirrels were darting about, picking off petals from the many floral tributes. It was just another ordinary day at the cemetery.

Seventy years ago however it was anything but an ordinary day for our country and for many countless men and women. The Normandy landings ultimately helped the Allies rescue the continent of Europe from the grip of hatred and injustice.

Everything we have in Britain, including the freedom to choose how to live our lives, is thanks to the bravery of countless extraordinary people who came before us. We owe them a debt of gratitude we can never repay. However we can honour their memories and sacrifices by ensuring that future generations never forget.

Memorial at Gilroes cemetery in Leicester

Raising money for charities in Beaumont Leys

We’re very lucky to have so many decent people here in Beaumont Leys working hard for the community day-in day-out. This year I’ve been working with numerous charities and local groups: helping to raise awareness; assisting with projects and initiatives; and supporting the work of local activists and volunteers. I’m particularly pleased to have been involved in several recent fundraising efforts, raising money for charities based in Beaumont Leys.

At the Midlands Asian Lawyers ball with Dr Denis Tanfa from Restorative Justice Initiative

My friends and I at the Midlands Asian Lawyers Association were proud to support Beaumont Leys based charity Restorative Justice Initiative, by raising money for them at our annual ball on Friday 18 October 2013.

The Leicester Mercury covered the event, which was attended by more than 500 people including the Lord Mayor of Leicester, and Labour peer Lord Willy Bach of Lutterworth. We raised £5,000 for Restorative Justice Initiative; money that will help the charity to build bridges between victims and offenders, and repair the damage done in communities by anti-social behaviour.

The following month on Friday 22 November 2013, my friends and I at the Leicestershire Junior Lawyers Division held our annual ball, where we raised more than £450 for the Children’s Heart Unit at Glenfield Hospital in Beaumont Leys. Following recent attempts by the current government to close the unit, I was particularly glad that we were able to support this very worthy charitable cause. I’m optimistic about the coming year and looking forward to continuing to support local groups where I can.

Statement regarding the proposed travellers site in Beaumont Leys

Beaumont LeysMy speech to Council can be viewed here.

“On Thursday 24 January 2013, at a meeting of the Leicester City Council, I will join my fellow Beaumont Leys Councillors in strongly opposing the City Mayor’s decision to build a 6-pitch travellers site on Greengate Lane in Beaumont Leys.

Unauthorised gypsy and traveller encampments have been causing a nuisance in Beaumont Leys for many decades. However this is a problem that has affected the whole city and there must therefore be a city-wide solution.

The planned site poses a real threat to the city’s Green Wedge, local environment, residential amenity and transport infrastructure, and travellers themselves have also voiced serious concerns.

Building a travellers site in Beaumont Leys and another larger site in nearby Abbey ward is completely unacceptable to a large number of my constituents. Consequently I will be voting AGAINST the City Mayor’s decision at Council and urging all Councillors to do the same.

I hope that the City Mayor will think again on this extremely important issue.”

Cllr Sundip Meghani

My first year as a Councillor – activities and achievements

Exactly a year ago today residents in Beaumont Leys voted to elect me as one of their local Labour Councillors to serve on Leicester City Council.

It was a tremendous honour and a huge privilege to have been entrusted to represent the views of local people, especially as I’ve lived in the area since I was 7 years old. Also as the son of immigrants, who came to this country from East Africa fleeing persecution, and as someone who was born and raised on a council estate in Leicester, it was particularly poignant to have been chosen to serve on the very Council that had once supported me and my family when times were tough.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love my party and my politics, but to be honest my love of politics merely stems from my love of people. That may sound like an awful cliché but it is the truth. In-fact I believe that if you’re not a people person and you don’t genuinely thrive on being able to solve problems and help make peoples’ lives that much easier, then you shouldn’t seek to hold public office.

Whereas if you have a passion for putting people first, for lifting hopes and aspirations, for fighting social injustice, and for leading by example and working hard, then politics isn’t just a career choice, it’s a moral imperative; an obligation to use your skills and expertise to serve the public and to try and make a difference in the world.

It’s been an incredible year and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’m grateful to my good friend Vijay Riyait and all the wonderful people mentioned in this post who worked tirelessly on the election campaign.

I’ve been fortunate to have two excellent co-Councillors in Vi Dempster and Paul Westley, as well as a good deal of support from our hardworking local MP Liz Kendall, and City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby. It’s a real pleasure to be part of such a great Labour team.

In addition to working closely with my fellow Councillors in holding regular ward surgeries, attending residents association meetings and carrying out specific casework and solving problems on behalf of constituents, here’s a summary of my other activities and achievements during my first 12 months as a Leicester City Councillor:

Policing:

  • Appointed as a Member of the Leicestershire Police Authority and attended numerous Authority and sub-committee meetings.
  • Delivered a speech on policing cuts at the 2011 Labour Party conference and discussed the issue with the Chair of the Police Federation.
  • Raised the issue of policing cuts in the Council chamber as well as in the local, regional and national press.
  • Led the Labour team at the Leicestershire Police Authority in fighting to save nearly 200 jobs and helping to secure neighbourhood and frontline policing.
  • Attended a special conference on the ‘Roots of Violent Radicalisation’ hosted by the Home Affairs Select Committee and Leicester East MP Keith Vaz.
  • Together with co-Councillors, approved funding for a local police community safety shop at the Beaumont Leys shopping centre.

Education and young people:

  • Continued to work hard as a school governor at Soar Valley college and took on a new role as a governor at Beaumont Lodge primary school.
  • Delivered a speech on achievement at Soar Valley College in Rushey Mead.
  • Delivered a speech on aspiration at Babington College in Beaumont Leys.
  • Attended a special conference on the application of new technologies in schools.
  • Took up an appointment as a Member of Court at the University of Leicester.
  • Attended summer fetes with co-Councillors at Glebelands primary and Beaumont Lodge primary schools, and the Beaumont Lodge Neighbourhood Association.
  • Delivered a speech at the University of Leicester in support of the ‘Living Wage’ campaign being run by Labour Students.

Health and community:

  • Helped set up and Chair a new community task group to tackle domestic violence in Beaumont Leys and Abbey.
  • Actively supported the campaign to save the children’s heart centre at the Glenfield General Hospital in Beaumont Leys.
  • Attended a special event organised by the Somali community in Beaumont Leys.
  • Launched the British Heart Foundation’s Big Donation event at the Beaumont Leys shopping centre.
  • Attended the official opening of the new Beaumont ward at the Bradgate Mental Health Unit in Beaumont Leys.
  • Visited a new locally-run free lunch club at Christ the King church.

Transport and environment:

  • Voted at Planning Committee in support of modernising Leicester train station.
  • Participated in a special climate change and water management conference.
  • Worked with co-Councillors and local businesses to help tackle parking problems in parts of north Beaumont Leys.
  • Became actively involved in the work of the Castle Hill Country Park user group.
  • Attended a special conference on local transport policy in Leicester.
  • Helped secure 11 new grit bins for locations throughout Beaumont Leys.

Housing:

  • Attended a special conference on student housing and future strategy.
  • Wrote an article about increasing levels of homelessness and spent Christmas Day helping at a local homeless shelter to raise awareness.
  • Voted at Planning Committee in support of the creation of new housing developments and student flats across the city.
  • Hosted public meetings with fellow Councillors, the local MP and the Mayor to discuss traveller encampments and the on-going consultation on proposed sites.

Business and jobs:

  • Agreed to join the board of the Cooke e-Learning Foundation, a Beaumont Leys  based enterprise helping people to train for jobs.
  • Attended a conference and dinner hosted by the Indo British Trade Council.
  • Visited the Beaumont Leys Enterprise Centre to support local businesses.
  • Spoke in the Council chamber on the economy and drafted an article on how the Budget will adversely affect Beaumont Leys.
  • Hosted the 2012 HSBC English Asian Business Awards in Manchester and worked to secure Leicester as the 2013 host city.

Social justice and charity:

  • Lobbied the Foreign Office and raised the issue of the Sri Lankan civil war with Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt MP.
  • Attended numerous public events to oppose cuts to Legal Aid and lobbied the Solicitor General Edward Garnier QC MP on the issue.
  • Attended a fundraiser in support of ‘Unique Home for Girls’, a charity caring for orphaned and abandoned girls.
  • Visited the offices of Leicestershire AIDS Support Services and attended the annual World AIDS Day service at Leicester Cathedral.
  • Attended the launch of a 3-day festival organised by the Pushti Nidhi charity.

Culture and faith:

  • Met with Leicester Council of Faiths and attended events during inter-faith week.
  • Visited numerous places of worship across Leicester belonging to all of the city’s main faith communities.
  • Attended a concert of the Philharmonia Orchestra and an ‘Orchestra Unwrapped’ concert promoting music to school children.
  • Attended ‘Out of Africa’; an annual celebration of African culture hosted by Harvest City Church.
  • Attended an Inter-Cultural Evening hosted by the Chief Constable of Leicestershire Police.
  • Attended a lecture on Hindu and Christian dialogue hosted by the Leicester Friends of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies.

Attendance record at all Leicester City Council & Planning Committee meetings: 100%

A bad Budget for Beaumont Leys

  • ‘Granny-tax’ will see hundreds of pensioners in Beaumont Leys paying more tax
  • Personal allowance rise is smoke and mirrors, equates to a few pounds a week
  • Child benefit cuts will leave hardworking middle-income families worse off
  • 3p fuel duty hike hits hundreds of Beaumont Leys residents who commute to work
  • 37p increase on packs of 20 cigarettes, 5p increase on the price of a pint
  • Minimum wage frozen for under 21s, no plan to create jobs for young people

Budget Response

“This is a bad Budget for ordinary hardworking people and middle-income families here in Beaumont Leys; the ward I represent on the Leicester City Council.

The population of Beaumont Leys is around 14,000 people – roughly the same as the number of millionaires around Britain who will save more than £40,000 in tax, as a result of today’s Tory / Lib Dem Budget.

By reducing the top rate of tax from 50% to 45% this Tory-led Government has cut taxes for the richest 1% in our country. With 23 millionaires in the Cabinet potentially benefitting from this reduction it is completely absurd for this Government to carry on claiming that “we are all in this together”.

Here in Beaumont Leys we have several residential homes and sheltered housing communities. By freezing personal allowances for pensioners this Tory-led Government is raising one billion pounds from the elderly to fund tax cuts for millionaires. This ‘granny-tax’ is yet another example of how the Tories are taking from the many and giving to the few.

For our many hardworking middle income families here in Beaumont Leys cuts to child benefits will leave hardworking people far worse off. And although raising personal allowances to £9,205 might sound impressive, in real terms it boils down to just a few pounds a week, which this Tory-led Government will instantly claw back by raising fuel duty later in the year.

Petrol and diesel prices are already at record levels. Here at the local Tesco garage in the Beaumont Leys shopping centre the cost of unleaded petrol currently stands at £1.359 per litre and diesel is priced at £1.429 per litre. These prices will increase by 3p in a few months’ time over and above any additional increases that Tesco decides to implement. Hundreds of Beaumont Leys residents who commute to work will be hit hard by this tax hike.

In this part of Leicester we also have some of the most deprived areas of social housing and under privileged people in the whole country. Whilst Leicester City Council continues to work hard to try to address underlying problems, this Tory-led Government has already slashed local authority funding, leaving people in Beaumont Leys and right across Leicester worse off in the months and years ahead.

Of course smoking is extremely harmful and I would actively encourage people to give it up. But for any local residents who choose to smoke in spite of the health risks, the cost of a pack of 20 cigarettes will increase by 37p this evening. The cost of a pint of beer will also go up by 5p, which is 2% above the rate of inflation.

Our young people in Beaumont Leys have also been hard hit. Not only has today’s Budget done nothing to actively create jobs for younger people, but this Tory-led Government has frozen the national minimum wage for all under 21 year olds. Workers under the age of 18 will see their minimum hourly rate fixed at £3.68 whilst the minimum hourly wage for 18 to 21 year olds remains unchanged at £4.98.

As a local Councillor for Beaumont Leys and as a local resident I am bitterly disappointed for my family and friends, and for thousands of my constituents who are being hit hard, as this Government chooses to cut taxes for millionaires.

Our pensioners are being forced to pay more, our young people are left to fend for themselves, middle-income families are being punished for working hard and motorists are being ripped off yet again. This is a bad Budget for Beaumont Leys and a bad Budget for Britain.”

Cllr Sundip Meghani