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Senior Labour figures join tributes at event held in memory of former Whittington hospital chairman

Hundreds gathered a memorial event for Narendra Makanji

19 April, 2019 — By Emily Finch

Unmesh Desai, a London Assembly Member pays tribute to his late friend

“HIS life story is a story about the fight against racism.” These were the words used to describe Narendra Makanji, the former chairman of the Whittington Hospital and life-long Labour activist, at a moving ceremony on Tuesday night.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, alongside his fellow shadow cabinet ministers Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, spoke at the ceremony to pay tribute to Mr Makanji who died suddenly from a heart attack earlier this month.

Unmesh Desai, a London Assembly Member for the Labour Party, spoke of how he and Mr Makanji would regularly attend anti-fascist protests in the late 1970s and 80s.

He said: “He was a good friend, a brother. His life story is a story about the fight against racism – in the community, in the street, in the Labour party, in the trade union movement and internationally.
“He believed in the politics of the movement, and not of the individual.”

Mr Desai explained that when he got into politics “London then was a very different place”, with the British National Party coming third in the GLA elections.

He recalled protesting against the BNP with Mr Makanji in Welling, south London, while being vastly “outnumbered”.

There were hundreds of friends, family members and fellow activists at the memorial event at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Haringey where Mr Makanji was councillor for more than 20 years.

Islington North MP Mr Corbyn spoke of how he was involved in an anti-fascist protest with Mr Makanji when the National Front tried to march through Haringey in the so-called “Battle of Wood Green” back in 1977.

He said Mr Makanji’s work was “crucial”, not just in standing up against the fascists, but also in making the community and the Labour party a more inclusive space for members from minority backgrounds.

Mr Corbyn said: “I was chair of community development in Haringey and you wouldn’t believe the arguments we had about the council funding the Cypriot centre, funding the West Indian centre, funding any other ethnic community centre or ethnic community groups.
“There were big arguments.”

Narendra Makanji with Jeremy Corbyn

He added: “The idea was, it will bring people together precisely because it will enhance and strengthen the legacy of these communities and lead the second generation to understand where their parents came from and what their parents went through. We achieved many of those things. Narendra did such a lot of work all over the country mobilising for it. When we won that whole debate, it was a landmark moment in the Labour party.”
Mr Makanji was instrumental in setting up the Labour Party Black Sections which fought for better ethnic minority representation within the party. He was a key figure in Islington’s Race Equality Unit which sought to eliminate discrimination.

Mr Corbyn told the crowd: “He was a good, wonderful, loyal, decent friend of mine. I am deeply saddened by his passing but in his memory we will create that decent world, we will win that election, we will get that Labour government, and we will defeat the far right in our society and be proud in our history and struggles and proud of diversity in all its forms.”

Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, said if there had been “justice” Mr Makanji would have been an MP for 30 years.
“He was kind, hardworking, principled,” she said.

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