The cello playing MP who wants to blaze a trail for human rights

May 29 2015

IT is fair to say that Bristol West's newly elected MP has a story as unique as her name.

IT is fair to say that Bristol West's newly elected MP has a story as unique as her name.

For Thangam Debbonaire, what started out as a career playing the cello, turned into a profession fighting for social justice.

Now she is representing over 70,000 constituents in parliament, and her mission is to defend human rights, tackle climate change, and eliminate poverty.

Born in Peterborough, Thangam grew up in a “very Labour” household, with musicians for parents.

Her mother was English and her father, an Indian migrant, who had come over to England by boat when he was 18.

Her grandparents were most active within the Labour party, with her grandfather being a councillor. Thangam, 48, says that her grandmother was a huge inspiration while growing up.

“Although I didn't study politics at university, neither was I hugely active in the Labour party, my grandmother's words and influence have always stuck with me.

“She would have been so proud of me, as this is exactly what she would have been capable of herself. I'm a bit nervous that I won't be as good as she would have been, but it's motivating. I tend to think to myself, what's the role of an MP? and I can hear her saying 'it's about standing up for people'. That's the sort of thing I have in mind about what my grandmother was like, and that's the sort of MP I'm trying to be.”

Another inspiration for Thangam was Valerie Davey – the elected Bristol West Member of Parliament before incumbent Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Williams.

She says that she is still “very moved” by the positive impact that the Education Maintenance Allowance – a financial scheme for students, which Valerie helped bring in – had over her family's life.

Before forging a career in politics, Thangam earned a living through being a professional cellist. She had trained at the Chetham's School of Music in Manchester, and then later performed for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as for professional theatre.

It wasn't until Thangam started volunteering at a refuge for young Asian women, that she got her first taste of being involved in concrete change, and seeing that things can happen if you spoke out.

An opportunity then arose for Thangam in 1991, where she moved to Bristol to work as National Children's Worker for the Women's Aid National Office.

It was in this role that she faced politics “head-on”, due to legislation within the Child Support Act that needed challenging.

“It was the first time I'd ever called up a politician … I didn't know whether there was a protocol. But I managed to get the law changed, just by naively thinking 'oh, I could fix this'.”

In this role, Thangam also set up domestic violence prevention schemes in schools, and eventually worked with men, and women, who had abused their partners.

She discovered that within this role, a deep passion had formed for long-term institutional change.

But what eventually drove Thangam to stand as an MP was the lack of young people not being able to fulfil their potential. “It's absolutely tragic that an entire generation of young people – no matter what their income or background – are struggling to fulfil their potential.”

Thangam was selected to run as MP three years ago, which she says has allowed her to really understand her constituency. “What is uniform across Bristol West is fear and anxiety for the next generation. I don't want my nieces and nephews to be facing a housing crisis that I didn't have to cope with. They can barely afford a one bedroom flat in their own neighbourhood – it's a disgrace in so many ways. It really drives me and I want to fix it.”

When Thangam was declared MP for Bristol West, she says that she felt mixed emotions: elation for how much her team had achieved, and profound fear as the country wasn't going to have a Labour government. However, Thangam says that she is now feeling “much stronger”, and has a clearer idea of how she will help people across the constituency.

For Thangam, climate change and social justice are two of the most important, pressing issues.

“It's so important that every MP understands climate change, and it has to be tackled with social justice at the same time,” she said. “If they get that climate change, inequality and poverty are linked then they'll do a much better job at tackling all three.”

In Westminster, Thangam says that she intends to be “very vocal”, and talk about issues which matter to the constituents of Bristol West. She also aims to defend the Human Rights Act, which the Conservative government intends to scrap.

For more information about Thangam, or to contact her about a case study, visit: