The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Sheila Wright (1925-2011) and Helen McElhone (1933-2013) both served as Labour MPs in the 1979-1983 Parliament before losing their seats as a result of boundary changes. In the relatively short time during which they served, they diligently represented their constituents’ interests from the Back Benches, and were active in campaigning for a variety of causes.
Sheila Wright was born and brought up in India, moving to Britain at the age of 20. After gaining a social science certificate from the University of Southampton and a sociology degree from the University of London, she entered politics in 1956 as a councillor on Birmingham City Council. As chair of that council’s education committee, she oversaw the introduction of comprehensive education in Birmingham.
Having contested the seat of Birmingham, Handsworth in 1964, 1966 and 1970, she was finally successful in 1979, becoming the constituency’s first female Member of Parliament. She used her maiden speech to draw attention to living conditions in her constituency, decrying the “legacy of miserable housing, worse environment and considerable ill health” left to Birmingham’s residents by the industrial revolution. She also articulated the principles that she aspired to adhere to in public life: “Take up issues in which you believe, be clear and concise, and remember that humbug will always be found out.”
The issues that Wright took up in Parliament included opposition to nuclear bases, with the majority of her contributions relating to her constituency or the wider West Midlands area. Her concerns about the problems of inner cities were reinforced by the 1981 riots in her constituency: speaking in the House, she criticised both the “devastation” caused by the rioters and the underlying conditions that had led to the riots, warning, “Let us not be so preoccupied with dousing the sparks that we forget to remove the tinder box.” Her background—neither her parents nor grandparents were born in the UK, and she retained close connections with India—informed her views on immigration policy. She condemned “racialist” and “sexist” Conservative proposals to tighten the rules as “further ways to penalise those who are already here and who are, theoretically and in law, British citizens.”
Following the abolition of the Birmingham, Handsworth constituency in 1983, Wright was offered the opportunity to stand in the neighbouring seat of Birmingham Ladywood, but decided to retire from Parliament for family reasons. She spent her later years active in voluntary work, serving on Birmingham’s health authority and numerous school governing bodies.
Helen McElhone was born in Glasgow as Helen Brown. In 1958, she married Frank McElhone, a greengrocer by trade who would later become the Labour MP for Glasgow Gorbals and, subsequently, for the newly created seat of Glasgow, Queen’s Park. Despite taking an active interest in both her husband’s business and his political activities—she held surgeries on his behalf regularly during the 1970s, sat in on meetings of Commons Select Committees, and was active in the local Labour Party—McElhone apparently had no ambition to run for Parliament herself until, on 22 September 1982, Frank died of a heart attack while on a march in support of the NHS.
McElhone, who had been regarded as “the driving force behind her husband”, won the nomination to stand in the ensuing by-election by a single vote. On becoming an MP, she used her maiden speech to draw attention to the issue of poor-quality housing in her constituency, as the dilapidated state of the Hutchesontown E tower block had been a major issue during the by-election. In the short time between her election and the 1983 general election, she primarily used her position to advocate for the interests of people in her constituency, submitting written questions and questioning the Government on topics such as defence jobs in Glasgow, the diabetic allowance for students in Scotland, and the payment of compensation in the case of Patrick Meehan.
With the abolition of the Glasgow, Queen’s Park constituency, McElhone attempted to win the Labour Party’s nomination for the neighbouring seat of Glasgow Central, but was unsuccessful. She never returned to Parliament, but remained active in politics, becoming a councillor on Strathclyde Regional Council in 1985 and, in 1999, helping to screen prospective Labour candidates for the first elections to the Scottish Parliament. Her colleague Lord Foulkes memorialised her as “a strong woman, very political and very active; not to be under-estimated, despite her short period as an MP.”
Hansard Writing Team
Housing and Local Government: House of Commons Debate, 17 May 1979. https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1979/may/17/housing-and-local-government#S5CV0967P0_19790517_HOC_168
Civil Disturbances: House of Commons Debate, 16 July 1981. https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1981/jul/16/civil-disturbances#S6CV0008P0_19810716_HOC_319
Immigration: House of Commons Debate, 4 December 1979. https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1979/dec/04/immigration#S5CV0975P0_19791204_HOC_374
Mrs McElhone could fight Queens Park. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=bMNAAAAAIBAJ&sjid=CqYMAAAAIBAJ&pg=4006,2590263&dq=helen-mcelhone&hl=en
Housing (Scotland): House of Commons Debate, 17 January 1983. http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1983/jan/17/housing-scotland#S6CV0035P0_19830117_HOC_494
Tributes to MP who fought to end Hutchie E. https://www.glasgowtimes.co.uk/news/13257822.tributes-to-mp-who-fought-to-end-hutchie-e/