She described herself as ‘a servant of the people’.
Medlin Lewis-Spencer (28 April 1951 -12 October 2014) was my friend. We were both immigrants to the UK. When I met Medlin in 2006 I had no idea of her amazing past and accomplished contribution to her adopted homeland. It was only gradually, through many lengthy conversations, that I began to understand who Medlin really was. She was the first black female mayor of Hackney and is perhaps best known for her courageous crossing of the floor from the Labour Party to the Conservatives. But she was so much more than that.
Medlin was an example of what all we immigrants should be. She believed in hard work, eschewed victimhood and thought West Indian immigrants should integrate themselves into the British way of life. In all the years I knew her she never mentioned the words ‘diversity’ or ‘multi-culturalism’. Medlin was socially and economically conservative. She strongly believed that by following a path of education, family, faith, hard work and entrepreneurship, her fellow immigrants could propel themselves into a better life.
Her parents Edgar and Isolyn Lewis moved from Jamaica to the UK almost 60 years ago seeking that better life for their family. Medlin, with her identical twin Rose and their younger siblings, followed in 1965. Isolyn worked at the Cadbury’s chocolate factory in Bristol and later as an auxiliary nurse. Edgar was a motorway construction worker. He always wore a bow tie and jacket to work. Medlin was tiny, fine-boned, beautiful and had inherited her father’s exquisite dress sense.
Edgar and Isolyn ran a strict Christian Pentecostal home. They instilled the values of education, faith, family, hard work and morality into their children, cornerstones which informed Medlin’s character and her work as a politician. Medlin trained as a nurse at Bristol Royal Infirmary and moved in 1979 to London, where she worked in both the NHS and the private sector.
Being a true conservative, Medlin was in favour of small government and small business. Before becoming mayor she worked for a development partnership which helped ethnic minority businesses. One of the struggling entrepreneurs whom Medlin assisted was the shoe designer Jimmy Choo.
Medlin initially rose to prominence after appearing on the BBC programme Horizon in 1985, entitled ‘Are you a racist?’ Her contribution was balanced and articulate. She was approached by the Labour Party, encouraging her to stand for Hackney council. Medlin was very quickly made deputy mayor and then, in 1998, mayor.
But Medlin was not a tribal party member. Her integrity was far too important to her to indulge in blind loyalty. In November 1991 she caused a national outcry when she crossed the Hackney council chamber floor to join the Conservatives. She had learnt that certain councillors were bribed into pushing applicants to the top of the council housing list. This was anathema for a politician of principle and scrupulous values. Medlin supported the whistle-blower who uncovered this scandal but could no longer support Labour. She was also irritated by how much Labour took the West Indian community vote for granted.
The act of crossing the floor brought her abuse and ridicule. Some of her ex-colleagues threw 5p pieces at her as a vile mockery of the 30 pieces of silver thrown at Judas – an act hurtful to a devout Christian. But Medlin was not cowed by the rage hurled at her. Her dulcet voice belied her feisty and valiant character. She would never allow herself to be bullied into capitulating to moral cowards. By crossing the floor Medlin showed other Labour politicians that there was an alternative to silence in the face of corruption, something that current Labour MPs would do well to remember. She truly lived by her convictions.
Medlin went on to stand in Northfield as a Conservative councillor and in 1994 won the ward. Her popularity was such that this was the only ward in the borough that Labour lost to the Tories that year. She held the ward for eight years.
In 1995 Medlin met her future husband James Spencer at a Conservative party. They married in October 1998 and in 2004 moved to Ipswich, where Medlin began to practise complementary therapies – a profession which suited her caring nature but was not as demanding as nursing. She converted to Roman Catholicism and remained a devoted member of the Church until her death.
Medlin was diagnosed with cancer in July 2010. During those long hours as I sat with her at Ipswich hospital, while the chemotherapy drugs dripped into her arm, I never once heard her complain or utter a word of self-pity. She would sit upright in her chair, pristinely dressed, no matter how ill and weak she felt. She approached her illness with her usual inspiring strength and calm. Right until the end Medlin displayed what I think of as true British values –uncomplaining courage and moral fortitude. She was also the epitome of a good Christian – humble, observant, compassionate and an enabler of others.
Both in her modesty and style of politics Medlin could not have differed more from Hackney’s better-known black politician, Diane Abbott. Medlin was also a political visionary. She saw how Labour was rapidly turning into a corrosive cesspool of vapid ideology long before it was headline news. The vile anti-Semitism, misogyny and cultish behaviour currently infecting the Labour Party would have horrified her. The Medlin I knew would scorn the insidious advance of narcissistic identity politics. She strongly believed that the UK should leave the EU, despite this not being a popular idea among the Tories in the 1990s, and she would have most certainly voted for Brexit.
This was a woman who, as a nurse, a politician and a therapist, dedicated her entire life to helping others regardless of who they were or where they came from. She did not indulge or let others indulge in victimhood or self-pity. Medlin saw people as people and not as weaponised political tools. She was a unifying force and a rare breed – a politician of integrity.
Our youth are encouraged to become involved in politics, but there are not many current Conservative MPs who inspire. A statue of commemoration for Medlin would be a prominent reminder of how a politician can promote British values and protect our Judeo-Christian heritage. As a true pioneer and dedicated public servant, Medlin Lewis-Spencer was the epitome of a hard-working immigrant who felt a need to help the afflicted and an obligation of duty to her adopted homeland.