I AM delighted to be asked to write a new column for the Ealing Times. It is a shame, however, that the first opportunity comes at a time of great sadness.

Piara Khabra's death on June 19 followed an illness of some months but was still a shock to his many friends, among whom I am proud to count myself.

Although he was the oldest MP in the present House of Commons he was lively, active and purposeful right up until his admittance to Hammersmith Hospital in April.

Piara was an extraordinary man. The first MP of Sikh origin, he was a member of the Communist Party and the SDP in his time, but for the past 20 years had been a pillar of the Labour Party and the west London community.

He achieved his ambition of a Parliamentary seat in 1992 and was due to retire at the next election. It is a great pity that he did not have time to live out a happy retirement with his devoted wife Beulah, but there is something apposite about his dying in the saddle' still working hard for the people of Southall after a lifetime of public service.

Two years ago I spoke with Piara at a public meeting, where, provoked by something said from the audience, he gave a taste of what it was like for him to come to the UK from the Punjab in 1959 with his wife and young son. Although highly educated, he had to take manual jobs until he could re-qualify as a teacher. He suffered discrimination unimaginable today. But he saw the future that could be achieved through community action and socialist politics. He led the Indian Workers' Association and became a JP, councillor and then Member of Parliament.

As I stood outside the chapel at his funeral last Wednesday with hundreds of other mourners unable to fit inside, we listened as Louis Armstrong's What A Wonderful World was played. It expressed both Piara's optimism and his secularism. His lack of religiosity did not stop him celebrating his roots and culture but it gave him an ability to get on with all his constituents whatever their faith or absence of one.

Piara was a critical friend to the Labour Party - I have heard him berating ministers for giving too much credence to the views of faith schools, secular education being a un-dilutable principle for him. To me he was just a friend, always pleased to give advice both before and after I entered the Commons.

By the time you read this Labour will have selected its candidate to succeed Piara. Unlike other parties this will have been achieved by a democratic vote of all local party members. Whoever it is I wish them well. They will need to be an exceptional person to stand in his shoes.

But I also know that Piara would want nothing more as a legacy than to see a Labour MP elected to succeed him and continue his work for the people of Southall.