Darcus Howe explains why blacks won't vote

Right-wing attacks used to panic blacks into voting Labour. Now we just don't vote at all

Two images, both from the television news, were etched on my mind before I left for my holidays in the Caribbean a few weeks ago. The first was Labour's launch of its election campaign, with Gordon Brown standing rather awkwardly next to Alan Milburn, and the second was of Nelson Mandela, staring at the coffin that housed the remains of his last surviving son, who had perished from Aids. I shed a tear for the old man, to whom this is another tragedy in a life of trials and tribulations.

At my local pub in Brixton, a group of us discussed both the elections and Mandela's loss at what we call our local parliament. I offered odds that it wouldn't be long before race, under the guise of immigration and asylum, featured strongly in the election campaign. Michael Howard, I predicted, would launch the offensive and Labour would duck and dive as it always had.

It struck me then that we in the black community now have the measure of Labour's cowardice. Once, we were panicked into voting Labour by right-wing assaults. No more. We simply do not vote at all.

Within hours of my return, I found my prediction had come true. Howard had raised the spectre of diseased immigrants and announced that he would protect his people from HIV infection by demanding medical certificates. Though Howard did not mention it, the death of Mandela's son seemed, albeit obliquely, to pander to the prejudices against immigrants and asylum-seekers.

Howard also said that health tourism had to be brought under control: "The National Health Service should be exactly that - a national health service, not a world health service." In many parts of the NHS, it is indeed a world health service, provided by people from different parts of the globe. Stand outside King's College Hospital in Camberwell, south London, of a morning and you will witness an army of dark-skinned people heading for the main gate.

Labour should say that its spending on inner-city hospitals is greatly reduced because of the low wages paid to the foreigners who work there. Here was a chance for the party to set out its stall in defence of immigration from the Caribbean, the Asian continent and Africa. Once again, it fluffed it with weasel words about abuses to the system.