The most important election ever

Black and Asian women tell Yasmin Alibhai-Brown whom they'll vote for - and why this time it really

After nearly two and a half hours, the energy level was still up in the group: mood swings, bursts of confidence and a hum of disappointment. On behalf of the New Stateswoman, I had gathered 20 black and Asian women from a wide range of backgrounds to talk about the election over tea and biscuits. Some were friends, others former interviewees for my book Mixed Feelings: the complex lives of mixed-race Britons.

Race, ethnicity and faith have become ever more important under new Labour. Just when the nation needs mutual attachments across divides, policy-makers and leaders are legitimising separatism - and then banging on about the need to promote Britishness. In the crowded room the early babble was all about discrete identities. The Muslim and Hindu women were no longer happy with the term "Asian" and black women said they were not interested in the "culture wars" of the Asians.

Yet all agreed that there is mounting evidence of overt racism in institutions and generally towards immigrants. Settled people as well as newcomers are feeling increasingly threatened by both obvious and subtle manifestations of xenophobia. On the other hand, some felt sanguine that diversity is now in the blood of the nation.

Eight women retained much affection for Tony Blair. They admired his vigour, his vision for Africa, his loyalty to his family. Most of his fans were Caribbean and African women, traditionally Labour voters. Kara Odinga, a postgraduate student, put it like this: "Tony Blair is a Christian, like many of us. He cares about equality and I feel he is much misunderstood. Can you imagine the Conservative Party treating the Lawrences with the respect they have had from Tony Blair?"

Charles Kennedy was the most popular leader. Sunita Joshi, an Asian businesswoman, thought: "He is just too nice to be a politician. In this country, they like their politicians to be hard like Margaret Thatcher. I will vote for him, but only because he seems so decent. And he has worked hard to include Hindu Britons in his party."

Michael Howard was praised by four women - three of them under the age of 30 - because he was "steely", "ambitious", undaunted by attacks and made them feel he was in charge. Susan, a young Nigerian, is about to join the Tories: "I want to stand in some local elections and then go for selection." The others argued that the Conservatives would never become an inclusive party. "Why not?" asked Susan. "Things change. They have been out there, losers for too long. Learned their lessons. Sure they will welcome me. I have three degrees." Then Muneera, a quiet Muslim mother-of-three, said that she, too, would vote for them because Howard had "family values" and was against abortion.

All but two Hindu women were dissatisfied with the state of education and held Blair responsible. The teachers were fine, but schools had no discipline or learning ethos. Jamie Oliver's TV programmes on abysmal school meals had made them very cross, especially two single mothers from housing estates in west London. Scarlet, mixed-race and unemployed, has a son, aged nine, already in much trouble with neighbours and the police. And once on a roll, the women blamed the government for the drug epidemic, teenage pregnancies and gun crime, all of which are destroying their communities.

Four mothers with children who are about to leave school blasted the introduction of tuition fees. "It will be terrible for working-class black and Asian families," Sunita said. "I could go to university even though my mother is a widow. This is discrimination. The Lib Dems will change the policy." Sixteen women were even more troubled by house prices and the impact these were likely to have on their children as they tried to acquire their first home.

Interestingly, all the women were happy with the National Health Service (five worked for it) and felt that indigenous Britons wanted impossibly perfect solutions. Rehana, a mother of triplets, felt: "We have such an excellent service. They should live in the third world, these people who are always complaining about doctors and hospitals." But what about waiting lists and dirty hospitals? "Yes," she replied, "but why don't we talk about the lives saved and improved?"

Immigration brought out most disagreement, some fervently against politicians who, they thought, were abusing immigrants for cheap votes, while others agreed with the Blair or Howard push to reduce the flow into the country by whatever means necessary. This was not "support" for such right-wing immigration policies per se, but fearful assent. Almira, an Egyptian dancer, put it best: "They are telling us very clearly that if there are more coloured people in their country they will not be responsible for what they will do to us. So this is why I have to agree with Mr Blair to stop any more. But it is not fair."

On to the war and anti-terror laws. Susan and Kara were all for anything to stop "these Muslim terrorists". The rest were unforgiving, saying that the superpowers were killing the innocent for their own purposes. Muneera was most vocal: "I don't care if it was legal or not; that is a stupid argument. It was wrong. They killed mothers, fathers, children with our money and without our agreement. And now they want to punish us here in the UK." Eight women said they would never vote for Blair again because of Iraq and because they did not trust him any longer.

Half the group had not decided who would eventually get their vote, or if they would go to the polling station at all. But all the women said this election was one of the most important ever.