The Operation Black Vote bus in Barking. Photo: Anoosh Chakelian
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Operation Black Vote: on the road with the bus that could decide the election

We climbed on board the Operation Black Vote bus last week, as it launched its campaign to register black and minority ethnic voters ahead of the election.

It’s just after 9am, and Barking’s East Street Market is unfurling into action. A morning chorus of shoe-selling cockneys, hearty sales pitches from a traditional African dress stall, and speakers pulsing out deep house from a stand manned by Pakistanis, is enough to illustrate the diversity here.

All of a sudden, an enormous orange bus pulls up just off the market, in a square outside the local college. Two construction workers pause to stare, squinting, at the vehicle. Some Muslim women stop rummaging through school uniforms at a nearby stall and amble over. The Operation Black Vote battle bus has arrived.


 

At the margins

I join the campaign bus registering black and minority ethnic people to vote on Day Two of its tour around England, Wales and Scotland. It is stopping in the constituencies where voters from BME communities could make a big difference to the general election result if they sign up and then turn out in May.

As BME people are less likely to be registered than the white British population (76 per cent to 86 per cent), it is a laudable endeavour, but the name “Operation Black Vote” doesn’t encompass all that it entails.

Simon Woolley, the director and founder of this operation, which began in 1996, explains the name:

“For the same reason why the Fawcett Society targets women, Operation Black Vote target black and minority ethnic communities,” he says. “So yes, we do what we say on the tin, precisely because we're aiming at tackling an imbalance, tackling injustice.

“While we target black and minority ethnic communities in this campaign, we collaborate with other organisations like Bite the Ballot [to register young voters], Operation Disability Vote, women’s groups, so it cannot be remotely said that we are separatists, segregationists, and just about us – actually we're about a decent society.”

Woolley is passionate about this project, attracting people off the street and onto the bus by sheer force of character. His distinctive look – tinted sunglasses, a black roll neck sweater under a dark jacket with the collar turned up ­– is matched by the striking design of the bus. It is covered in enormous slogans and illustrations: Rosa Parks sits resolutely on one side, and on the other is a stark image of teenagers being stopped and searched.

Visitors can register at the 12 laptops stationed inside the bus’s “IT Suite”. There are also plush red breakfast bar stools, cream sofas, strips of neon blue lights, and leaflets about everything from anti-fascist marches to information for the British Chinese community. Pop music blasts from an iPod out onto the square to draw people in. It's like a cross between a political protest and those party limos that transport sixth formers to prom.

Woolley, who calls this project his “vocation” rather than a job, aims to “make sure our institutions are inclusive, representative, and have social and racial justice writ large in the narrative”.

He was born to Caribbean parents, and grew up in Leicester, fostered and then adopted by white parents, who he describes as "my Welsh mother and Irish father". He recalls that while he was “always quietly political”, it was only in the Nineties – when he joined the electoral reform pressure group Charter88 – that he “recognised that while I believed in democratic reform, there needed to be a black and minority ethnic narrative, which was able to use the democratic process to tackle racism”.

And the upcoming election is more important than ever. The BME vote could decide the outcome in 168 marginal seats, where that section of the electorate is larger than the majorities by which those seats were won in 2010. With such a tight contest ahead, Woolley is convinced that black and ethnic minority voters could decide the overall result:

“It's incredible,” he grins. “In elections it's all about the numbers. And we have the numbers! We have the numbers in so many seats, so many battlegrounds, that there's not a political leader who hasn't beaten a path to my door, precisely because they recognise that in an election that will be won and lost at the margins, the black vote is crucial.

“The bit that challenges is getting our own people to realise that actually we have the best lever we've ever had, ever, in British society.”

The ultimate aim of more BME people voting is to ensure “social and racial justice”, Woolley asserts. “The end is to have policies that are able to close those persistent race inequality gaps in education, in employment, in health, in housing, in the criminal justice system. At the moment, there are almost no policies to close the gap, and as a result – particularly in the era of austerity ­– those gaps have widened.”


 

On board

Everyone from construction workers in hard hats, groups of college students giggling and taking selfies, and middle-aged women from the market come and sign up to vote on the bus.

“Be strong, brother,” smiles one young black man stepping off the bus, having just registered, slapping a similar-aged eastern European man wearing a high-vis vest on the shoulder as he climbs on board.

“Hurry up, you have to be able to vote,” yells a Thai woman to her daughter down the phone. “I am worried about my 18-year-old not being registered, I’m trying to get her down here,” she tells me, perching on one of the bus’s leather sofas.

A 17-year-old business student whose parents moved here from Romania has just signed up to vote. “We need to vote so that our future means something,” he tells me sheepishly. “If we want to become something in our lives. Without anyone to encourage us, we would do nothing.”

Another college student studying business at the technical skills academy nearby, who has only just turned 16, also registers. She is of Indian origin. “Even though I can’t vote yet, I thought I’d check it out. We have to have a say,” she says. “We are citizens of this country too, so we should have a say.”

A young Muslim woman originally from Pakistan, aged 18, who is doing an IT course, sits down at one of the laptops. “I need to get my voice heard,” she tells me. “We all live in one community, so we should all be heard.”


 

Parking in Barking

It is significant that Barking is one of the bus’s first stops. This area ­– historically part of Essex – was until recently under immense pressure from the BNP. The far-right nationalist party’s then leader, Nick Griffin, ran for the seat in the last election. He failed to win, and the party lost all 12 of its councillors.

The total BME population of the constituency of Barking is 45 per cent, African being the largest BME category. There are 16,648 Asian voters and 20,508 black voters here.

“Everyone is welcome on the bus,” cries Woolley. “Even if they vote BNP – I will sit them down and transform them, change their view of the world.”

Giasuddin Miah, the councillor for this ward, pops on board to watch voters register. Miah, who is of Bangladeshi origin, tells me it’s important every resident here, whatever their background, should stand “shoulder to shoulder, as friends, as brothers”, and says to people on the doorstep: “Don’t judge me on my colour, on my background, judge me on whether or not I’m of use to you.”

The leader of the council, Darren Rodwell – who was Labour’s campaign organiser when it fought the BNP here during the last election – is equally vehement that Barking’s diverse community remains tightly bonded. “I don’t do this ‘we’re separate communities’ thing,” he tells me. “We’re one borough, we have to engage with the whole community.”

While he admires the work of the battle bus parked in his patch today, he is disappointed that “the main parties didn’t learn from the experience of Barking and Dagenham”.

He tells me: “Don’t just penalise the most vulnerable – ethnic people who move to this country, people on benefits… [national politicians] should listen to everyone in this country, because I don’t believe they’re all being listened to, and that’s the only way to address the far right. As far as I can tell, Ukip’s immigration policy is no different from the BNP’s.”

Woolley, although heading a non-partisan movement, is also vocal about the rise of Ukip and its implications.

“The toxic immigration rhetoric that is often heard from Ukip has a poisoning effect on society,” he says. “It is based on fear and loathing, hatred of other. But it's easy. And it is effective in its divide and rule.”

He continues: “What makes the UK strong, and places like London special, in real terms, is its diversity. The UK is teeming with diversity: languages, skills, creativity, entrepreneurialism. That's the reality. And yet the rhetoric says that anything other than a narrow Britishness is bad. It pits black against white, Muslim against Christian, neighbour against neighbour.”

Like Barking’s council leader, Woolley feels betrayed by national politicians on this subject, reflecting that, “there are very few mainstream political leaders who are brave enough to say, ‘actually, the great tenets of diversity is our strength’.”

He gives the example of people of colour “underpinning the British jewel” that is the NHS. “And yet, to some people, looking at the UK, they will think that the scourge of this nation is people of colour, precisely because of this raging gutter debate about immigration.”

Woolley's damning conclusion, coupled with the optimism of Operation Black Vote's passengers, show it's clearly about time our national politicians stopped missing this bus.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war