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 senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Here’s everything wrong with Daniel Hannan’s tweet about Saturday’s Unite for Europe march

I am Captain Ahab, and Dan is my great white whale, enraging and mocking me in equal measure through his continued political survival.

I was going to give up the Daniel Hannan thing, I really was. He’s never responded to this column, despite definitely being aware of it. The chances of him changing his views in response to verifiable facts seem to be nil, so the odds of him doing it because some smug lefty keeps mocking him on the internet must be into negative numbers.

And three different people now have told me that they were blissfully unaware of Hannan's existence until I kept going on about him. Doing Dan’s PR for him was never really the point of the exercise – so I was going to quietly abandon the field, leave Hannan to his delusion that the disasters ahead are entirely the fault of the people who always said Brexit would be a disaster, and get back to my busy schedule of crippling existential terror.

Told you he was aware of it.

Except then he does something so infuriating that I lose an entire weekend to cataloguing the many ways how. I just can’t bring myself to let it go: I am Captain Ahab, and Dan is my great white whale, enraging and mocking me in equal measure through his continued political survival.

I never quite finished that book, but I’m sure it all worked out fine for Ahab, so we might as well get on with it*. Here’s what’s annoying me this week:

And here are some of the many ways in which I’m finding it obnoxious.

1. It only counts as libel if it’s untrue.

2. This sign is not untrue.

3. The idea that “liars, buffoons and swivel-eyed loons” are now in control of the country is not only not untrue, it’s not even controversial.

4. The leaders of the Leave campaign, who now dominate our politics, are 70 per cent water and 30 per cent lies.

5. For starters, they told everyone that, by leaving the EU, Britain could save £350m a week which we could then spend on the NHS. This, it turned out, was a lie.

6. They said Turkey was about to join the EU. This was a lie too.

7. A variety of Leave campaigners spent recent years saying that our place in the single market was safe. Which it turned out was... oh, you guessed.

8. As to buffoons, well, there’s Brexit secretary David Davis, for one, who goes around cheerfully admitting to Select Committees that the government has no idea what Brexit would actually do to the economy.

9. There was also his 2005 leadership campaign, in which he got a variety of Tory women to wear tight t-shirts with (I’m sorry) “It’s DD for me” written across the chest.

10. Foreign secretary Boris Johnson, meanwhile, is definitely a liar AND a buffoon.

11. I mean, you don’t even need me to present any evidence of that one, do you? You just nodded automatically.

12. You probably got there before me, even. For what it's worth, he was sacked from The Times for making up a quote, and sacked from the shadow frontbench for hiding an affair.

13. Then there’s Liam Fox, who is Liam Fox.

14. I’m not going to identify any “swivel-eyed loons”, because mocking someone’s physical attributes is mean and also because I don’t want to get sued, but let’s not pretend Leave campaigners who fit the bill would be hard to find.

15. Has anyone ever managed to read a tweet by Hannan beginning with the words “a reminder” without getting an overwhelming urge to do unspeakable things to an inanimate object, just to get rid of their rage?

16. Even if the accusation made in that picture was untrue, which it isn’t, it wouldn’t count as libel. It’s not possible to libel 52 per cent of the electorate unless they form a distinct legal entity. Which they don’t.

17. Also, at risk of coming over a bit AC Grayling, “52 per cent of those who voted” is not the same as “most Britons”. I don’t think that means we can dismiss the referendum result, but those phrases mean two different things.

18. As ever, though, the most infuriating thing Hannan’s done here is a cheap rhetorical sleight of hand. The sign isn’t talking about the entire chunk of the electorate who voted for Brexit: it’s clearly talking specifically about the nation’s leaders. He’s conflated the two and assumed we won’t notice.

19. It’s as if you told someone they were shit at their job, and they responded, “How dare you attack my mother!”

20. Love the way Hannan is so outraged that anyone might conflate an entire half of the population with an “out of touch elite”, something that literally no Leave campaigners have ever, ever done.

21. Does he really not know that he’s done this? Or is he just pretending, so as to give him another excuse to imply that all opposition to his ideas is illegitimate?

22. Once again, I come back to my eternal question about Hannan: does he know he’s getting this stuff wrong, or is he genuinely this dim?

23. Will I ever be able to stop wasting my life analysing the intellectual sewage this infuriating man keeps pouring down the internet?

*Related: the collected Hannan Fodder is now about the same wordcount as Moby Dick.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.