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18 October 2004

Let the courtship begin

Britain's politicians had better start listening to ethnic minorities: they need their votes

By Antonio Maqueda

Operation Black Vote, a non-party political organisation representing ethnic minorities, claims to hold the key to the next elections. According to its research, the ethnic minority vote could decide the outcome in 70 constituencies. The organisation also reckons that, given the tactical voting which might take place between the three main parties, the ethnic minority vote will have a huge impact on another 30 constituencies.

“Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and black Christians will collaborate to put their needs high on the political agenda,” claims Simon Woolley, national co-ordinator and one of the founders of Operation Black Vote. He plans to publish the demands of the various minority communities in a political manifesto in December. The manifesto will focus on education, political representation, unemployment, criminal justice and housing. Every candidate in the 70 constituencies, and their parties, will be asked to publish a response to the document – including concrete steps that they would undertake to improve their record on the different issues.

It is estimated that 25 per cent of black and Asian Britons failed to register to vote at the last general election; and 55 per cent of all black and Asian voters did not vote. Woolley announced that, in order to promote the initiative, Operation Black Vote will launch an unprecedented empowerment drive for voter registration through youth groups, Muslim groups and church groups in marginal seats. “We will hold meetings and explain how politically powerful these communities truly are, and how they hold the balance of power.”

Peter Kellner, director of YouGov, the polling organisation, doubted that Operation Black Vote could deliver as many as 70 constituencies: “A dozen, maybe 20,” he said. “Ethnic minorities have not voted the same way in the past, and I would be surprised if this happened next time around. Having said that, it is totally possible that in cases similar to Leicester South in July, a concentration of the Muslim vote will switch from Labour to Liberal Democrat.” To date, Labour has usually been the recipient of the ethnic minorities’ votes. However, draconian anti-terrorism laws, the war in Iraq and policies such as top-up fees have alienated many of these groups – and in particular, British Muslims.

Ian McCartney, the Labour party chair, invited Operation Black Vote to a private meeting last summer at which he pledged that Labour would win back the support of Muslim voters. “I think he means business,” said Woolley, “but it remains to be seen if the party will follow. If the Labour Party does not react, it will be politically hit, very hard.”

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As support for Labour crumbles among ethnic minorities, the Lib Dems are hoping to reap benefits. “Before, the Muslim vote went 80-90 per cent to Labour. Now I think it is split between Labour, Lib Dem and Respect,” said Woolley.

He also believes that the Conservative Party has recognised its need to appeal to black voters. “Michael Howard asked me to stand with him on the stage in Bournemouth during the Conservative party conference, but I respectfully declined the offer. I did accept to hold a private meeting later this week. It’s no good Howard saying, ‘I’m an immigrant’ and then stopping other immigrants from coming.” Woolley argued that political leaders of all parties have talked up a threat that does not exist. “Sadly, Britain and Europe have lurched to the right on the issues of immigration and asylum. Too many politicians have been seen to court grubby votes to bolster their positions.”

Operation Black Vote regards overcoming Britain’s democratic deficit as its number one priority. Although one in three people in the capital city is of minority origin, only two London Assembly members out of 25 belong to these ethnic minorities. And there are 13 British MPs of ethnic minority origin, instead of the 60 there should be if the representation were more proportional.

If this continues, “We’ll have a generation that will not engage in civic society,” Woolley said. “That dislocation of civic society undermines democracy. It creates fertile ground for a fundamentalist to take grip of young Muslims and, increasingly, Caribbeans and Africans.”

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