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15 April 2008

Race, diversity and 1 May

Operation Black Vote's Simon Woolley on the closest run and bitterest mayoral contest to date

By Simon Woolley

This third London Mayoral contest will be by far the closest run yet. It’ll also be the bitterest.

Of course, a bittersweet dynamic of this fierce contest should lead to a better-than-average voter turnout – crucial if the BNP are to be denied any Greater London Assembly seats.

But my worry is that many Londoners will be left feeling ‘don’t we deserve a better contest than this?’.

Unlike the previous two mayoral elections race has taken centre stage and I’m sorry that it has because London generally has a lower level of racial tension than we have seen in recent years in Paris, Bradford, or Birmingham.

For hundreds of years, particularly in the last 50, the capital’s teeming diversity has been its strength. Diversity won us the 2012 Olympic games. But that’s not to say there aren’t tensions, or that tackling race inequality is no longer a priority.

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The fact is that for the vast majority of people living in the capital, particularly the young, their identity as a Londoner is worn as a badge of honour. The identity of race and religion are not diminished, however, whether or not you are born here; the inclusive nature of London is very appealing.

The biggest problem young Londoners face is not a racial divide but rather a territorial division that pits one neighbourhood against another – that’s a serious problem for any mayor.

The capital’s identity politics, as in the politics of voting, also takes on a life of its own. When the novelist Jeffrey Archer began his ill-fated quest to become the capital’s first Mayor he made it his business to schlep all over the capital in an attempt to win over potential voters.

He courted the black vote so much that it was said he would go to the opening of a fridge if he knew there would be a black audience. It began to pay dividends. Archer would tell anyone who would listen, that he was not like his then exceedingly unpopular Conservative Party.

His politics, he argued, were ‘for a world beating multicultural city, dynamic as they are different from the ‘run of the mill politics’. In a poll commissioned by Operation Black Vote (OBV) back in 1999 asking black communities who they would vote for as Mayor, Archer beat Livingstone, Trevor Phillips, and Susan Kramer. The next Tory candidate Steve Norris continued Archer’s narrative that celebrated multicultural London.

So, why has race negatively come to the forefront this time around? There are two main factors. The first has been the wholly disproportionate attention towards Ken Livingstone’s former equality aide Lee Jasper, and a number of black groups and individuals, including Doreen Lawrence and Pastor Nims.

No-one in the black community condones financial wrongdoing but many have asked, was the scale of this focus on these allegations fair, and how come everyone targeted by this media onslaught just happens to be black?

The second element has come from Boris Johnson himself. His remarks about Africans and Africa have forced him to make an unreserved apology. Johnson has had to learn quickly that the politics of London demands that it’s not enough not being a racist, you have to be a passionate anti-racist.

There is a third racial element, which until last week largely went ignored. The Ken v Boris Punch and Judy Show has focused attention away from the politics of race hatred: BNP. Masquerading as democrats, and even courting their once archenemies – the Jewish community – the BNP are hoping their claim that they are no longer bigoted boot boys will win acceptance.

If they can keep up the charade, and there is a low voter turnout, the BNP would hope to pick up one or two Assembly seats. The result would be disastrous for London. The very essence of what brings people to London from all over the world to a multi-cultural metropolis would be threatened by politics that has its roots in fascism.

Some commentators have suggested the BNP’s success might not be a bad thing as it would shake up the mainstream parties. I disagree. Any far right political success directly translates into racial abuse, verbally and physically. Worse still their bigoted ideas would, even more, seep into mainstream thinking.

Last week, the mainstream candidates stopped attacking each other to unite against the threat of the BNP.

Speaking at OBV’s coalition against the BNP, Boris Johnson declared that Londoners must register to vote and defeat the BNP. Ken Livingstone argued that as well as attacking the capital’s cultural identity the BNP’s racial hatred ‘would turn visitors away’.

I agree with both of them and would add that, if we value what we have in London, lets protect it on May 1st.

Simon Woolley is the director and a founder of Operation Black Vote.

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