Operation Black Vote: "A non-vote is a vote for the status quo"


With election day looming ever closer all the parties are starting to pull out all the stops to maximise their chances of victory in May, including attempts to woo ethnic minority voters, who are increasingly becoming an influential voting sub-group in modern, multicultural Britain.

Traditionally minority voters in the UK have tended to vote Labour and, for several reasons, have eyed the Conservatives with concern and distrust.

In 2010 the Conservatives only managed to win 16 per cent of the ethnic minority vote, showing just how much work needs to be done if they seriously want to win over more BME voters.

Why do so few ethnic minority Britons vote Conservative?

Well, for one thing, the words of Conservative Enoch Powell’s infamous 1968 “Rivers of Blood” immigration speech still ring clearly in the ears of many first and second generation immigrants, who in turn influence the political ideology of their offspring.

Then there is the current Conservative government and its ‘tough on immigration’ policies and rhetoric, which included those vile "Go Home or Face Arrest" adverts that they sent around the streets of London on the side of vans.

Whilst the Conservatives have made some efforts toward appeasing BME voters as of yet it all seems a bit forced and tokenistic. Take for example last year when George Osborne declared that he would be altering air passenger tax system, which would benefit those travelling to the Caribbean from the UK, because “Labour’s tax on flights is a crazy system that means people pay more tax going to Jamaica than Hawaii.” This, he claimed, was “[s]imply unfair to hard-working British families with ties overseas who wanted to visit friends and relatives.”

Home Secretary Theresa May has also shown evidence of working on issues that matter to the black community – not least by ordering a new review of the Stephen Lawrence case and Met Police misconduct. In November, at the Conservative party conference, May also spoke out against the discriminatory nature of stop and search practices, saying: “Nobody should ever be stopped and searched because of the colour of their skin,” she said.

At the party conference new “community engagement guides” were also announced, issued to help Conservative representatives gain more minority votes through understanding the culture and needs of minority groups. The four-page booklets include one which specifically covers Nigerian voters suggests holding an event on glaucoma (more common among black people) as one way of engaging with black voters, in what seems a very forced attempt at creating an alliance.

The Conservatives attempts to diversify within their party’s ranks have certainly fallen short of what is required if they are to be serious contenders for the BME vote.

Shaun Bailey, the party’s most prominent black political candidate, has spoken about his own difficulty to rise to a more powerful position in the party. Speculating upon why he has struggled to progress Mr Bailey said: “I’m right in the centre of beliefs. Church, married, small state. Might be that I’m young ... I’m black, I’m urban. For some people that might be a risk too far. If I’m known, they can see what I can offer. But again local associations have adopted the idea that it’s good to pick a local person.”

Shaun Bailey with David Cameron

For Bailey this is an issue which needs addressing immediately if the Conservatives are to have any hope of governing Britain in the coming years. “The problem is that we replicate, we don’t modernise. That’s how we lose our national appeal,” said Mr Bailey. He continued, “What I would say to our associations is that we haven’t won an election in 22 years. And that is because we keep replicating who we are. We need new voices.”

The Conservatives perhaps should look to their sister party in Canada as an example of how to successfully expand their popularity among minority voters. Jason Kenney, the Canadian Conservatives’ multiculturalism minister, has remarked on what on he describes as “part of the failure of the British Tory party” – mirroring what previously blighted the Canadian Conservatives – being “that there was a sense of culture gap between most Conservative parliamentarians and activists and immigrant communities.”

Is Labour any more deserving of BME votes or have they become overly complacent in believing that they will receive the majority of minority votes without actually catering to the needs of BME Britons?

Evidence suggests that Labour, too, needs to considerably more if they want to maintain their history of loyal ties with BME British voters.

In fact, Labour up-to-date research shows that Labour is actually significantly losing support among minority voters, who are more so than before considering other political parties as suited to them. Whilst in 79 per cent of African Londoners vowed that they were loyal to Labour back in 1997, today just 59% do so.

Dr Maria Sobolewska, from Manchester University and one of the researchers who carried out the Ethnic Minority British Election Study explained: "What is happening is that the Labour party is sitting pretty, or at least they think they are sitting pretty, they think they have the minorities is the bag.”

That said, Labour still come across as the party which most resonates with non-white Britons, with their relatively diverse party, pro-immigration stance and efforts to help the working and lower middle classes, which many of Britain’s BME citizens belong to.

With the likes of MP and Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna, MP Diane Abbott and MP David Lammy – the latter two London mayor candidates – all occupying significant positions within the party, there is more, at least superficially, for black voters to identify with than, say, in the Conservative party.

A diverse party – and government – is something that Labour’s Margaret Hodge certainly feels passionately about, bowing out of the mayoral race because, as she put it: “[T]he time is right for us to have a non-white mayor.” Ms Hodge also said: “London is a diverse city but we are poor at representation. But let’s wait and see what the candidates say they can do for London.”

Recently Labour also – for the first time – chose a group of parliamentary candidates (for Edmonton) that were all women and all BME. Labour MP Sadiq Khan hopes that this is just one of many steps towards a truly diverse parliament that accurately reflects the diverse make-up of modern Britain. Mr Khan said: "To address the chronic under representation of women and BAME MPs I am in favour of exploring the idea of hybrid of all-ethnic minority and all-women shortlists, to ensure that our candidates reflect the communities they seek to represent.”

If the main political parties are not doing enough to engage minorities in politics then what can be done to ensure that black people’s voices and concerns are heard and acted upon by the government in the future?

Labour’s pink bus – targeting female voters – hit the roads last month. This month it is a bright orange bus (belonging to Operation Black Vote) covered in powerful images, including one of Rosa Parks and young black men being subjected to stop and search – that is touring the UK to try and engage members of Britain’s BME communities to utilise their voting power in May.

Operation Black Vote, founded by director Simon Woolley in 1996, is a campaign to make the voices and issues important to Britain’s minority populations heard and acted upon by the British government through voting and politics.

As things currently stand, BME British people are 10% less likely to be registered to vote than their white counterparts – just 76 per cent of the BME population voting compared to 86 per cent of the white population.

Mr Woolley described how Operation Black Vote is collaborative in its work and part of a wider movement to increase overall voting participation. “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,” said Mr Woolley.

Whilst Operation Black Vote is a non-partisan campaign Mr Woolley has not been able to hide his thorough disapproval of Ukip’s stance on immigration and immigrant communities in the UK, saying: “The toxic immigration rhetoric that is often heard from Ukip has a poisoning effect on society.”

So why should BME people vote in the May elections?

The outcome of the 2015 elections, more so than any past general election in the UK, will be significantly influenced by Britain’s BME population, who have become a sizeable percentage of the electorate in many areas. Indeed, in 168 marginal seats the BME electorate is greater in size than the majorities who won those exact seats in 2010.

For Woolley, these statistics are extremely exciting. “It's incredible […] 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.”

As Black activist Lee Jasper nicely summarises: “There is no such thing as not voting […] A non-vote is a vote for the status quo.”

The 2015 General Election will take place on Thursday 7 May.

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