On Wednesday 5 March an extraordinary meeting of minds took place at the office of Operation Black Vote in Bethnal Green. The theme was ‘The Power of the Black Vote’ and it aimed at creating a coalition of activists to put ‘race equality back on the agenda’. The message: that it was essential for the BME communities to unite so that the continuing systemic biases against Britain’s non-White population are taken seriously and addressed by the political masters.
To provide supporting evidence for this, Ratna Lachman of Just West Yorkshire, cited Jeremy Crook, Director, Black Training and Enterprise Group: almost half of black people aged between 16 and 24 were unemployed, compared with 20% of white people of the same age; black and ethnic minority communities suffered from a “long-term persistent recession” and the government needed to make a “more targeted effort” and also recognise that this youthful pool was a strategic asset for the nation.
In a charismatic address, OBV Director Simon Woolley called for political engagement, in particular voter registration and voter turnout for the 2015 General Election. An analysis of 2010 voting and 2011 Census output had revealed that the BME vote “could easily decide over 160 seats – the Coalition Government has governed the UK with a working majority of just 83 seats; in 168 marginal seats the BME electorate is larger than the majority in which the seat was won”. So , “history is waiting to be transformed; we must mobilise our franchise”. He observed that since his election, Prime Minister David Cameron had not made a single speech referring to the need to tackle race inequality – but has had a lot to say about immigration. The same held true for David Milliband. He said that Nick Clegg had made one speech which made this reference, but that too “at the prompting of myself and Trevor Phillips.”
Among the speakers was Professor Anthony Heath, who presented his research on attitudes in Britain. BME communities thought similarly to the wider British public on many issues, such as supporting the National Health System, transport and climate issues, but there was one area in which the gap was so huge, it even took the researchers by surprise. This was around the prioritising of race equality: “BME communities could differ like white British people on a number of areas, but when it came to race equality the different BME groups prioritised the issue from 75%-85%, whilst the white population rated this issue at only 19%, a difference of around 60%”. Professor Heath also presented some statistics on the way different communities felt on the issue of asylum seekers and the war in Afghanistan:
In support of asylum: Indian – 39%, White British – 39%, Pakistani – 41%, Bangladeshi- 43%, Black Caribbean – 59%, Black African – 74%
Opposed to the Afghan War: Indian – 46%, White British – 64%, Pakistani – 68%, Bangladeshi- 59%, Black Caribbean – 56%, Black African – 51%
Lee Jasper, Co-Chair of BARAC (Black Activists Rising Against Cuts), in his trademark black bowler hat and natty suit, also came across powerfully. He too noted that the major impact of the economic crisis was felt within BME communities:
“it was all very well for some to say that ‘we are all in the same boat, yet there are some of the first class decks and others in the bowels”.
He called for affirmative action, just as this had been done in Northern Ireland to address the systemic bias that had denied the Catholic community a level playing field in employment. Lee Jasper cited a study by the DWP in 2009 in which 3,000 job applications were sent under false identities in an attempt to discover if employers were discriminating against jobseekers with foreign names. Using names recognisably from three different communities – Nazia Mahmood, Mariam Namagembe and Alison Taylor – false identities were created with similar experience and qualifications. Every false applicant had British education and work histories.DWP researchers found that an applicant who appeared to be white would send nine applications before receiving a positive response of either an invitation to an interview or an encouraging telephone call. Minority candidates with the same qualifications and experience had to send 16 applications before receiving a similar response.
Lee Jasper noted, “We are in danger of bequeathing less to our children than our parents bequeathed to us. The irrationality of racism means that Black talent is squandered, Black youths are readily criminalised-sighting the data that shows white youths being cautioned for possessing class A drugs, whilst Black youths are criminalised for possession class C drugs- and that Black communities and immigrants in general are blamed for the nation’s woes”. This was a “commodification of Black youth in the criminal justice system, with the outcome of providing jobs in the Police, for judges, the prison service….”. He also wondered why society was so shaken to its foundations by seeing a Muslim woman in hijab –“if that was the case I would ask all my Black sisters to do likewise”.
Participants in the event included community organisers from amongst Chinese, Turkish, African, Asian, Caribbean, the Gypsy and Traveller community, Latin American, students, unions, businesses, the BME media, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, and the Black-led Churches. The big challenge agreed by all present was the difficulty faced in convincing young people to register to vote and to turnout on polling day. For Simon Woolley, the message to the youth had to be “you don’t have the luxury not to vote; see what an earlier generation has been able to achieve by political/electoral engagement; if you don’t vote, don’t complain”.
The Muslim voice at the event welcomed the coalition – with one in three BME being Muslim, “what was good for BME was good for Muslims”. Moreover, there were 26 constituencies in which the Muslim population was 20% or more. A plea was also made that if a ‘Black Manifesto’ was issued by OBV, it should make reference to the double penalty faced by 90% of Muslims – not just colour racism but also cultural racism, i.e. Islamophobia.
An outcome of the event was an agreement to work together to promote voter registration and replicate the good practice of projects such as ‘Ticket’ that has started work within Afro-Caribbean communities in London and Birmingham. Emphasis should be to increase voter registration in the marginal constituencies.
A final remark from Simon Woolley: “if David needs to defeat Goliath, we need to be SMART”.