U.K. Election Raises Black Identity Issue

Black Brits pressure political parties to tackle discrimination and poverty.

10 Downing Street, the United Kingdom's 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (Getty Images)
10 Downing Street, the United Kingdom's 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (Getty Images)

LONDON–At the recent Black Britain Decides rally, the first of its kind in the British history, representatives of Great Britain’s leading political parties–Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat–made an unprecedented pitch to convince black Britons why their parties and policies would best serve their needs. They also felt the impassioned anger, dissatisfaction and disaffection of the audience, who came fully prepared to bare their grievances. George Osborne, a senior member of the Conservative Party, found himself facing a hostile audience before he had even spoken a word. He likened the rowdiness to what you would normally get at Parliament, Britain’s seat of government, saying, “This is even more lively than the House of Commons.”

The rally was organized by Operation Black Vote (OBV), a non-partisan organization founded in 1996. One of OBV’s key objectives this year is to get black voters to influence the outcome of the May 6 general elections. Experts estimate that the black vote holds the balance of power in 100 constituencies across the United Kingdom, giving black Britain the political leverage to determine who moves into 10 Downing Street, the U.K.’s equivalent of the White House.

Simon Woolley, one of the founding members and national co-ordinator of Operation Black Vote, gave an impassionate opening speech, which ended on the note that Black Britain was no longer asking but demanding to be heard. However, that was after he had listed some of the main challenges faced by the black British and ethnic minority communities. In a recent interview with The Guardian newspaper, Woolley ticked off those issues as, “race, inequality within education, within unemployment and the criminal justice system.”

Black Britons have great political and economic potential. While blacks have been present in Britain since colonial times, massive migration is symbolically traced to 1948, when the first large group of Afro-Caribbeans arrived on the ship Empire Windrush. Since then, Britain has experienced waves of migration from Africa and the West Indies, and the black British community is made up of both groups. According to the 2001 census, 2.3 per cent of the 60 million people in England and Wales were black and 45 percent of all blacks lived in London.

With 43 black candidates running, this election could result in the highest number of black members of Parliament elected at one time since 1987, when four won office. (Until Gordon Brown dissolved Parliament for new elections recently, there were 15 black members of Parliament.)

Britain’s blacks spend 10 billion pounds ($15 billion) in the economy annually. However, there are those who believe black Britain still has work to do. “The black community is a sleeping giant that needs to be awoken,” says Ashok Viswanathan, founding member and deputy co-ordinator of Operation Black Vote. “Socially and culturally, I would say we have made huge contributions to the lifeblood and character of the U.K.” But he complains that more than 1 in 4 blacks are not registered to vote and that 40 percent of those who are registered don’t go to the polls.

On the bright side, some black Britons have made major achievements in politics to business, and in arts and entertainment, black Britons are gaining recognition. David Lammy, a member of Parliament, was in Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s cabinet. Kanya King is founder of the Music of Black Origin Awards (MOBOs), now in its 15th year and regarded as one of the biggest black music events in the world. Baroness Scotland, who has served as the United Kingdom’s attorney general since 2007, is the first woman to occupy that position. Tidjane Thiam, the Ivory Coast-born chief executive of Prudential, Britain’s second-largest insurance company, is the first black CEO of a top company in the United Kingdom. He was recently recognized by Time magazine as one of the world’s most influential people.