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.
He says that for the majority, to be black in Britain means "to be poor, low-paid, unemployed and overqualified." Eighty percent of blacks work in the public sector and private sector discrimination remains unchanged. "We are not making inroads within the private sector that we ought to be making," says Jasper. "We are much more marginalized as a community with the huge attack from the right wing on the concept of multiculturalism and diversity."
It remains to be seen how the policies of the winning party will address other issues that affect the black British community. Party manifestos lack a coherent argument as to how they will deal with some of the biggest challenges that plague Britain's ethnic minorities, including blacks, despite the fact that they use the mantra of promoting multiculturalism and a cohesive society.
The Liberal Democrats promise to end race discrimination for job seekers by having anonymous job applications. The Labour Party is promising an Australian-style, points-based system on immigration and faster action on anti-social behavior, an issue, which also affects the black British community especially with the number of black children excluded from school at a young age. The Conservative Party is promising a tough stance on poverty and to pay great attention to social issues within local communities.
This is one of the reasons Operation Black Vote has put together its own manifesto, called The Black Manifesto: The Price of Race Equality, which highlights the challenges at the heart of the black British community and asks the political parties questions on how they intend to address them. The Black Manifesto calls for compulsory voting, the abolition of police powers to stop and search, and a reinvestment act to tackle poverty in black and ethnic communities.
One of the big issues for black Britons is the DNA database of the criminal justice system. While statistics by the British Home Office show that black people commit crimes at lower rates than their white counterparts, the DNA database is made up predominantly of black men. "Over the last 10 years, the DNA of people from African-Caribbean communities, have been constantly harvested, and we are now at a stage where every single black family living in Britain can be traced through the national criminal database," says Matilda MacAttram, director of Black Mental Health UK. "Anyone with a profile on the database has the status of a criminal even though black Britons are not aware of it."
The three major political parties have taken distinct positions on the DNA database. A bill recently passed by the Labour government would keep it as it is. The Conservatives promise to ensure its removal, a promise reiterated by George Osborne at the Black Britain Decides rally. While the Liberal Democrats say they will take innocent people off the DNA database, and only store DNA from people who have actually committed a crime.
A recent report by Migration Watch UK estimates there are now over 1 million illegal immigrants in the United Kingdom. These figures have been hijacked by the British National Party (BNP) a far-right political party seeking its first seat in British Parliament though it has been gaining political grounds in recent years. The BNP aims to return Britain (still 87.5 percent white) to the ethnicity levels before 1948 by expelling illegal immigrants and offering incentives for others to leave the country.
Another critical concern within the black community is the over-representation of African and Caribbean blacks in the prison population, the mental health system and the criminal justice system. "For every 1,000 white people, there is 1.4 percent in jail. For every 1,000 Asian people, there is 2.4 percent in jail. While for every 1,000 Afro-Caribbean people, there is 7.5 percent in jail," Jasper says.
Viswanathan says that similar to the African-American experience, more black men are in prison than in universities. Young black men are also eight times more likely to be stopped and searched in comparison to their white counterparts. African and Caribbean boys are also five times more likely to be permanently expelled from school and to be victims of racial discrimination in housing and employment.
In light of this, Viswanathan and Jasper argue that race is still a determining factor in the marginalization of the black British community. This is despite the declaration earlier this year by John Denham, Communities Secretary under Gordon Brown that being black or Asian in the United Kingdom no longer means you will be disadvantaged.
The challenge in this election is to overcome political disaffection. "There is a high degree of cynicism, pessimism, and lack of hope, aspiration and a poverty of ambition. The tendency in the past is to consider ourselves to be quite a powerless community," says Jasper. He argues that the black Britons who have served as members of Parliament have failed the black community because they have not delivered a coherent agenda and consensus across political lines around the need to tackle racism. He believes the U.K. Parliament needs to have a black caucus like the Congressional Black Caucus in the United States.
At a time when the black vote could wield more influence than at any time in the history of Great Britain, Jasper and Viswanathan believe black Britons have an opportunity to send a message to the political parties. Viswanathan says, "The only way you can change anything is by playing a role in the democratic process." Tomorrow's election will be an opportunity for black Britons to change their relationship with their country.
Belinda Otas is a freelance journalist based in London.