openDemocracyUK

Black Minority Ethnic (BME) communities should get on the bus and vote

BME communities in many seats are larger than the sitting MP's majority. Their votes can make a real difference but they must register.

Colin Joseph
30 March 2015

The OBV (Operation Black Vote) eXpress bus could be coming to a town near you over the next month as part of its whistle-stop tour to get BME communities to vote in this year’s General Election.

As we get closer to that all-important May 7th deadline (that’s when the General Election takes place if you didn’t know) keep your eyes open and your ears close to the ground for any sightings of the OBV eXpress.

The OBV eXpress is set to visit towns and cities across the UK until April this year in a bid to tackle woefully low voter registration numbers within BME communities. It was launched with the help of 100 or so supporters on a blustery and rainy day last month in Brixton’s Windrush Square.

So far, after each stop, around 1,000 unregistered BME voters have been contacted by OBV eXpress staff and volunteers.

The bus is equipped with high-tech computers that enable up to 30 people to register to vote at any one time. OBV staff and volunteers will also be out on the streets as part of the UK tour with laptops at the ready so that people from BME backgrounds can register to vote. The deadline for registering to vote is April 20th.

The OBV eXpress is set to visit areas as diverse as Wolverhampton, Liverpool, Sheffield, Cardiff and Leicester as well as many inner London areas. The bus is also set to visit a number of colleges to get younger unregistered BME voters registered and involved in the political process.

Why Vote

In just under two months time (May 7th) there will be a General Election where BME communities in the UK will be able to have their say on who runs the country and which MP they want to represent them. BME communities across the country will hold the balance of power in many marginal seats at the General Election. Current polls suggest that it will be a closely fought race between Labour and the Conservatives.

Commenting on the OBV eXpress bus tour, Ashok Viswanathan, Chair of OBV, said: “Operation Black Vote is not party political we just want BME communities to vote and get their voices heard. This is the first time that we have done something like this.

“The mood amongst OBV staff and volunteers is very positive. The OBV bus team realise that there is a lot of cynicism and alienation when it comes to politics, but we are hoping that turnout for the bus registration campaign will be high.

“This campaign is about reclaiming democracy and making sure that all the political parties have a clear plan on how they will tackle race inequality, particularly in employment, education, and the criminal justice system.”

Partner organisations involved with OBV eXpress include, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), the Cabinet Office, the Electoral Commission, Operation Disability and the British Chinese Project as well as the Muslim Council of Britain.

Voting at this year’s General Election is more important than ever for BME communities when you consider the increasingly negative attitude to immigrants and people of colour in the UK. Political parties are increasingly currying favour with a disillusioned electorate by using anti-immigrant-like rhetoric as well as islamaphobic and sometimes plain racist language in reference to BME communities.

International civil rights icon, Rev Al Sharpton, was one of a number of key speakers at the launch of OBV’s national campaign event in January to get BME communities to vote at this year’s General Election. He was joined on the podium during the event at Westminster University by Simon Woolley, Director of OBV, Dianne Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Lee Jasper, race relations activist and Dr. Muhammad Bari, former Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain. At the event, Rev Al Sharpton, reminded the mostly BME audience that they could easily decide this year’s General Election and urged BME communities not to be hood-winked into not voting.  Here is a snippet of what he said: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tyy7vbk6jLs (1:09 mins in length)

BME vote can make a difference

Al Shapton’s comments are backed up by an OBV report entitled ‘Power of the black vote in 2015 – The changing face of England & Wales’.

In the report OBV used the 2011 population census in England and Wales to calculate BME populations in each constituency (data for Scotland wasn’t available at the time). Critically, the report shows that the BME electorate is larger than the majority of the sitting MP in over 160 marginal seats and could easily decide the next government. The current coalition government (Conservative/Lib Democrats) currently governs the UK with a working majority of just 83 seats.

Marginal seats are defined as those that have a majority of 6,000 or less or have shown a propensity to swing between different parties from one election to the next. Most political commentators believe that between 100 and 130 seats will determine the outcome of the 2015 general election, reinforcing OBV’s claim that the BME vote will have a major impact on the result. There are also a large proportion of ‘safe’ seats (where the MP’s majority is over 6,000) that are only ‘safe’ because of support from the BME electorate.

But worryingly for those who want to see all the mainstream political parties make a pledge to tackle race inequality in their manifesto’s, 18% of BME citizens are not registered to vote. This compares unfavourably to white citizens at seven per cent.

“The dynamics of racism are such that we are locking ourselves out of using our power,” Simon Woolley, Director of OBV, said at the launch of OBV’s General Election campaign. “We feel so powerless that we say there is no point in voting. But our vote should decide who wins and who loses this election. We can be the change we want to see.”

The last study by OBV before the 2010 General Election, found 99 marginal seats with a BME electorate larger than the MP’s majority. But for this year’s election the figure has almost doubled, partly due to the significant increase in the BME electorate and because the 2010 General Election was closer than the 2005 General Election, thus producing more marginal seats.

 “People went to their graves so you could vote,” Rev Al Sharpton said as part of his speech at the OBV General Election campaign launch. "You can be the balance of power.

“You may never lead a march but you can strike a blow for freedom in May and help change the destiny of this country. Your strength will not come from Downing Street down but from your street up.”

For more information on registering to vote please visit: https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote

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