The Reverend Jesse Jackson (pictured above) came to town last week to support Operation Black Vote’s (OBV) voter registration campaign. The veteran civil rights activist was a protégé of Martin Luther King Jr and is more than qualified to comment on how the politics of the United States and the condition of being African in that country has changed over the 50 years since King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech.
The OBV voter registration and voter conscientisation campaign was clearly boosted by the results of research it conducted in 2012 on the electoral power of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) voters. Under a banner headline: ‘Black vote can decide 2015 general election’, OBV states on their website:
The research reveals 168 constituencies in both urban and suburban areas, demonstrating that the BME electorate have never been more powerful. With more marginal seats and more BME voters right across the geographical map, power is shifting. Political parties must wake up and realise that without the BME vote they could lose – and therefore devise policies to tackle persistent race inequalities.
Using the 2011 census, researchers looked at the BME electorate in all 573 of the seats in England and Wales and found 168 marginal seats where BME voters outnumber the majority held by the sitting MP. This equates to one quarter of seats nationally and nearly 40% of seats in London (…)
Some examples of the geographic spread of where power can be seen and the effect on the political parties:
1. Ilford North: Conservatives have a majority of 5,404 and a BME electorate of 35,051
2. Cardiff Central: Liberal Democrats have a majority of 4,570 and a BME electorate of 12,445
3. Bristol East: Labour have a majority of 3,772 and a BME electorate of 11,420
4. Norwich South: Liberal Democrats have a majority of 310 votes and a BME electorate of 7,066
5. Southampton Itchen: Labour have a majority of 192 votes and a BME electorate of 6,915
6. North Warwickshire: Conservative majority of 54 votes and a BME electorate of 3,381
What I find intriguing about these statistics is that this research does not appear to entertain the possibility that the BME electorate in each of the constituencies mentioned may already have contributed to the majority, however small, of the respective political parties. In any event, the report of the research does not explain why we should not assume that this was so, unless we are being asked to believe that the entire BME electorate was nowhere to be seen during the last and every other General Election.
But, leaving this potential double counting point aside, the conclusions OBV draws from the research are interesting for other reasons. The overall size of the BME electorate in a constituency or in a Council ward tells you nothing about the political affiliations, if any, of that electorate. Nor does it tell you how many actually vote even if they are all registered, or how many have come to the conclusion that no one is worth voting for because it does not seem to make a material difference to you or to the community to which you belong if you help them to win.
OBV director Simon Woolley (picture above) is reported as saying:
This is great news for BME communities and democracy. Many individuals feel powerless, particularly in the face of rising racial tension and the apparent inability by political parties to acknowledge persistent race inequalities, much less have a plan to deal with it. The power to help decide who wins and who loses the next General Election will no doubt focus the minds of vulnerable politicians and their leaders.
After almost 70 years of a politically active and ever increasing black presence in Britain, during which the ‘Siamese twins’ of race and immigration have been knocked about as in some barbaric circus, such that every new generation of African and Asian heritage people suffers the indignity of seeing themselves talked about as if they were pariahs and a real and imminent threat to ‘Britain as we know and love it’, OBV appears to want to send out a message to Black Britain that hope, if not salvation, lies in throwing in their lot with these politically and morally bankrupt political parties.
The DNA of politics needs to change in the light of this research. This research shows how important the ethnic minority electorate is going to be in future general elections. Any party that seriously wants to win needs to take the ethnic minorities with them.
And that is exactly the point of the whole exercise. Winning seats and getting to run the government to do over the ethnic minorities that whichever party ‘takes with them’.
Sadiq Khan’s comments came just months after Ed Miliband humiliated the ‘ethnic minority’ MP, Diane Abbott, interrupting her as she was giving a live interview on Sky News (right) by telephoning her to demand that she withdraw her twitter remarks regarding white people’s propensity to ‘divide and rule’. However clumsily stated in a twitter message those remarks were, no one needed a PhD in the history of imperial Britain or of post-war Britain’s management of the ethnic colonies right here in its industrial cities; no one needed to be well versed in the detail of this 21st century scramble for Africa to know what Abbott was talking about.
Miliband and all the other ‘disgusted of Westminster’ who had suddenly found their anti-racist credentials were being decidedly disingenuous in feigning outrage and calling for Abbott to apologise if not resign. What incensed most of them no doubt was not that Abbott implied that ALL white people have a propensity to divide and rule, but that she dared to talk about ‘race’ at all. ‘Race’ is clearly off message and not on the political agenda for serious debate, let alone responsible and accountable policy formulation; not now, not ever, except in the context of immigration, crime, riot and terrorism.
In an interview with the Big Issue on 6 September, the Reverend Jesse Jackson stated:
What Operation Black Vote is doing here is informing people about the emerging power of the black vote in determining the next election in 2015. We want all those who want political change to register, and vote for the change they want to see. There are high hopes. The good news about Operation Black Vote is that there is a desire to use the power constructively. To determine leadership, to determine the flow of jobs, you have to influence the political process. I think consciousness is rising.
The very next day, Saturday 7 September 2013, just one week after we witnessed wall to wall coverage of Martin Luther King’s iconic speech 50 years on, the Daily Mail ran a front page story with the headline: Migrant Influx Fuels New Crisis in Schools. And the sub-heading: Secondary schools face an overcrowding crisis due to Labour’s failure to deal with the effects of immigration. Quoting a leaked ‘secret report’ prepared by the Department for Education, the Mail stated:
The seven-page document cites evidence collected by the Home Office that ‘the impact of immigration’ has been substantial’, adding that it was seen ‘as an important contributory factor, through both the arrival of migrant children and the high birth rates of some migrant groups’.
It is a well known fact that in any society migrant populations by virtue of having larger numbers of young people, including women of child bearing age, tend to have a higher birth rate than the local domestic population. For decades, successive governments have been preoccupied with the ‘immigrant birth rate’, not so that they could plan for the provision of schools and services for the totality of the local population according to need, but in order to cynically use ‘race’ and immigration for party-political point scoring.
Demographic projections suggest that by 2020 the British economy will be dependent upon a labour force drawn from among the British black population for the reason that that is the fastest growing sector of the population overall. The Blair Government’s own report on Ethnic Minorities and the Labour Market, produced by the Strategy Unit in the Cabinet Office in 2003 (see below), identified African Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups as having the lowest educational attainment and lowest occupational status.
The report noted that African and Asian people make up 1 in 13 of the UK population and that over the past 20 years they have accounted for two-thirds of the growth of the total UK population. Similarly, in the coming 10 to 20 years, the British labour market will be dependent, increasingly, on the supply of labour from those communities.
Yet, the political discourse about primary and secondary school places and about the ratio of black to white people in the British population is couched in language which suggests that there are far too many of ‘them’ here and the only contribution they make to already overcrowded Britain is to increase the size of its population.
So, OBV is right in one respect. Without a doubt, the black electorate will become increasingly visible if not influential in British electoral politics. The question is, though, whether we would succeed in putting and keeping ‘race’ on the political and policy agenda other than in the run up to local and general elections, whichever political party wins.
But, in order to keep ‘race’ on the political agenda or to insist that those whom we elect actually do so, the black electorate must itself be clear on where it stands on matters to do with ‘race’ in British political life. It is surely not enough to see ‘the black electorate’ as some unified, undifferentiated mass that can collectively bring about change.
The BME population in any part of Britain is as diverse as any other part of the British population. It does not have a unified position on anything. Not on immigration, not on refugees and asylum seekers and how the state should deal with them, not on ‘Stop and Search’, not on BME people in the economy, not on what it means to be British and African, British and South Asian, British, black and gay…, not on anything. It is fanciful, therefore, to factor in the BME population as if we are talking about a homogeneous group of people who share a consensus on their experience of racism, let alone their vision for the Britain they have a right to claim as theirs, as does anybody else.
As early as 1909, black people in the United States saw the need to form a national body to campaign against the barbarism ‘people of colour’ were still enduring as part of their daily existence. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was established on the back of a plethora of struggles and campaigns across Federal America and particular in the South, ‘Jim Crow’ country, to promote human rights, advance civil rights and be a national voice for ‘colored people’ across the Federation.
Clearly, it did not and still does not encompass everybody and their ideological position or their stance towards the federal or state governments. Rosa Parks (above) was politically and psychologically able to sit down for justice and in defence of her human rights on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on 1st December 1955, because she was not just a tired woman trying to get home after a hard day’s work who refused to give up her seat to white folk, but because she had been campaigning for years as an activist within the NAACP and felt bold enough to take a stand. She did not expect to be left to suffer the consequences of her courageous action alone and nor was she.
So, if the OBV’s black electorate were to tactically and strategically upset the apple cart at the next General Election as OBV clearly thinks they could and should, what would they want the successful party to do?
What debates does that undifferentiated mass have about the myriad issues facing the population in this country? How responsive is it to the human rights abuses that occur routinely within our communities year on year? What is its position on the economy and the displacement of over 60% of young BME people from active economic participation through unemployment? What is their position on the treatment of ‘immigrants’ in detention centres? What is their position on the relentless murders of BME young people by other BME young people? What is their position on ‘Deaths in Custody’ and the lamentable number of perpetrators of such deaths who are brought to justice? How would they hold to account those whom their judicious voting helps to elect, except by making different choices at a future General Election?
In this democracy, electoral politics will always be important irrespective of the segment of the population you belong to or identify with. But, power, including the power to free yourself from the stranglehold of political leaders who are concerned only about winning power and remaining in power in order to preserve or tinker with the ‘status quo’ and regulate the pace of social change, is never handed on a plate. It is won through the struggles and sacrifice of those who are seen to be outside the norm, not quite belonging, not having the same sense of ‘entitlement’ with which those who rule, marginalise and exclude strut about the place and seek to impose their agenda and their values on others.
OBV says of itself that it is ‘a non partisan organisation that seeks to tackle racial injustice through civic and political empowerment of BME communities’. The best way for BME communities to engage with the electoral process and ensure that the politicians they elect do not continue to capriciously and wilfully erase them and their increasingly urgent concerns from the national political agenda is by empowering themselves and acting collectively to define where they stand, what they demand as of right and what they insist upon government delivering, whoever they help to elect.
The ideological contestations will be huge; the intergenerational misunderstandings likewise. But, if that numerically significant BME electorate does not find ways of organising itself such that it rather than elected politicians could call the shots, then as the history of the British black presence has taught us, it would not matter who wins the election.
OBV might pause to wonder why it is that so many people, majority ethnic as well as minority ethnic are shutting their doors against parliamentary candidates, literally or figuratively, staying at home and saying to the lot of them: a plague on all your houses.
Picture (home): “Voters short and tall” by Columbia City Blog (Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)