Saturday 1 May 2010

Black Britain Decides

I went to my first election rally this week. On Wednesday I went to Westminster Central Hall opposite the Houses of Parliament to attend an event entitled 'Black Britain decides' and event set up by the black political organisation Operation Black Vote (OBV).

I'd heard there'd be representatives from the three main political parties, and I had no great expectations as to who would turn up. I was seriously surprised and impressed that the organisers managed to get Labour Deputy leader Harriet Harman, Shadow Chancellor George Osborne, and Lib Dem Treasury spokesman Vince Cable to turn up!

For me there were two main aspects to evening, firstly it was about showing the three main parties that Black and Ethnic minority (BME) voters do have a voice in this election and expect to be heard. Secondly it was a chance for the main parties to persuade the BME electorate on why they should vote for them.

The BME vote can't be ignored by anyone these days. According to the statistics from OBV, there are 113 marginal seats in the country which could be decided by the BME vote.

For those of you not familiar with Operation Black Vote, they're an organisation set up in the 1990's with the aim of increasing the participation and representation of BME communities within British politics. Wednesday's event was organised by OBV director and founder Simon Woolley.

The debate was hosted by actor and playwright Kwame Kwei Armah. Kwame did a good job in what I have to say were challenging circumstances.

It was a tough crowd, and although I accept people have a right to express their opinions, I felt some people were actually a bit rude in their general behaviour towards some of the speakers.

If you want to ask a politician a question then at least give that person a chance to answer before you start shouting them down, which is what some people decided to do.

Poor Kwame had to remind members of the audience on more than one occasion how to behaviour, otherwise the evening would have descended into chaos!

There were a number of speakers on the evening and Harriet Harman was first up to speak from the main parties. She started her speech by addressing the audience with,

'Good evening Brothers and Sisters'

This was met mainly by silence from the audience with the odd chuckle from a few people. I'm sorry Harriet, I think you may have misjudged your intro there, but she did improve following on from that!

I have to say I found her an impressive speaker, she spoke passionately about Labour's record on race relations over the last 50 years, and not unsurprisingly wanted to remind the audience of Labour's achievements.

When it came to the Conservatives turn, George Osbourne entered the hall to a chorus of boos from the audience which I thought was a little uncalled for considering he hadn't even spoken. He later admitted the crowd was 'worse than the House of Commons'.

For me the boos represented an historic distrust of the Conservative party from BME communities over the years, rather than specific policies that the Tories are currently advocating.

Before he began, a specially recorded message was played featuring David Cameron speaking directly to the audience.

Osborne got off to a slow start by talking about Martin Luther King, and the progress America had made from the civil rights movement to the election of Barack Obama. It was all valid stuff, but it was too much an American context and it made the audience restless.

His speech improved when he focused on the Tories efforts in improving the number of BME candidates standing for the party in this election, and policies to help black businesses.

For the Lib Dems, Vince Cable addressed the audience after another video address from Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg.

With his speech, Cable took a different approach to Harman and Osborne and made things more personal.

He began by explaining how he first became aware of Simon Woolley and OBV. A few years earlier Wooley had castigated the Lib Dems for their failure to improve BME representation in their party, something Cable admitted was true.

He then proceeded to tell the audience his own personal family story, describing his father as an old colonialist and someone who opposed Cable's subsequent first marriage to an Asian women from Kenya. This apparently caused a breakdown in his relationship with his family, which was eventually repaired, but only after a number of years had passed.

I have to say I thought Cable's speech was superb. He was the only speaker who had the audience in total silence. A serious achievement in itself!

His personal story indicated that although things aren't perfect today in terms of race relations there has been a progression and positive developments during the last 50 years, which his personal story seemed to reflect.

Like a lot of people in the country, I've become a big fan of Cable these last 18 months. He's one of the few politicians around that I have some confidence in and respect for. His speech only made me think more highly of him.

I'm really glad I decided to attend this event. I think what I learned is that it doesn't matter who you are, or what community you feel you belong to, you have to remind politicians that they're here to work on your behalf.

As individuals and as communities you need to make your voice heard otherwise politicians will ignore you, or think you don't matter.

Don't get me wrong, there is no homogeneous BME vote in this country. Britain's ethnic minority communities are a diverse and varied group of people. They all have different experiences and issues affecting them. This should be recognised and it shouldn't be seen that only one party can address these concerns.

Clearly by the guest speakers invited on Wednesday, the main parties have acknowledged that ethnic minorities in this country can't be ignored, and although there are areas that need to be improved, last Wednesday's event shows that we're all heading in the right direction.

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