By Hannah Goff
BBC News Online Politics
The Liberal Democrats say they have begun to usurp Labour as the natural home of the ethnic minority voter.
Parmjit Singh Gill is the Liberal Democrats' first ethnic minority MP
The party claims thousands of black and Asian, traditionally left wing voters are turning their backs on Labour - not just because of the Iraq war but because they feel under attack.
A recent ICM poll suggested support for Labour among Muslim voters had slumped from 75% to 38%, while another for the Commission for Racial Equality suggested only a quarter of black voters now support Labour.
And of the 8,500 new members recruited by the Liberal Democrats in 2003-4, 15% were from ethnic minority groups, the party says.
Both Labour and the Tories dismiss the Lib Dem claims, saying the party is only picking up votes from people who were against the Iraq war.
But chairman of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats, Fiyaz Mughal, insists the party is under-going a "sea change".
He says the first signs of a shift came in 2000-2001 during the Romsey by-election campaign.
"There was some heavy campaigning by the Tories on the issue of immigration and asylum which was quite xenophobic, " he says.
This started a snowball rolling, he says, which gained momentum as Labour began to try to "take the asylum issue from the Tories".
"By doing this they have haemorrhaged the ethnic minority vote," Mr Mughal says.
Then came the war on terror and a string of increasingly hard-line anti-terror laws aimed at preventing a repeat of the September 11 attacks in Britain.
"September 11 changed the world, but it particularly changed the world for Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus. They became a target.
"Many of them object to being taken down the police station, finger-printed, DNA'd and records being kept without any formal charges being brought," said Mr Mughal.
In 2002-2003 nearly 3,000 Asians were stopped and searched under terror laws - a 300% rise since the laws came into force.
Other Home Office policies such as the crackdown on sham marriages and demands for immigrants to learn English have taken their toll on Labour's support, Lib Dem Islington Councillor Jay Sharma says.
"While we all agree it's necessary to have a good level of English so you can get by in this country, there doesn't seem to be quite so much concern about that with immigrants from EU accession states," he says.
But any swing in ethnic minority support to the Lib Dems has not happened by default.
Last autumn the party signed up to a policy document which included targets to ensure Britain's ethnic minority representation is mirrored within party ranks, MPs and councillors.
There has been a huge rise in the number of Asians stopped
"This means that local party chairs and vice-chairs actually have to answer for these targets," says Mr Mughal.
According to Operation Black Vote's Campaigns Manager Ashok Viswanathan the Lib Dems have worked the hardest on this issue.
All three main parties have the mechanisms in place to boost black membership, but only the Lib Dems are using it successfully, he says.
This has been reflected in recent by-elections with "traditional left leaning Labour supporters" shifting away from the party, he said.
"Although this may not be reflected at the general election I do think that it's a reflection of the fact that there are people who are saying to themselves and their communities that they are fed up to the back teeth with Labour.
"The natural alternative to them are the Lib Dems", Mr Viswanathan says.
This is disputed by Labour and the Tories who both claim to be working to increase ethnic minority participation and representation.
The Tories say they have more black parliamentary candidates standing in "winnable seats" than the Liberal Democrats who only have one ethnic minority MP - Parmjit Singh Gill, a Sikh, who won the recent Leicester South by-election.
Conservative Shadow Attorney General Dominic Grieve, who also has responsibility for ethnic minority affairs, claims his party is also picking up black votes from Labour.
"In so far as there was a traditional tendency for ethnic minority voters to support Labour - that does seem to be haemorrhaging.
"But I don't get the impression they are all going to vote Lib Dem because it is quite clear some are planning to vote Conservative for the first time."
He argues many Muslim views on law and order chime more with the Tories than the Liberal Democrats.
Shahid Malik, vice chairman of the race equality committee on Labour's NEC, argues the Lib Dems are nothing but a "short-term depository" for anyone with anti-war feelings.
He says Labour is the only party which has continued to bring forward race equality legislation and he dismisses as "absolute nonsense" claims the Lib Dems are now the natural home of the black and Asian voter.
Fiyaz Mughal says local parties have to meet targets for black membership
He points to the recent decision to make inciting religious hatred a crime and the Race Relations Amendment Act which followed the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry set up in Labour's first term.
"It means that 40,000 public authorities have to write up race equality schemes for the first time," he said.
"The Labour Party is the natural party for people who believe in racial equality whether they are black, white, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist or whatever by virtue of its record on race equality legislation."
However, Mr Malik does acknowledge some sections of the non-white community have been alienated by the anti-terror fight.
Under traditional powers, one in 10 stop and searches led to an arrest. Under the new terror laws just one in 100 leads to a charge, he claims.
"The quality of intelligence that leads to an arrest under these laws has to be made far better than it currently is," he says.
If Operation Black Vote is right when it estimates ethnic minority voters can alter the outcome of 100 seats at the general election, though they make up just 7.6% of the UK's population, having their backing is certainly a prize worth fighting for.