BBC HOMEPAGE | NEWS | WORLD SERVICE | SPORT | MY BBC help
news vote 2001search vote 2001
 You are in: Vote2001: Forum
VOTE2001 
Main Issues 
Features 
Crucial Seats 
Key People 
Parties 
Results &  Constituencies 
Candidates 
Opinion Polls 
Online 1000 
Virtual Vote 
Talking Point 
Forum 
Leaders 
Election Trail 
AudioVideo 
Programmes 
Voting System 
Local Elections 
Nations 

N Ireland 
Scotland 
Wales 

BBC News

BBC Sport

BBC Weather
Monday, 21 May, 2001, 14:18 GMT 15:18 UK
Operation Black Vote quizzed

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

  56k  


Simon Woolley is one of the founders of Operation Black Vote and its national co-ordinator.

Research by Operation Black Vote suggests that in more than 80 seats the black vote could decide who wins and who loses. They are campaigning to ensure all parties give a positive agenda to ethnic issues.

In this election there are 25 Liberal Democrat, 16 Conservative, 16 Labour, 12 Socialist Labour Party, 6 Green and 2 Socialist black candidates.

Operation Black Vote was set up six years ago as a collaboration between Charter 1988 and the 1990 Trust, a black policy research organisation.

Simon Woolley is the national co-ordinator of Operation Black Vote. He answered your questions in a live forum.

NEWS ONLINE HOST

Welcome to BBC News Online election forum. I'm Rodney Foster and with me is Simon Woolley, who's one of the founders of the Operation Black Vote and its national co-ordinator. They exist to campaign to ensure that all parties give a positive agenda to ethnic issues. So let's get straight down to some of the questions and we begin with one on disenfranchisement. And this is from Mark Morgan of Bath and he says: In the light of events in Florida in the US elections do you think that black voters are as disenfranchised in the UK as they appear to be in the United States?

SIMON WOOLLEY

I do think that Africans, Asians and Caribbeans feel outside the democratic process. They feel frustrated that politicians don't listen so there has been all this talk about apathy and laziness of people currently involved in politics and my argument would be that particularly the black community and many in the white community are not lazy, but take a conscious opt-out of the system from politicians who they believe are not addressing their concerns.

NEWS ONLINE HOST

But why do you feel, do you think they feel that, that surely they could, the answer is in their own hands, to do something more about it?

SIMON WOOLLEY

Well, this is what the Operation Black Vote campaign is about because our argument is that whilst we put our heads in the political sand we have politicians who at best don't understand us and at worst, like John don't like us and we give them free rein to make policies that don't reflect our concerns so the only way to effect change is to politically stand up and be counted. And in this election we, Operation Black Vote campaigners, registered over 100,000 African, Asian and Caribbeans, particularly in marginal seats and I think for the very first time in British politics you've seen a maturity in the black electorate, an awakening of, let's say, a sleeping giant, but hopefully will force our politicians to listen to our concerns.

NEWS ONLINE HOST

Now you do say that your own research shows that are about 80 seats where you could have a big impact.

SIMON WOOLLEY

That's a very powerful tool to have because many feel helpless and powerless and particularly during elections this is where the vote really counts. But our communities have got to begin to play political hardball and so having registered the people to vote, we're saying to the people stand up and be counted, hold your vote up, as though it were a hundred pound note, and say, this is for the highest bidder, to the party or politician that offers, addresses their concerns. Such as the disproportionate levels of unemployment, the lack of black representation, etc, etc, then that party or that politician will be afforded the black vote.

NEWS ONLINE HOST

Right, well let's move on to a question about your organisation. This comes from Simon Hooker, and Simon says, I agree that politicians should reach out to all groups, however, I have grave reservations about the existence of organisations such as the Association of Black Police Officers, trade unionists, etc. We are all equal with regards to rights and responsibilities, he said. But we are also all individuals with regard to aspirations and circumstances. Why then, he asks, are people put in to stereotypical pigeonholes and do these organisations perpetuate this?

SIMON WOOLLEY

OK, I mean, organisations like Operation Black Vote and others, such as the black police association, don't want to be in existence but because they is a deficit in black representation, because we feel that either by design or fault we're not afforded the quality of opportunity, that we need to address that imbalance. Once we've addressed that imbalance we'll gladly resolve our organisations and fulfil our great opportunity, but whilst that opportunity is being shackled, sadly, unfortunately, our existence will continue until we begin to have an equitable place in all areas at all levels of British society.

NEWS ONLINE HOST

But can you put positive discrimination on the shelf once you've achieved your aim?

SIMON WOOLLEY

Oh, absolutely. One hundred per cent. Positive discrimination is to redress the balance, no more, no less. And the fact of the matter is, sadly, we don't have positive discrimination in this country. Where they have positive discrimination in the States you'll see black judges, black congressmen, black senators, because what the American discourse has said is that there is talent there but there's been obstacles that stop this talent coming through. Remove the obstacles and the talent will come through.

NEWS ONLINE HOST

We move on then to a question from Tim McCarthy from Blackpool, and he asks what makes you think that people with different skin colour have different political desires and needs?

SIMON WOOLLEY

Well, he's absolutely right. That by and large the black community, the African, Asian and Caribbean communities want the same thing as the white communities, better education, good schools, it's a big thing within the black community, education. Decent housing, the opportunity to have jobs. However, as I said before with your last question, there are problems, particularly, and let's look at unemployment. We are at the lowest figures for I think ten or 15 years, and yet within the black community there's disproportionately high levels of unemployment. And so the black community are saying, now hold on a second, it may be working generally, but for us it isn't. The same with representation, the same with this idea of Britishness. We want the idea of Britishness to mean black and white, to mean male or female, to mean the kaleidoscope of cultures, that this great country has.

NEWS ONLINE HOST

So you're saying in response to that question, you don't think because people have a different skin colour, they've got different living aspirations?

SIMON WOOLLEY

No, they don't. They don't. And because, what is very important for Operation Black Vote is to be non-partisan because we are people that support the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives and so it should be. We are, for want of a better phrase, a broad church, of ideas and cultures and languages. But that we come together to fight racism and to ensure that our communities have equality of opportunity.

NEWS ONLINE HOST

Moving on now to a question about the parties and this question comes from Keith Warren of Glasgow, and he says surely the ethnic community must become more proactive in involving itself in politics rather than waiting for the parties to come to them. And he says, whilst I appreciate that the ethnic community has a great deal to offer surely by mass involvement then your contribution can't be ignored.

SIMON WOOLLEY

He's absolutely right. But let's not let the politicians off the hook because we've often lamented for example about the lack of MPs and what are they doing. Now we think there is a gross unwillingness for the political parties to address this fundamental problem. And like the questions says, black people must take responsibility too, and that's exactly what our campaign is about. In fact we go one step further and we say that we are following in the footsteps of those great leaders such as Dr Martin Luther King, Malcolm X or Nelson Mandela, who was here a few weeks ago. A fundamental aspect to these great people was the political empowerment of black people and we're saying that we want our people to be registered to vote, we want them to say, civic duty to become magistrates, to become school governors, to become councillors, to become MPs, but there's also a duty, there's also the willingness from the parties to open the door and to ensure that they have an equitable

NEWS ONLINE HOST

Well, the thing is of course, in some parties, you have black caucuses. Now that puts the backs of some people up within that party and would work against you.

SIMON WOOLLEY

It's a shame that it should put the backs up because, you know there's been gender caucuses to address gender imbalance and that's put the back up of some narrow-minded, often sexist men with the parties. My response to them is that our contribution will enhance political parties, democratic institutions and society in general. Give us an equitable seat and you will benefit.

NEWS ONLINE HOST

Ok, well moving on then to participation strategy and Nicholas Gilley from Borehamwood, he asks what can I do as a voter to increase the presence of black people in the House of Commons?

SIMON WOOLLEY

Well, it's a good question and I'm pleased that one of your callers has made that point. Because it isn't just our struggle, too, it's everyone's struggle. We want Britain and British democracy to be inclusive, to be representative, to be dynamic. As Tony Blair said in his first speech as Prime Minister, we want to be a beacon to the world. Well, your caller can help by telling those politicians that come to his door seeking his vote, what are you doing about ensuring we have representative democracy in this country, that all people, black and white, young and old, able and disabled, have a place on the decision-making table? It's all our problem and getting it right, we will all benefit.

NEWS ONLINE HOST

You made the point about people holding perhaps holding up a hundred point note, I mean it sounds really as if you're saying, here I am, you know, my vote is for sale. I don't think that's quite what this person meant. Do you think?

SIMON WOOLLEY

I think so. I think that what he was saying, what can I do as a contribution, and he must do that. Because when people, say, go out and vote, there's no point just going to the polling booth and voting. We say you've got to use your vote and your voice. A vote is a valuable asset, people have died for the vote and so we must put some value to it. So when people come down to their doors and say, what are you doing for us, you say, well, what are you doing for me?

NEWS ONLINE HOST

Well, there's a great fear this time of apathy and that people won't, maybe, won't vote at all. Do think that applies to the ethnic community?

SIMON WOOLLEY

I don't think apathy has little to do with black community's non-involvement, I don't think it has little to do with white people's non-involvement. I think it's a sense of frustration that politicians are not accountable to the electorate. But, you know, as one of your callers said before, we've got to take responsibility to ensure politicians are accountable too. We're afforded rights and with those rights and with those freedoms comes responsibilities and the responsibility of the caller with the last question is that make sure that the politicians that come to your door are accountable for your concerns.

NEWS ONLINE HOST

Moving on to a question then from Mark Flanagan from London. He says, I've been told that the African-Caribbean community use e-mail more proportionately. If this is true, he asks, is there a role for the internet in driving up voter participation, not just during elections but between them as well?

SIMON WOOLLEY

Very much so. We have a web site, put together by volunteers, because, you know, we are poorer than church mice, but we see the web site and the internet as a crucial tool to communicate, not just with black people up and down the country but across the Atlantic and throughout the world. Our web site gets 20,000 hits on a weekly basis. And it's a great tool, we can talk to one another, we can inspire one another, and we can share experiences. And I believe that this mode will be one of the key areas, key roots for us to progress our goals.

NEWS ONLINE HOST

Ok, we now talk about proportional representation and this is a question from Trudy Harrison in London. Do you think that a system of PR will help minorities to be more fully represented in the House of Commons?

SIMON WOOLLEY

Well, it's been a debate that's been going on for some time now, and whether if every vote counts will greater representation from the black community have an effect. And I still think that the jury's out. In principle, I am for every vote should count. But we've had two experiences, three experiences of proportional representation in recent elections, Scotland, Wales and London, and I have to say from our point of view we've been disappointed at what PR has produced. Scotland is all-white, Wales is all-white and London, one in three of the electorate is black, you have only two Assembly members. Though it has to be said that PR got us those two members because they were on the top-up list. Two other things. That PR can be useful but without the willingness of the political parties to put black people high on the list it's meaningless. And the other point, of course, is that we need to ensure that we don't open the door to far-right bigots who might be able to sneak in on low thresholds. We've seen in a by-election in East London that the far right got 17 per cent of the vote. Now, you could never envisage a threshold of 17 per cent. So we have to be careful. There needs to be more discussion. Those supporters of PR need to make the case very, very strongly and clearly to convince the black electorate that PR is the way for a more equitable and representative democracy.

NEWS ONLINE HOST

Well, can I put to you, one possibly last question, and this is from Graham Ingleby in Canterbury, and he says, why do you feel the need to separate out black from non-black voters? Surely this is racist and how would you feel if faced with an Operation White Vote campaign?

SIMON WOOLLEY

Well, I think I've made the point before that Operation Black Vote is redressing a balance. The vast majority of black people were born in this country, we are British and yet institution after institution are white ghettos. It almost seems to be there's a sign 'no blacks allowed'. We all have to ensure that these bastions become inclusive, become representative and I'll say it until I'm blue in the face and to anyone that will listen. While our communities haven't a seat around this decision-making table, our dynamism, our energy and everybody will benefit.

NEWS ONLINE HOST

We'll squeeze in one more, from Elmo, in the UK. I applaud your organisation's attempt to widen political engagement as a good thing. Do you, however, work on the assumption that black people are more likely to vote for black candidates? Surely this gives succour to racists who argue that white people are more likely to vote for white candidates?

SIMON WOOLLEY

I think in the short term that black people do want to see more black faces. And so in the short term that will happen. But as we gain parity, as we gain equality of opportunity people will be more inclined to look at what the person, they always look at what the person will be able to deliver, but in the very instant, in the short term people feel that a black man will understand the concerns of black people. Bring them to the table. So, yes, in the short term, but as you see more black faces throughout Westminster and throughout British institutions we can adopt a more colour-blind approach.

NEWS ONLINE HOST

Thank you very much.

 A/V CONSOLE
BBC RADIO NEWS
BBC ONE TV NEWS

Ethnic minorities
PARTY WEB LINKS



The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


Related stories:

21 May 01 |  Vote2001
Maximising the minority vote
©BBC