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Monday, 21 May, 2001, 15:02 GMT
Maximising the minority vote
Simon Woolley and candidates
OBV's Milton Keynes North East debate
By BBC News Online community affairs reporter Cindi John

"I think voting is a good idea if it's going to make a difference but life in Milton Keynes is quite hard for us as black people," according to Alex Touray, one of the electors political parties will be scrabbling over in Labour's third most marginal seat.

Operation Black Vote, which campaigns for people from ethnic minorities to play a greater role in the political process, says people like Mr Touray hold the balance of power in Milton Keynes North East.

OBV's key marginals
Kingston & Surbiton
Milton Keynes NE
Bedfordshire SW
Harrow West
Southwark N & Bermondsey
Chipping Barnet
Rugby & Kenilworth
The seat is one of those on OBV's target list of 100 marginal constituencies around Britain in which the organisation says ethnic minority voters could be the deciding factor in who gets sent to Westminster.

In 1997 Labour took Milton Keynes NE from the Conservatives with a majority of just 240 votes.

OBV says the black vote is crucial as around 6,500 people - more than 5.5% of the constituency's population - belong to a minority ethnic group, while the Conservatives need just a 0.2% swing to re-take the seat.

Alex Touray
Alex Touray: "Life not easy in Milton Keynes"
During a debate held to bring together some of the black electorate with contenders fighting for the seat, OBV's Simon Woolley calls on the candidates to pay more attention to ethnic minority voters.

Research for OBV has shown that more than a quarter of eligible black and Asian people are not registered to vote compared to 18% of the white population.

"I believe the reason why so many don't get involved in politics is simply because politicians don't listen to black people," says Mr Woolley.

"We've seen the lack of representation. We've seen that although there are low levels of unemployment [in the country as a whole], there are still high level of unemployment in the black community.

"We're asking the politicians 'What are you going to do to address these concerns?'"

Diverse community

Tory hopeful Marion Rix, a former county councillor, says she appreciates the significance of the ethnic vote in Milton Keynes NE.

"You're well aware of the ethnic diversity of any particular seat you apply for and obviously because you're going around knocking on thousands of doors.

"But I tend to look upon everybody as people who share very similar concerns," she adds.

Simon Woolley: "Politicians don't listen to black people"
Back at the election before last, the Tories won the seat comfortably with a 14,000 majority. But the 1997 victor, Labour's Brian White, insists he is confident ethnic minority voters will continue to back Tony Blair's party.

"I've tried to make sure I'm accessible to different groups, whether it's a Sikh group trying to build a temple or an Asian group which has been trying to resist the British National Party attacks," says Mr White.

"The evidence is that I'm getting support from lots of different groups of people, ethnic minorities in particular - but I don't take it for granted.

"What we need to do is make sure our policies are relevant to all sections of society."

The Liberal Democrats came a distant third in 1997.

Their contender this time round is David Yeoward, who says his party wants to give one of the town's ethnic minority communities its own voice in Westminster through Nazar Mohammed, standing for the Lib Dems in neighbouring Milton Keynes South West.

'Operation what?'

The Milton Keynes meeting is one of a series OBV has organised in some of the 100 key seats it has identified as battlegrounds where the size of the ethnic minority vote may be decisive.

Riz Ahmed
Riz Ahmed says he will definitely vote
Decisive or not, the meeting's organisers, the candidates and members of the media assembled to witness the OBV debate easily outnumber the Milton Keynes voters who turn up to it.

And out in the streets of the Buckinghamshire town, there seems to be little awareness of the campaign among OBV's target audience.

No one appears to have heard of OBV - though they approve of its aims once explained.

"It could change the vote dramatically so I think it would be a good idea for black people to vote," says Jean Asare, a systems analyst, who has already decided to visit her local polling station on 7 June.

A similar response comes from chef Riz Ahmed, who says he would definitely be voting: "It's my first time because last time I wasn't registered but everyone should try to vote. It's a really good idea."

But there are also signs that OBV may have something of a hill to climb.

"I'm not sure if I'll vote - I have to work that day," says warehouse worker Ally Hussain. "And I'm not sure if I really want to vote anyway."


Milton Keynes North East
The declared candidates

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