On Eve Of Elections, Britain Pols Court The Black Vote

Britons head to the polls on Thursday to vote in the UK general and parliamentary elections. And Black voters are being courted by Britain's three main political parties. Host Michel Martin speaks with Simon Woolley, national coordinator of Operation Black Vote, about the importance of the black vote in the British elections.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, NPR's West Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton opens her reporter's notebook and tells us more about the latest developments in Nigeria. That's coming up.

But, first, today is the final day of campaigning before British voters head to the polls. The election will determine who sits in Parliament and who will be prime minister. Voter surveys show incumbent and Labour Party leader Gordon Brown is behind his conservative opponent David Cameron. Last in the polls but following close behind is Nick Clegg, who heads the Liberal Democratic Party. He has risen in popularity following a sharp performance in the televised debates.

Now, at this point you might be asking, why do we care? Now, leave aside the geopolitics and the longstanding alliance between the U.S. and Great Britain and consider this: black Britains are poised for the first time to have a significant electoral impact. To talk more about this, we're joined by Simon Woolley. He is the national coordinator of Operation Black Vote, and he joins us by phone from his office in east London. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

Mr. SIMON WOOLLEY (National Coordinator, Operation Black Vote): Hi, Michel, great to be with you and with your listeners.

MARTIN: Well, first, before we get started, does black mean the same thing in Britain as it does in the U.S.? I mean, in the U.S. we generally mean people of African, Caribbean descent and heritage. Does it mean the same thing?

Mr. WOOLLEY: For some people here black is African and Caribbean, but for us, since the 1960s and '70s, we used the black in a political terminology to mean people that are non-white. So it includes Africans, Asians, Caribbean and other minority ethnic communities of color. What we're able to do with this political terminology is to have a thread that links Africans, Caribbeans, Asians in a force to defeat racial discrimination.

Because, you know, often when racism and discriminatory practices reach our door, they don't distinguish whether we are Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Nigerian or Barbasian(ph). To them, we are people of color who they seek to discriminate. So we come together with a show of force.

MARTIN: But to that point that people of South Asian, African, Caribbean descent have been a presence in Britain for quite some time, why is this the first time that black Britains are as poised to have this kind of impact? Is it because they generally line up with one party or another and therefore their vote is, you know, taken for granted, if you want to call it that? Why is it that this year distinct?

Mr. WOOLLEY: Well, there's multi reasons for it, not least as you pointed out, in the past, the black vote would be a homogenous vote, voting for the Labour Party. In fact, up to 90 percent of the black vote went to the Labour Party. I guess pretty much like the black vote in the States predominantly went to the Democrats. That is now changing. The black vote is no longer a voting bloc, it's more diverse.

Secondly, these elections are fiercely close. The margin is about three, four, five percent. So I guess any community that can command - and which we can -over one hundred seats, which represents about 20 percent of the seats available to win in these elections, has clout. And because of its diversity, we're able to say to all the political leaders, actually, if you begin to address the inequalities that persist in our society, particularly those on the grounds of race, you may be considered to win our votes.

MARTIN: Is there an effort specifically to appeal to these voters? And I do want to press you on this question of, if the vote is more fractured, and is it likely to vote as a bloc for whoever, then to what extent can you be sure that there is going to be this impact?

Mr. WOOLLEY: See, I don't call it fractured. I call it diverse. And within that diversity means that parties will not take this for granted. If the (unintelligible) parties thought, well, listen, there's no point actually talking to this constituency because it always votes one way, then our vote will be taken for granted. In its diversity, it becomes a position of strength.

Now, what binds a middle-class Caribbean with a working-class Pakistani? It is to defeat racism. Racism affects the upper class, the middle class and if you like, the working class in terms of opportunity, in terms of health. And this race penalty that has persisted for as long as we can all remember, needs to be politically, effectively addressed.

MARTIN: And are the candidates addressing this? Are they making targeted appeals to the black vote?

Mr. WOOLLEY: Michel, I've never seen in British political history the political elite coming to the doors of the black electorate with a set of proposals -manifestos if you like, black manifestos - which have been written to address our concerns. It's never been done before, and I dont think it's been done, Michel, because the political elite love black people. They do love the black vote. They know they need it.

Weve collaborated with our black brothers and sisters in America, with Jesse Jackson, with Al Sharpton, with the Obama campaign team, to ensure that our communities are registered to vote and we will stand up and be counted. And here as never before we have seen an electoral force that if you like, Michel, has shook up the system. We are a priority for the political elite, and some may say on May the 7th that it was the black vote that decided who won and who lost.

MARTIN: And finally, your group is a voter outreach, voter education and participation group, but are you endorsing anyone? Do you have a dog in this fight, as it were?

Mr. WOOLLEY: Once again, Michel, we feel that our strength is in our neutrality. With that neutrality we can bring all the political leaders to our table and say to them, frankly, Michel, what are you doing for black people? Why should we vote for you?

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. WOOLLEY: And so they all come with their outline on how to woo our vote.

MARTIN: Do you care to handicap this for us? Do you feel - could I entice you to make a prediction?

Mr. WOOLLEY: Well, it's going to be close. You know, I believe the winner in this election in no small measure will be an empowered black electorate. And I have to thank you, Michel, and I have to thank that America voted Barack Obama, because the ripples of his success - of that success - has translated to a very much empowered black British electorate. We want our Obama too.

MARTIN: Wow. We are very eager to see what happens. That was Simon Woolley. He's the national coordinator of Operation Black Vote. He joined us from East London.

Thank you so much for joining us. Keep us posted.

Mr. WOOLLEY: Thank you very much.

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