Standing up to be counted
Point of view
The voting system, a lot of them don't really know what it is. Some of them have seen so much, they've been scarred so much in their life, they're like 'What has the government done for me?
The acronym BAME : Black, Asian minority ethnic, may be relatively new but this community’s growing numbers have changed the face of Britain over the last half century.
But now could this number change the face of British politics?
One group is determined to bring that about. The Operation Black Vote’s battle bus is on a mission, touring the country, and Lee Jasper is telling it like it is.
“Shooting democracy like bullets from a gun. We’re here today in Nottingham to register people to vote.”
Nottingham is a city where almost one in four residents is of ethnic minority origin – a group OBV organisers argue is under-represented when it comes to voting.
“It’s important to vote because if I didn’t then I cant really complain about what’s sort of happening in politics. So if I put my word down then I can actually get my vote across if you know what I mean,” says one young first-time voter.
OBV’s director is Simon Woolley.
“In most elections the vast majority of the British people don’t vote and so the status quo remains. Inequality gets wider and people become more frustrated. Look, any election is all about the numbers and we have the numbers to decide 168 marginal seats. And with those numbers right across the country, we are not asking politicians, we are demanding that they embrace the diversity, they recognize it and use it in a way that benefits the whole of society instead of dividing communities, dividing society,” he says.
There are 650 parliamentary seats at Westminster.,and while ethnic communities make up almost 15 percent of Britain’s population of 65 million, there are only 27 MP’s of ethnic origin.
Could voting really change these numbers?
“Who am I voting for? I am voting for a people that are chosen by somebody else. What if I want to vote for you? I might think you could be a better leader or this chap here. So those candidates that are up there, I don’t like any of them. I don’t think any of them are capable,” said one local man.
“What is deeply ironic is that at a time when people are probably the most cynical, this election offers the most promise for each individual voter to exact power and exert leverage,” says Lee Jasper. His analysis appears correct, as a hung parliament appears likely and the traditional two-party landscape could be drastically altered by results in marginal seats.
But why vote for a parliament that many claim is over-populated by members who are far-removed from ethnic minority communities and their concerns?
Communities that have changed the face of Britain over the last half century.Storming the towers of London
Such is the case in Tower Hamlets in East London – an area known for its melting pot of immigrants from French Huguenots and Eastern European Jews to today being nicknamed Banglatown for its large Bengali community.
Although it is one of London’s poorest areas, community activist Ansar Ahmed Ullah says British Bengalis have long been politically engaged.
“Racism in the late 70s and 80s was very violent and the community felt that in order to bring about any meaningful change or have any impact, one had to be at the centre of power or power structure. So they decided to join mainstream political parties to bring about changes.
Now initially there was a lot of reluctance from the political parties to accept membership from the Bengali community. So it took the Bengali community a very long time to get their first member of parliament,” he says.
Rushanara Ali is the first and only MP of Bengali origin. She is running for re-election.
Tonight, she is at a meeting in Tower Hamlets. The community is still in shock after three juvenile girls left London for Syria. Tonight the discussion focuses on fear of radicalisation and of growing islamophobia. These are issues close to the concerns of the community, a community Rushanara knows well.
“I am very fortunate in having the insights from having grown up here. it helps to have a perspective. To know the area and the different communities.
But I think there are many of my colleagues who work tirelessly of whatever background to deal with whatever challenges they face as constituent MPs.
And that’s one of the great things: I know people are very harsh on the political process and politicians but one of the great things about Britain is that we have a parliamentary representative system that links MPs with their constituents and constituencies. And I think that’s really powerful because that’s how you stay in touch with what’s going on and it keeps it real,” she says.Impeccable taste, inclusive politics
Iqbal Wahhab’s success story led to him getting involved in society. But as a young man he, too, seemed to be uninterested in politics.
A son of Bengali immigrants, Iqbal was a gang member and had trouble at school. But he changed.
Today the university graduate is a successful restaurateur and entrepreneur. He also runs a mentoring programme for disadvantaged black youths.
A former government advisor on ethnic discrimination, Iqbal says both Conservative and Labour parties need to get more in touch.
“It’s a terrible indictment on our society and on our economy that if you are a young black male living in Britain you are twice as likely to be unemployed as your white counterpart.
There have been studies that have shown an identical CV, one with an Anglo-Saxon name, and one with an African or an Asian name when they’re submitted to employers, the one with the Anglo-Saxon name is three times more likely to be pulled for an interview than the other one.
Now I don’t call that racism, I just call that unconscious bias. People just aren’t aware of these things and when they are alerted to them it’s a good trigger point to start understanding their own processes better.
There are deep-rooted problems which governments have historically failed to address and I have advised both the last government and this one through the Ethnic Minority Advisor on the practical measures that they could have taken but they never did. Neither Labour or Conservatives have really tackled this with any gusto,” he complains.No pain, no gain
Tackling racial discrimination with gusto: this is what Terroll Lewis did but not in your typical fashion.
He grew up in Brixton in south London. Like Iqbal he belonged to a gang. But he went to prison. His ticket to change was creating a street workout concept, Blockworkout that drew a huge following and paid for his own gym.
“I came out of prison and tried to better myself, went to church, went to a local gym and asked them how much it was to get into the gym. They said I had to pay direct debit. I was like what is that? I’m confused, I’m a gang member, I have money under my mattress. I never had a bank account.”
Today, Terroll not only has a bank account but clients that include bankers and lawyers as well as gang members and unemployed youths. In some cases the combination has led to some clients acting as mentors, helping with CV’s and job advice.
But for many, politics and voting is still an alien concept.
“The voting system, a lot of them don’t really know what it is. Some of them have seen so much, they’ve been scarred so much in their life, they’re like ‘What has the government done for me?’
And it’s the same way I thought at one point. And then I started researching and saw what different governments are doing and what parties are making more impact in certain areas.
As much as many of us don’t agree with certain things they do, you know what can we do? And it’s about not waiting on anyone to move and then we move and anyone who is going to help us, it’s just an add-on.
Am I going to vote? That is the question. You’re going to have to follow me on instagram at Terroll Lewis to find out my voting direction,” he laughs.