Cynicism among ethnic voters in Britain worries all contenders

Britain has more than 2 million people of black and Asian origin - yet there is not a single black or brown face in the House of Commons at Westminster. In the current general election campaign, however, the three major political parties are making a more determined pitch for the ethnic vote than ever before.

The Labour Party, the Conservatives, and the Social Democratic Party (SDP)-Liberal alliance have all given careful thought to the tactics that might best win over black and Asian voters. They have printed leaflets in the Asian languages; bought pages of advertising in the flourishing black and Asian press; carefully tutored candidates standing in areas with a heavy minority vote in what to say and how to say it.

All three party manifestoes contain pledges to improve race relations, combat discrimination, and ensure equal opportunities for all. Labour and the alliance propose specific and often radical measures. The Conservatives confine themselves to restating that ''strict but fair'' immigration control helps race relations.

Despite all this, the three parties are fielding only 17 black and Asian candidates among them, out of a total of 2,500. Of these 17, only one is seen as having the remotest chance of being elected.

Small wonder then that this sudden upsurge of political interest is meeting with cynicism within the ethnic communities themselves. As Mr. Chhotu Karadia, editor of the influential weekly paper Asian Post, puts it:

''No one's taken in by the parties' sudden enthusiasm. Whatever impression they might be trying to create, I don't think the ethnic vote matters to them at all, as long as they get a majority.''

The reason for the parties' current tussle over black and Asian votes is clear: Although Britons of Asian or Caribbean origin make up only 4 percent of the electorate, most of them are concentrated in a number of key inner-city areas. And the way they cast their votes on June 9 could decide the fate of as many as 37 members of Parliament.

The parties have also had to sit up and take notice of signs that ethnic communities are becoming more aware of the power they wield. An increasing number of blacks and Asians play an active role in local government. And some ethnic organizations this time round are fielding their own parliamentary candidates for the first time. As community leaders point out, this is one way of drawing attention to the fact that Parliament would have to seat some 25 blacks and Asians among its 650 members to reflect Britain's racial makeup.

The parties' campaign for ethnic votes has at times been clumsy and insensitive. A Conservative Party election slogan in Punjabi had to be withdrawn at the last moment after it was found to have been embarrassingly mistranslated. Labour's posters in Gujarati suffered a similar fate when it was discovered that they had been printed upside down.

But the biggest blunder of all has come from the Conservatives in the form of a full-page poster drawn up for them by the slick London advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. It features a neatly dressed black man, outlines the Conservative approach to race, and ends with the slogan: ''Labour says he's black, the Conservatives say he's British.''

Britain's largest ethnic minority paper, the Caribbean Times, refused to carry it at all, describing it as ''insulting, obnoxious and immoral.'' Those black and Asian papers that did carry the advertisement at the same time carried editorials denouncing it.

A senior race-relations officer in inner London, Dan Thea, summed up the reaction of most blacks and Asians when he said: ''The poster really revealed ignorance of what black people feel. We are both black and British and anyone who questions that, as the Tories are doing, who imagines we want to hide our color, is misreading the situation. The Tories have done themselves a lot of damage.''

Another important setback in the Conservative effort to win over the black and Asian electorate came when it was revealed that a Conservative candidate, Thomas Finnegan, had once stood as a candidate for the extreme right-wing racist organization, the National Front. The front openly advocates mass repatriation of immigrants.

The row that followed seriously embarrassed Conservative Party officials, who pointed out that they had been unaware of Mr. Finnegan's past.

But he is still standing for the Conservatives. The party has accepted his assurances that although he once held right-wing views, he now despises the National Front and backs the Tory line on race and immigration.But many argue that the Conservatives are fighting a losing battle so far as the ethnic minorities are concerned. In past elections, these groups have voted overwhelmingly for Labour. The 1979 figure was more than 4 out of 5.

It is not hard to understand why. Blacks and Asians have always been at the bottom of the economic and social ladder, and Labour has traditionally been seen as the party of the underdog.

The group most likely to support the Conservatives in the current election are Asian small business men - the more prosperous members of the ethnic community.

But even here, the Conservatives are far from assured of a captive vote. Asian community leaders say the 1981 British Nationality Act, which further restricted immigration, has created a massive tide of resentment against the government, which may be reflected in the polls. And many still recall with bitterness a comment made by Mrs. Thatcher in a television interview before the last election, in which she said she understood the fears of those whites who felt their culture was in danger of being ''swamped'' by immigrants.

The view of race-relations experts is that the experience of blacks and Asians during the past four years of Conservative rule will only reinforce their loyalty to Labour. They feel the SDP-Liberal alliance, fighting its first general election with a moderate ticket, is unlikely to make much of an impact with blacks and Asians.

The run-down inner-city areas, where the vast majority of Britain's blacks and Asians live, have borne the brunt of the recession. It is these areas that have been hardest hit by unemployment as well as cutbacks in house-building programs and education and health services.''

The last four years have been devastating for black people,'' says Dan Thea. ''In many areas, the black unemployment rate is double that for whites. In some cases, it's as high as 40 percent; and many unemployed blacks, rightly or wrongly, lay the blame for that at (Prime Minister Margaret) Thatcher's door.''

Others may decide that the record of previous Labour governments on unemployment and race relations was not much better. There are signs that some have already come to the conclusion that it is not worth voting at all.

Dr. Michelle Lohe of Bradford University says, ''There's a lot of disinterest and apathy about the elections, particularly among young blacks.''

This appears to be true of many young Asians. Says Chhotu Karadia: ''Instead of attending political meetings, many Asian youngsters are training in karate and setting up self-defense groups in the wake of racist attacks. They are desperate and bitter; they feel that none of the three main parties offer them anything real.''

It is this prospect that frightens politicians more than any other. They are haunted by the specter of a young and increasingly militant body of young blacks and Asians taking to the streets in a repetition of the violent riots in Brixton and Toxteth two years ago.

As one Conservative candidate in London commented recently: ''They don't identify with one party or another. I suppose their attitude is, 'A plague on both your houses, it's a white man's fight.' ''

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