British parties waking to potential of minority voters

For three years, Mohammed Khamisa has had one dream: A lawyer, middle-class citizen, and ardent member of the Conservative Party, he wants to be elected to the House of Commons, Britain's lower house of Parliament. But his efforts have gone nowhere, he says, because of a barrier he hasn't been able to cross.

Mr. Khamisa is an ethnic Pakistani and diversity, he says, has not yet come to British politics. Khamisa has applied 13 times to local constituency parties - who are responsible for selecting candidates - and on every occasion he has been denied an interview. He says the experience left him "disappointed but philosophical."

Blacks and Asians (in Britain, the term most often means immigrants or descendants of immigrants from India and Pakistan) constitute 5 to 6 percent of the voting population. At present, there are nine members of Parliament (MPs) from ethnic minorities in the 659-seat House of Commons. All represent the ruling Labour Party.

With a general election widely expected to be held next May and Conservatives eager to oust Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair, Khamisa's case has won the attention of Conservative leader William Hague, who set up a special "cultural unit" at his party's London headquarters. Its mandate is to spread the word that, as in the United States, the ethnic-minority vote can be crucial.

A senior Hague adviser says, "We can no longer afford to undervalue, still less ignore, the ethnic vote."

Conservatives are acting on research carried out by Operation Black Vote (OBV), a London-based think tank. The findings suggest that black and Asian voters may hold the balance of power in many closely contested parliamentary seats.

Conservative planners believe many black and Asian voters are impressed by some of their core issues: free-enterprise economics, family values, and strong educational initiatives. Large numbers of these voters live outside Britain's main urban areas and are found in smaller centers around the country.

The OBV research suggests that results in as many as 100 parliamentary seats at the election could be decided by ethnic-minority voters. In 60 of the seats, the number of black and Asian voters exceeds the sitting MP's margin of victory in the last election.

In Dorset, southwest England, for instance, Conservatives hold the seat with a slender 1,840-vote majority. The area has an estimated 3,650 voters belonging to ethnic minorities.

Mr. Hague isn't the only British political leader to wake up to the significance of the OBV findings. Mr. Blair created a party task force with a similar mission. In Harrow, on the outskirts of London, the Labour candidate won a seat by only 1,240 votes. The ethnic-minority voting population in the constituency is about 20,000.

Charles Kennedy, leader of the centrist Liberal Democrat Party, is equally enthusiastic about the OBV research. Many of his party's 46 seats in the Commons are held by narrow majorities and he has ordered local party activists to pay particular attention to issues likely to appeal to minority voters.

In Torbay, for example, where party officials put the number of black and Asian voters at about 4,000, the LDP majority is a mere 12 votes.

Khamisa's case, however, underlines what critics see as a past failure by all three of Britain's main parties, which have done little to help members of ethnic minorities clear the hurdles to the House of Commons. Paul Boatang, a Labour government minister of mixed race, frequently urges his party's leaders to be on the lookout for likely ethnic-minority candidates.

Shahid Malik, a member of the Labour Party's national executive committee, says his party is "light years ahead of the Conservatives, but still has a long way to go."

Observing that with Britain's ethnic balance, there should be at least 28 MPs from racial minorities, he deems it "a failure that there are only nine."

"It is absolutely essential that the OBV research be heeded," Mr. Malik says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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