Between 1994 and 1996 Black communities were subject to severe social and political pressure.

There were deaths in police custody for which no one was held accountable. The Immigration & Asylum Bill seemed to many to be a state-sanctioned policy that criminalised Black people looking for sanctuary in Britain.

The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Condon, took the often uneasy relationship between the police and the Black community to a new low with his comments about targeting young Black people for street crime. Figures showed that inner city schools had been disproportionately expelling young Black youths, effectively condemning them to the social scrap heap.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch identified Britain as the country with the highest incidence of racial attacks in Europe. Research at Southampton University by law Professor Lawrence Lustgarden showed that Britain jails more Black people per head of population than the USA.

Unemployment within Black communities especially in areas with high Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslim populations - stood, and still stands, way above the national average: with unemployment among Black graduates three times the national average.

Many in the Black community, young and old, felt a sense of powerlessness. Frustration turned to anger on the streets of Brixton and Bradford as young Blacks protested against authority.

In early 1996, with the last date for a General Election 18 months away - Black volunteers at Charter88 and activists at The 1990 Trust began exploring ways of using the most important event in Britain's political calendar to raise the concerns of the Black community.

We began by collating political and demographic data in marginal constituencies - and we soon realised that the Black vote was potentially immensely powerful. In over 50 seats the number of African, Asian and Caribbean voters was greater than its marginality. In another 50, our numbers were such that we had the potential to play a significant role in any closely fought contest.

A call to action would have a solid base and an immediate focus - the power of the Black vote at the coming General Election. The challenge was to persuade the Black community to recognise that power and inspire them to participate - and to serve notice on the political parties that they ignored the Black electorate at their peril.

Operation Black Vote was launched in July 1996. In just ten months we held over 100 meetings at schools, colleges, community centres, local party offices and town halls up and down the country.

We distributed over 250,000 voter registration cards; 500,000 leaflets in six different languages, and 50,000 posters.

Over 200 articles appeared in the national and international press, the Black press, and a host of other journals and publications. 

Ninety-seven radio interviews and 27 television broadcasts spanned every region in the country and eight countries worldwide.

An Early Day Motion tabled on OBV's behalf received support from all sides of the House of Commons.  

Trevor Robinson (of Tango fame) and John Daniels spearheaded a controversial poster and cinema ad campaign.  

An OBV collaboration with Rock the Vote and MTV saw Linford Christie make time to do an ad specifically for the music channel.

But we knew from the outset that it would be OBV's impact in two specific areas which would determine success or failure: the response of the political parties to Black concerns and of the Black community to Operation Black Vote.

In comparison to any election before 1997, the positive attention the Black electorate received from the major parties was unprecedented. And the party leaders led from the front.

In a speech that he would later make a point of sending to OBV, the then Prime Minister John Major said, "I don't pretend that the prospect for the young Black man in Brixton is yet as open as it is to the young white man in the Home Counties.

It clearly isn't. But we must try and make it so." Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown pledged to make the House of Commons more representative, and described it as "a white, male, middle-class club." And Tony Blair emphasised his lifetime commitment "to fight against racism."

At constituency level, MPs and candidates across the country took part in OBV Question Time meetings.  For the first time in British political history, every candidate we invited came to listen to the Black electorate and argue their case.

We knew that much of this attention was little more than electioneering.  But we also knew that promises would be made that would allow us, in the weeks and months after the Election, to insist that they be kept.

There were times, early in the campaign, when we thought that even our minimalist call to the Black community to register to vote - to use the most basic instrument of representative democracy - was a triumph of hope over reality.

A pervading cynicism about British democracy had persuaded many Black people that a conscious opt out was the only valid form of expression.

But we knew we were onto something powerful.  

At meeting after meeting we argued that we inadvertently collude with those who view us negatively by not using the political avenues open to us.  "We are powerful - and here's the proof.  We just have to recognize it.” we insisted.  

As the months went on, the message began to get through. Operation Black Vote began to establish a platform that gave African, Asian and Caribbean communities in Britain a collective political voice - and those communities began using it.

As the local and national press picked up on this emerging political consciousness, a feeling that we were being noticed inspired many more to get involved.

There is little to no quantitative data on how many more Black people registered to vote and/or voted in 1997 as a direct consequence of OBV.  

In the few constituencies where data is available, it shows that in predominately Black areas voting and registration rose slightly, while in predominantly white areas they fell.

We knew when we began how much there was to do; that a ten-month campaign could do little more than give our communities a sense that things could be different and that OBV existed to help make that difference.  

Political rhetoric is easy and instant; translating it into reality is the hard work of years.  The disillusion of so many people - particularly young Black men - would not and could not be addressed in the few months before the Election.

A long term strategy was the inevitable next step if we were to realise the expectations we had aroused.

Picture: OBV House of Commons launch, 1996.