25th anniversary special | Happy Birthday OBV, by Simon Woolley

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It is July 16th, and it feels like mission impossible to articulate the 25 years of Operation Black Vote in a page or two. It’s also as difficult to articulate my thoughts about this incredible journey of being the CEO and main spokesperson during this period. I mean, who in this day and age stays in the same job for 25 years? And in many ways, that’s the point. Indeed, the last 25 years have not felt like a ‘job’. It has been a passion - and not only a passion for me, but also one for the entire OBV family.

A sincere thank you

So let me give a mention to key members of the family. Firstly, our current board members Rita Patel, Audrey Adams, Meena Dhobi and David Weaver - all of whom were there from the very beginning. Add to the mix, other influential co-founders such as Lee Jasper, the first chair of OBV. What I would say is that all these individuals had the incredible vision and foresight as trustees of the 1990 Trust to recognise the importance of tackling the black democratic deficit and subsequently creating/incubating the mechanism and undertaking the fundraising as a lead into OBV’s formal inception.

There is also the staff that have sustained the organisation throughout - those that have been operationalising the important work of OBV. Stalwarts like our deputy Director, Ashok Viswanathan who has been with us for 20 years. Rafiq Maricar our IT/web manager for 15 years; through to our Head of Projects - Merlene Carrington whose tenure has spanned 15 years, former Head of Projects Francine Fernandes 15 years, and former Head of Comms Winsome Cornish MBE, 10 years.

I have not even mentioned the hundreds of volunteers that have undertaken sterling work for OBV during this period. The watch-words have been dedication, commitment and determination - all of which are central to achieving OBV’s ultimate purpose. OBV has been a passion for all our Board members, staff and volunteers - not a simple ‘job’.

We are an extended family, network and community of local, national and international organisations that have sought to change the world through the political empowerment of Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.

Key to our endeavour has been our mission to transform our political, civic and increasingly, our business institutions. I love what broadcaster and writer Henry Bonsu once said about OBV.  “If OBV wasn’t around with all the fantastic things it has done over many years, we’d simply have had to invent it.”

Born out of struggle

Like many organisations and movements, OBV was born out of struggle. The death of Wayne Douglas in police custody and the inevitability of no one being held to account caused not only civil disturbances back in 1996, but also sowed the seeds for OBV. Derek Hinds, a long-time civil rights campaigner and close ally of Bernie Grant MP and one of the greatest orators of his generation crystallized the frustration and anger of the community by turning that energy into a force for good by eulogising the Malcolm X refrain… ‘We need to use the ballot box, not the bullet’, and that is the essence of OBV.

It was on the back of our concerns about the racist policing of black communities that the name ‘Operation Black Vote’ was conceived. In fact, it was a stroke of genius when in a conversation about the metropolitan police, Derek Hinds stated… “Commissioner Paul Condon has ‘Operation Eagle Eye’ which is criminalising black youth; we need to set up in response a bigger operation - ‘Operation Black Vote’. Think about it for a while, for many years the police had used all their power to terrorise and demonise generations of Black youths through the SUS laws and ‘fitting up’ countless Black men and women with drugs often under the banners ‘Operation… this' or ‘Operation that'.

But of course, it was much bigger than holding the police to account, it was also about demanding a fairer society, free from the scourges of systemic racism. My task back then was to make sense of the Black vote and to see, if at all just how powerful it could be. My grounding was good. Having finished a degree studying Spanish and Latin American politics as a mature student - 27 was considered mature- I joined the democratic reforming organisation Charter 88 as a volunteer. My mentor there was Andrew Puddephat. It was two organisations that gave birth to OBV, The 1990 Trust driven by one of the greatest Black British activists of his generation, Lee Jasper, and Charter 88, where I was volunteering.

From strategy to action

It took about three months to research before I called all the activists, primarily from the 1990 Trust, for what was in many ways a eureka moment that was to change British politics forever.  Behind the scenes, I was ably assisted by a parliamentary library assistant whose full name I can’t remember beyond his first name, Wyn. He’d already begun some work on the behest of an MP that was looking at the demographic data for BAME communities, and together we added to it.

Compiling this data was a huge task, but slowly but and surely the data was coming through. Once we’d compiled the data, all I had to do was match the emerging demographics with the 650 parliamentary seats and there it was for all to see - the Black vote mattered. 

Back then, the sitting Prime Minister John Major had the smallest of parliamentary majorities - only 23 seats. I was able to inform the group beyond what they already knew: elections are won and lost in margins, from a few hundred votes here to a few thousand votes there, but the magic ingredient was that in so many of those marginal seats lived substantial numbers of Black, Asian and minority ethnic voters, collectively called, by us, the Black vote. 

I’d calculated we could in effect decide over 70 seats. Given the government of the day, the Conservatives had a 23 seat majority; the simple maths clearly gave us some real skin in the game. From there on, with this potential power, we wouldn’t be asking for race equality and justice, we’d politically demand it.

The early years

During that first year and indeed the first few years we were fearless, creative, and we endeavoured to unite our communities and build allies wherever we went. I can only look back with great pride and humility about being part of this wonderful organisation.

I remember vividly the launch at the House of Commons 25 years ago today. I was so nervous I read my prepared speech barely looking up at the flashing lights or the TV camera crews. I rarely speak from a script today, preferring to look into the eyes of those I’m speaking to.

I think back to the first hustings meeting in Croydon Town hall where the sitting MP, the late Malcolm Wicks, was fighting for his political life with the smallest of margins. During that meeting we witnessed, perhaps for the first time in British politics, politicians being held to account by Black voters. 

As activists, we were not afraid to travel either, driving the length and breadth of the UK in clapped-out cars to meet with community groups and hold hustings, demanding political candidates listen to our communities. One of the many long trips to the north of England was in Batley and Spen where we met and began a 25 year collaboration and friendship with Baroness Sayeeda Warsi. Back then she was a true firebrand women’s rights lawyer, fast-talking and ever engaging.  I also remember being impressed with a little known SNP candidate who was fighting for a marginal Glasgow seat; now Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

For many years, OBV had no money and no money anytime soon. We were all volunteers so we had to beg, borrow or steal to get things done, but something always would come up, and someone would offer to lend a hand. Lee Jasper seemed to know everyone. So it was no complete surprise when two young Black advertising wiz-kids Trevor Robinson and the late Jon Daniels literally demanded that they produce our campaigns in those first years.

The special, extraordinary human being that was Jon Daniels said; “the first step for political activism is to get Black people having a conversation with political leaders. So let’s facilitate that by giving out their telephone numbers. And we did, with the strapline, ‘Imagine one million Black called people John Major or Tony Blair’ and alongside their names were their local constituency numbers. The goal was to empower Black voters but also for the political leaders to feel the heat.

We did get an extraordinary call from the Shadow Home Secretary Jack Straw who asked us to convene a Black-led press conference in which he would announce if BAME individuals voted for labour then they would deliver a Public Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Straw kept his word.

When Labour won with such a vast majority, we couldn’t claim that it was due to the Black vote, but we knew we had something, and something rather special. So with little more than the audacity of hope, we set out a 20-year plan that would be built upon three key pillars: Political education; understanding where power lies and how to use it, Political participation; voter registration and turnout campaigns, and political representation; wherever decisions were taken that affected us, we must be around that decision-making table. 

A legacy to outlast us all

We knew what we wanted from the State, but we also knew that another big challenge would be to politically empower our communities through voter registration drives, civic education and nurturing political and civic leadership.

25 years later BAME MP’s have grown from 4 to 66, many directly from OBV such as Helen Grant the first Black female Conservative MP, or Tan Dhesi the first turban-wearing Sikh MP, and now this younger generation including Abena Appong-Asare MP.

We’ve nurtured over 150 magistrates who collectively have given more than 1200 years of public service to the courts. Mayors and Deputy Mayors such as Marvin Rees, Anna Rothery, and Antoinette Bramble have been role models for a younger generation.

As a small organisation, we are rightly proud to have helped establish the Government’s Race Disparity Unit, the first for any western democracy, and to lay bare the Colour of Power that we launched in 2017.

Even though we’ve made great gains, we’re still facing old and new challenges. The Governments lack of strong anti-racist drive, and in some quarters the pushing of faux culture wars is a particular challenge. As is the Labour party’s reluctance to fully confront the realities of Islamophobia.

But I’m encouraged about the future, not least because through the Black Lives Matter movement a new generation of BAME activists are emerging.

I am also confident that all of you who have been supporting us for a quarter of a century will continue to do so. As many of you know, I’ll hand over the reins to the next OBV CEO when I leave for my next chapter at Homerton College, Cambridge University.

So happy 25th Birthday OBV, I hope we won’t be needed for another 25 years, but for the foreseeable future, we need you to be strong and resolute.

We know that over the 25-year period tens of thousands of people have been involved in our little but powerful organisation, and in our celebration year, we want your reflections/ stories short or long, to better tell the OBV story.

Please send to info@obv.org.uk

Yours sincerely,

Simon Woolley

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