Why Voting Matters


With the General Elections of 2015 quickly approaching, the Black and Ethnic Minority Arts Network (BEMA) hosted an event this Wednesday to discuss the critical role minorities in the UK can play during an election. Around 50 people came to the Houses of Parliament to hear representatives from political parties and non-profit organizations speak on how important it is for the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities to cast their votes.

The speakers agreed that the current members of parliament were not an adequate representation of the diversity of the UK and tackling this issue demanded political engagement from BAME voters.

We need to hold those in power and position to account,”

urged Saqib Deshmukh, speaker for the non-profit Voice4Change.

Diane Abbott, an MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, chimed the same sentiment. She reiterated that politics is too important to be left in the hands of a small group of people not reflective of the rest of the population.

Benali Hamdache, a representative of the Green Party, had his own suggestions on how BEMA voters could be better represented. He wished for electoral reform, explaining that some politicians have held their positions for decades due to the disenfranchisement of minority voters.

Today is about figuring out how you can change your society,”

encouraged Simon Woolley, director of Operation Black Vote.

To erase any doubt on how influential political involvement can be, speakers shared stories of how working together made an impact. Woolley described how the Education Secretary Michael Gove’s proposal to remove Mary Seacole, a Jamaican-born British nurse, from the school curriculum angered people who felt their histories wouldn’t be represented. Organizations responded by starting a petition and gathered 40,000 signatures, leading to the successful reversal of the decision.

The political representatives also spoke on the recent immigration bill and how voicing their anger can prove transform policies. Holloway explained that those in Chinatown protested the proposed bill by shutting down their businesses for two hours. Abbott said East Europeans are targeted now in the same way that West Indians, North Africans and other communities have been before. She added that unfortunately “the narrative doesn’t alter” but “we shouldn’t be scapegoats” and can instead act on it.

The enriching discussion of building leadership in local communities motivated the diverse audience, which included students, parents and educators.

I’m usually happy to talk about these issues with a small number of people at the kitchen table,”

said Patricia Ojehonmon.

But now I’m inspired to take action through voting and sitting on panels to create mass change.”

Ojehonmon is an educator at a Pupil Referral Unit, which is a centre for children who are excluded from main school units. Hearing the speakers made her more optimistic about her larger role in society and she is looking forward to motivating young people as well.

Deshmukh recommended that adults be supportive of the youth who are striving to make an impact. If they are protesting against the stop and search police policies, he urged adults to be brave and show their support by also intervening.

BEMA’s Chief Officer, Ngoma Bishop, said he is concerned about the lack of investment and availability of the arts to the public. It is crucial to make sure art is promoted in BAME communities, which he believes can be achieved through political action and voting for those who support the cause.

Lester Holloway, a Liberal Democrats councillor, expressed,

We need to have a national debate on what value we set on creativity.”

Hamdache said there was a “systematic exclusion” in “accessing the arts”, giving the BAME voters a disadvantage. Voting for politicians who are dedicated to improving the lack of resources in the arts to BAME communities can bridge the gap of availability.

There was also a discussion of how valuable collective action and organization can be. Deshmukh insisted that communities have to be clear on what their demands are so that they can have a clear focus.

There are too many sectional interests,”

Patrick Vernon, representative of the Labour Party, argued.

We’re not working collectively anymore to influence the mindset of the country and the collective narrative of how we’re perceived.”

Hamdache supported this response, advising that without collective action “it becomes too easy for the government to ignore our rights and needs.”

Nilay Tuncok