Operation Black Vote

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Operation Black Vote (OBV) is non-partisan and not-for-profit national organisation that was established in 1996 to address the alleged British black and ethnic minority democratic deficit. Focusing on voter registration, lobbying politicians and mentoring schemes, OBV aims to inspire black and minority ethnic communities to engage with public institutions to address the perceived race inequalities in areas including education, health and employment.[1]


Between 1994 and 1996 Black communities were subject to severe social and political pressure. 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.[2]

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.

OBV began by collating political and demographic data in marginal constituencies - and soon OBV 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, Black numbers were such that OBV 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 OBV held over 100 meetings at schools, colleges, community centres, local party offices and town halls up and down the country. OBV distributed over 250,000 voter registration cards; 500,000 leaflets in six different languages, and 50,000 posters.

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.[3] It clearly isn't. But OBV must try and make it so." Liberal Democrats leader Paddy Ashdown pledged to make the House of Commons more representatives, 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 OBV invited came to listen to the Black electorate and argue their case.

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.

Political rhetoric is easy and instant; translating it into reality is the hard work of years.[4] The disillusion of so many people - particularly young Black men - would not and could not be addressed in the few months before the election.

OBV's work[edit]

Operation Black Vote’s work covers four main areas:

  • Political education: to raise awareness and understanding of democratic and civic society through citizenship projects.
  • Political participation: to improve general civic society engagement through local and national voter registration and other civic participation campaigns.
  • Political representation: to increase political representation of Black and minority ethnic communities, through encouraging engagement; undertaking ground-breaking mentoring schemes; lobbying political parties and civic institutions on the benefits of representative bodies.
  • Equality promotion and Political representation: to increase political representation of Black and ethnic minorities in Britain through empowering individuals to engage in both democratic and civic society, lobbying political parties to increase BME political representations and addressing issues of race equality.

Awards, nominations and accolades[edit]

  • Winner of the Channel 4 Political Award, 2008[5]
  • Nominated for Channel 4 Political Award (February 2007)[5]
  • Supporting Local Democracy Award (March 2006)
  • The Black Women in Business Award (BIBA), 2006, awarded to Winsome-Grace Cornish for OBV's Shadowing Schemes in the Ethnic Organisation category
  • Best Campaign (January 2005)
  • Men & Women of Merit award (September 2003)
  • The African Caribbean Positive Image Foundation awarded OBV the Prestigious Bernie Grant Award, 2002
  • OBV's Director Simon Woolley was voted onto the Big Issue′s top 100 "Grassroots Power list 2002"
  • Website of the Year Award, 2001–12[citation needed]


  1. ^ "Black voters urged to take part in election by church", BBC News – Politics, 13 October 2012.
  2. ^ Kjartan Páll Sveinsson (ed.), "Ethnic Profiling: The Use of 'Race' in UK Law Enforcement", Runnymede Perspectives, May 2010.
  3. ^ Stephen Castle (19 January 1997). "Major woos ethnic voters but admits racism exists". The Independent. Retrieved 18 December 2011. 
  4. ^ "UK Politics | Operation Black Vote lifts off". BBC News. 2 August 1999. Retrieved 18 December 2011. 
  5. ^ a b "Political Awards". Channel 4. Retrieved 18 December 2011. 

External links[edit]