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In Conversation: Ashok Viswanathan

Ashok Viswanathan is co-founder and deputy coordinator of OBV. In his own words, he explains why Britain’s ethnic minorities must and need to participate in the political process of the nation.

OBV LogoBelinda: In comparison to the African American experience where politics is concerned, how much work does the Black British community of Britain still need to do in order to gain an equal representation in government and where policy making is concerned?

Ashok: OBV is in the UK to play a democratic role in decision making process and that is one of the unique things about the UK and what makes us different from the US experience. Many organisations in the UK fight under the banner of black and it equals African and Afro Caribbean. (Ashok agrees that while you can clearly see the success of African Americans in the US, over here in London, you see success with integration but not success in public office. He also admits that the success of African American politicians is one of the reasons, why they at OBV are doing the work they do because they get inspiration from their US counterparts. He says they have much to learn from the African American model of black political gaining a voice)

Belinda: You website says your mission is to ‘focus exclusively on the Black democratic deficit in the UK’ how huge was that deficit before your organisation started? What was the number of MPs or local councillors in the UK then?

Ashok: The democratic deficit before OBV started…well OBV started in 1996 and at the time, there were around 659 MPs. I would the make-up of Parliament where our MPs sit and pass laws, 0.7 percent of that parliament was black. That figure has since risen to 2.1 percent. When you put that into real numbers, the 0.7 percent in 1996 accounted for four Mps. The 2.1 per cent now account for 15 MPs.  After the next election, our predictions are that there will be around 25 to 30, we will see that figure rising to about 4.5 to 5 percent but it is still far, far too low. Projections for 2011, is that we will have a black and ethnic minority here in the UK between 10 and 12 per cent and yet, even if we make those breakthroughs this year in parliament, we will still be five percent short of what you would expect of any institution, if it were to look like the people it represents and this is replicated in many other institutions like the Scottish parliament, Welsh parliament, the European parliament and the London Assembly. If you look at council structures in the 32 London authorities and those outside London, the level of black representation is woeful. So, there has been progress, but the progress has been too slow and unsatisfactory and if we were to wait for those to levels to stabilise in reflecting communities without any initiatives, then our date and analysis, we will be waiting another 100 years if it took 15 years to go from four black MPs to 15. We have predicted that it will take 100 years to reach something adequate that reflects modern day Britain in terms of ethnicity, age and gender. For us at OBV, that is of grave concern. Our analysis also shows there is a decline in political participation and the lack of black representation and diversity.

Belinda: Do you have any plans to redress the lack of political participation which is still prevalent in ethnic minority communities?

Ashok: Yes, we run a number of mentoring schemes where we have alumni’s and people are mentored in the political sphere by others who have been there and they can learn to stand as candidates in local elections, as magistrates and the reins of change in public institutions where the lives of Africa Caribbean people are affected.  We also have programmes in school to raise illiteracy in these communities.

Belinda: You website talks about the deep entrenched cynicism in the Afro-Caribbean community about politics, why is this particular community cynical about politics in the UK?

Ashok: Its funny, I think it’s the case where there has to be a revolution in the social consciousness of black and minority communities because their response to politics is not working, turning them away from the democratic process. There has to be a revolution of the mind. It’s the case where many people in the black community face a great enemy and that enemy is themselves and there needs to be a reconstituting of efforts and belief as well as tactics, organising and mobilising to make a difference. There needs to be an awakening of that social conscience. The only way you can change anything is by playing a role in the democratic process in the system of governance that is dominant thing in our system. That is the most effective but by far not the only means to legitimately address the issue that affect the black community.

Belinda: How is this imbalance, especially the inequality and marginalisation where political power is concerned affecting the communities that Operation Black Vote represents?

Ashok: With great difficulty we try and engage people and address issues by facilitating dialogue with candidates, and local communities and the elected candidates in local communities. I really feel the work we do with school is key, a young generation with whom engaging with the political scene is key. We will not really move forward until we raise illiteracy and that starts with young people.

Belinda: What is the current state of the black British Community, politically, socially and economically?

Ashok: I would say the black community is a sleeping giant that needs to be awoken. Economically, it’s a community that has a huge sway, more than £10billion pounds is spent every year from the black community into the economy. The black pound is immensely powerful.  Socially and culturally, I would say that we have made huge contributions to the lifeblood and characters of the UK. Politically, when we organise and mobilise and come together, we have a huge leverage in over 100 seats in the UK, the black vote can decide and who wins but we cannot do any of that while more than 1 in 4 people from black communities are not registered to vote and when we have over 40 per cent of people don’t go out to the polling station where they are registered to vote. So, we have an invisible community, full sways of people who are invisible because they are not standing to be counted and so we are contributing so much and we are giving more than we are taking back and that is why we need equal representation. And we have spent centuries giving more than we have received and its time we get a fair slice of the cake and that means standing up and doing things for ourselves rather than waiting for people to do it for us. We need people to involve themselves in the political process rather than turn their backs on the political process. We know black communities care about politics because you hear it at the barber shop, church but that has to transpire to the political process and not a rhetoric we hear of. It must be turned into action that contributes towards a more equitable, fair and progressive society.

Belinda: Are the ethnic minority community aware of the influence of their vote?

Ashok: I think some of them are. When you illuminate it for them, it is something that they understand. But I think there is a lost generation, people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, a generation that has been lost in the 80s and 90s, at the tails end of the conservative government…the lost generation is hard to convince. Again, I would look to the US for models on these things, the National Black caucus is a good example of an organisation that works across political parties to bring a coherent voice of black communities and black power brokers to the wider American world and we need more of those types of models here to channel that energy.

Belinda: How is the relationship with civil rights leaders like Rev Jess Jackson and Al Sharpton who have been at the forefront of the civil rights movement in the US, how is that relationship now being transposed to the UK scene. And how does OBV hope to take that experience from the US and make it work here in the UK, even if it is not in the same module?

Ashok: We have had both Rev Jackson and Sharpton over here. It is great to have them over here to inspire people and what they have done in the US and we try and learn from those lessons. So what we would like to do, ultimately, we don’t want the UK Jacksons or Sharptons or Obamas…we want our own people, who will be measured for who they are. While it is good to have that inspiration, we must remember that we are unique and special in ourselves. That is one of the things we instil in our young mentees to aspire to be great in what they want to and aspire to become.

Belinda: In your honest opinion, is race still a determining factor in the marginalisation of the black British community or has it, as claimed by an MP at the beginning of the year changed to their economic ability?

Ashok: Yes, absolutely, race is still a determining factor. I wish and I know there are others, who I work with that also wish that it needn’t be but yes it is. It is a national shame and disgrace that in the UK, similar to the US that we have more black men in prison than in universities, that we have stop and search rates, 8 times greater among African Caribbean men, that African Caribbean boys are five time more likely to be permanently excluded from school and without a doubt, in every area, education, employment, substandard housing, the fact that inequality still exits and there is a huge disparity between opportunities made available to black people and the national averages.

Note: Ashok Viswanathan was interviewed in April 2010 before the general election in May. To read full article, flow this link: UK Elections

Image: OBV


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