FACE OFF: (l-r) Michael Bukola, Baroness Doreen Lawrence, James Cleverly, Professor Kurt Barling, Dawn Butler and Earl Jarrett, general manager of Jamaica National Building Society
AS ONE of the closest general election races in British history inches closer to the May 7 finish line, representatives of the three main political parties last week sought to win over the hearts and minds of the country’s Caribbean community.
A panel comprising Conservative James Cleverly, Dawn Butler of the Labour Party and Liberal Democrat Michael Bukola faced questions from the audience at Caribbean Question Time held in Westminster on Friday (March 27).
Baroness Doreen Lawrence, the mother of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, was invited to sit on the panel, chaired by Professor Kurt Barling, as a community representative.
Caribbean Question Time, sponsored by Jamaica National Building Society and GV Media, is an annual public forum to gauge the views of African Caribbean voters on the issues that most concern them.
Key themes that emerged were opposition to the crackdown on student visas as well as discrimination in the criminal justice system including stop and search, high black prison numbers and the challenges black law graduates face in becoming qualified solicitors or barristers.
There was consensus on a call to for black people to register to vote and exercise their democratic right.
Butler, the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate (PCC) for Brent Central, also encouraged the audience to go one further and actually join a political party to help make a difference.
Her call was echoed by Baroness Lawrence, the mother of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, who expressed dismay that black voters did not “challenge our politicians enough”.
She added: “We don’t hold politicians to account enough…they do take black voters for granted so we have to make sure our voices are heard loudly in Westminster.”
In the audience was Simon Woolley, director of Operation Black Vote, who issued a rallying cry. “This is the tightest race in political history. General elections are a numbers game and we have numbers,” he urged.
'WE CAN DO IT': Simon Woolley speaks at the event
“We mustn’t ask political parties to listen to us. We mustn’t plead with them. We must demand political, social and racial justice. This is our time. If we don’t seize it we will once again be given crumbs.”
One of the first issues on the agenda was black unemployment.
Cleverly, the PCC for Braintree, highlighted there were more black people than ever in employment under the Conservatives, although figures show that black youth unemployment particularly has increased by 49 per cent since 2010.
Bukola, who is standing in Deptford and Lewisham, declared that a Lib Dem government would put employment at the top of the agenda, but did not say how this would translate into real jobs.
Former MP Butler indicated that a Labour government would launch a guaranteed employment scheme, providing opportunities for people from marginalised backgrounds to find work, which received mixed reactions from the audience.
One of the evening’s most spirited debates followed a question of how a future British government would tackle the challenges Caribbean students face in obtaining visas to study in the UK.
The question escalated into a debate on immigration, provoking disquiet amongst the guests who felt the core point was being shrouded.
The audience went on to demand answers over the disproportionate numbers of black inmates who make up the current prison population.
While the Lib Dem and Conservative representatives noted it was a matter that needed to be examined more closely, Butler challenged the audience to become magistrates in order to overcome bias.
She argued passionately that an increase in the number of black people sitting as magistrates would have a real impact on the way cases were adjudicated.
“I can do my part in Government, but you have to meet us half way,” she urged the packed hall, stating that the only way to avoid a “pity party” was to become more hands-on.