Black voters targeted in election drive

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The three main party leaders are to be targeted today in a campaign to persuade black voters to go to the polls at the general election.

Operation Black Vote will be aimed partly at 56 marginal seats where the black population is far larger than the sitting MP's majority. Among the areas being visited by the campaign are Hayes and Harlington, seat of the Conservative Terry Dicks, and Dulwich and West Norwood, being fought by Labour's health spokeswoman Tessa Jowell.

Posters to be unveiled today will encourage black voters to get in touch with John Major, Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown and to ask them about things that are important to them.

Among the issues that could be raised are Conservative legislation on immigration and asylum-seekers, Labour's suspension of local parties amid allegations of Asian membership rigging and suggestions that some Liberal Democrat supporters were racists.

Today's launch will be attended by a number of black celebrities including comic actor Felix Dexter, showjumper Oliver Skeet and broadcaster Trevor Phillips.

The campaign has been set up by the democratic reform group Charter '88 with the 1990 Trust, a group campaigning for a stronger black voice in politics. It aims to encourage more black people, especially the young, to register to vote. Operation Black Vote has already begun operating in its target areas, inviting black people to meetings at which they have the opportunity to challenge all the candidates in their constituencies.

In addition to the posters being launched today, the campaign also hopes to bring out cinema advertisements if sufficient funds can be raised.

A poll carried out last year by MORI showed that only 40 per cent of black people were certain that they would vote at the general election. Among the 18 to 24 age group, just 16 per cent were sure they would take part.

Simon Woolley, co-ordinator of the campaign, said that the Conservatives had failed to put any black candidates into safe seats for this election. Instead, prominent Labour MPs including Bernie Grant, Clare Short and Jack Straw will be challenged by black Conservatives.

The Conservatives' only Asian MP, Nirj Deva, is likely to lose his Brentford and Isleworth seat, while Labour will increase its existing five black MPs to seven or eight. No other parties have any black MPs.

Mr Woolley said black people were being asked to "bypass the red tape and go direct to the top" to get answers to their questions.

"What we want to do is to inspire people to take part in the democratic process. For many people who feel disenfranchised this will be a first step into political activity," he said.