Election '97: Disaffected minorities try DIY politics

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The Independent Online
The might of the majority is pressing hard on the mind of Pankaj "Peter" Patel, the leader of the Fourth party - the self-styled voice of the ethnic voter.

In the rough trade of modern politics, Mr Patel thinks that minority voters get a raw deal. His thesis is simple. Minorities account for 5 per cent of the population and should have about 30 MPs in parliament.

Labour's 100 target seats contain only one Asian candidate who, along with two black and two other Asians in safe seats, would join the party's current five non-white MPs. This is better than the Tories. They will probably lose Nirj Diva, their only Asian MP, in Brentford and Isleworth.

Local hopefuls, Mr Patel claims, have been thwarted by party politics. Even where ethnic voters wield disproportionate clout because they are concentrated in one area, they are rarely accorded the privilege of being represented by a home-grown activist.

He claims there were 10 ethnic Labour candidates for Sparkbrook and Smallheath - the Birmingham seat he intends to stand in - which ended up with a neighbouring MP, Roger Godsiff, being nominated.

Worse still, says Mr Patel, the Labour party, the traditional home of the ethnic electorate, neglects the immigrant constituency until it needs its votes. "The only time those guys come to help us is four weeks before the election," says Mr Patel.

"We are going to field candidates in two constituencies - Perry Barr and Sparkbrook and Smallheath - where ethnic minorities are either the majority or constitute a sizeable minority," he says.

"People here have been let down by the main parties - they are only concerned with Middle England's problems."

The Fourth Party was born out of a series of editorials Mr Patel wrote in his own publication, Midland Asian, last year. Calling for a set of proposals that would tackle law and order, education and cure the ailing health service, Mr Patel came to the conclusion that the traditional parties would not offer practical policies when they could buy off sections of the ethnic community with cheap promises.

"The Labour Party always talks of tackling the Kashmiri problem or the concerns of Muslim voters. The Conservatives court the upwardly mobile East African Asian vote. It is a case of divide and conquer," said Mr Patel.

In the fractured world of minority politics, race matters. Mr Patel is a Gujurati and a Hindu. He is unlikely to win support from the mainly Kashmiri population of Sparkbrook and Smallheath. To do that he has enlisted a Muslim accountant, Javed Akther.

Not everyone, Mr Patel admits, can be catered for. "We want to represent all immigrant communities - that includes Afro-Caribbeans, Irish and the Chinese. But practically, it is a question of time. We will concentrate on the south Asian vote for this election. If we win that it means 90 per cent of the minority vote in Sparkbrook - that translates to 45 per cent of the overall vote."

This rainbow-coalition theory of politics is difficult to promote. In a Hindu temple later in the day Mr Patel is trying to soothe a group of Hindu voters concerned about his support for Irish rights. "I thought they were blended in," says one man. "They are fairly blended but there are a lot who are not," explains Mr Patel. "How blended do you have to be?" asks one old lady.

The Labour candidate for Sparkbrook and Smallheath, solidly Labour at the last election with a majority of 13,000, is unimpressed. "I want to represent the whole community," says Roger Godsiff " Not just half of it."

Although Mr Patel insists he has never been involved in politics before, on the stump is he is a natural performer. He has already learnt how to cut the cloth of his conversation to impress the electorate.

In the heart of his would-be seat, Mr Patel is busy telling a white woman that "your concerns are my concerns".

To a group of older Gujurati women at a bus stop he is explaining - in outraged Gujurati - how young Australians manage to enter Britain because their grandparents were born here.

Punters, tired of being promised much and delivered little, warmed to Mr Patel's pitch. "I am not voting for Labour anymore. I did so because my father voted Labour and so did my uncle," says a Bengali shopkeeper on the Stratford Road.

"But nothing seems to change around here, so I do not think they will get my vote."