Black-led churches to wake 'sleeping giant' of British politics

By Robert Pigott
Religious affairs correspondent, BBC News

Image caption,
Bishop Jonathan Jackson believes it is a 'Christian duty' for his congregation to vote

Sunday worship at the New Testament Church of God in Ladywood is loud and buzzing with energy.

No sign here of the social problems blighting this inner city district of Birmingham.

Amid black communities wrestling with poor housing, low educational qualifications, high unemployment and crime, churches have often been a story of success.

"The Rock" as this church is known is one of hundreds of black-majority pentecostal and evangelical churches whose numbers are growing, while around them congregations in the older denominations dwindle.

Their preaching has often been practical - against drug-taking, knife-carrying and promiscuity.

Now however, comes a far more ambitious plan, to create a new black electorate of a million voters in two years and to swing the outcome in dozens of constituencies at the next general election.

Bishop Jonathan Jackson tells his congregation: "Your vote is not just a right, it's a Christian duty. Register to vote, and become the change you want to see."

Image caption,
Theo (left) and Ellis say they have never voted as they 'don't see the point'

'Sceptical of authority'

Listening are the Griffiths family, including two sons Theo and Ellis, who are registered to vote but have never done so.

They are part of what are often extremely low turn-out figures for the black electorate, which activists say means politicians routinely overlook their needs.

Theo's reasons for staying away from the ballot are typical: "I don't see the point. Whichever way you vote the same people are in power."

Ellis adds: "People our age don't see politicians are being interested in them. That's why I don't vote."

Mr Jackson says many young black people are reluctant even to join the electoral roll.

"People have been very sceptical of authority. To be registered would be to be on the map, to be known to be seen and many would not be registered just to avoid that.

"This suspicion of authority, which has given you no help in the past, means there are many who would feel safer in anonymity rather than being registered," he says.

After the service in a meeting room at the church a political activist, Desmond Jaddoo, is creating new voters.

Image caption,
The black votes campaign hopes to harness the energy of congregations such as at the Redeemed Christian Church of God

Michael and Deal are completing Birmingham City Council's voter registration form while Mr Jaddoo watches.

He claims that unless church leaders can bring black people to the ballot box, they will continue to face the discrimination built into the economic and social system that is reflected in deprivation, poor health and education, and mass unemployment.

'Structured voice'

"There has been a mass wave of redundancies recently and many black people have been made redundant ahead of others, for the simple reason that it's perceived that they'll just go quietly.

"Without that structured voice we just get overlooked," Mr Jaddoo adds.

In Hackney in east London, another district where deprivation and a concentration of black residents coincide, Operation Black Vote is taking the same message onto the streets.

The lobby group's director, Simon Woolley, approaches local people to ask if they are ready to cast their vote - not for a particular party, but simply to be heard.

"If you don't vote, you don't exist," he tells them.

A man pulls up in his car and asks: "Is something wrong?".

"We're not voting so we're not getting justice and what are we doing about it brother,?" Mr Woolley says.

The man in the car considers. "Nothing", he replies.

Mr Woolley ends up in a bleak estate of 1950s brick flats clustered round a patch of grass, in the process of being abandoned.

Most of the windows have been filled in with concrete blocks, but here and there lights shine in the dusk.

Race penalty

A group of children are kicking a football around between playground equipment in a wire cage.

"When we look at the houses behind us, it's symptomatic of the many people who are being failed," says Mr Woolley.

Image caption,
Simon Woolley says the black vote could decide who 'wins and loses' the election in places like Hackney in London

"It affects white people too, but there is a race penalty.

"When we look at the data, for housing, education, health, and unemployment at 55% among young black men, we can see the systemic discrimination against black people.

"We want not to have to ask for solutions to these problems but to demand them," Mr Woolley adds.

"In over a hundred seats, the black and minority ethnic vote could decide who wins and who loses. We have the real power to demand not only hope but also solutions."

But is the black vote not concentrated in safe Labour seats where it can have relatively little effect?

Simon Woolley claims that a powerful voting block would force all parties to listen to the community, and that no one party can take its support for granted.

Now, church leaders - such as Jonathan Jackson - believe joining forces with Operation Black Vote could have a dramatic effect on the campaign.

"The church has a little more gravitas or credit, and history, in the community" says Mr Jackson.

"Going through difficult times with people breeds trust. We are there at the best and the worst times [in people's lives] so it has some credit with people who might want to vote."

At the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Hilltop in West Bromwich they are dancing in the aisles. An extravagant conga overcome by the spirit and throbbing gospel music.

The drummer beating out the rhythm of worship is another unregistered black man, Matthew Francis.

He has heard the exhortations to sign up before, but this time he is taking notice.

It is, says Mr Francis, because of the moral authority that goes with being the pastor.

"He's a step higher... we look up to the pastor", he says.

"As a leader you will have an authority over your followers. It's up to you to reason 'how's this going to benefit me', but he is telling you that it's good for you. That's why people will vote."

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