CAMPAIGNS: OBV turnout boost in BNP target seats - Local Elections

Operation Black Vote (OBV) was formed in 1996 to campaign and encourage black and other ethnic minority communities to take part in the democratic process.

The organisation, which is funded by trusts, had been engaged in general elections, the Welsh Assembly elections, local elections and European elections. Many of its activists work for free.

But following the race riots in northern English towns last summer and the recent growth in support for the British National Party (BNP) and far-right views, the local elections on 2 May took on a greater significance.

This significance became more acute only days before polling day when France's far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen made front-pages worldwide: voter apathy and the rise of the far-right in town halls throughout Europe had given fascists a global platform. This lurch to the right indicated to the BNP that its best opportunity for many years to gain a substantial foothold in a number of disaffected towns and cities was now for the taking.

Oldham, Burnley, Sunderland and south and east London - constituencies where racial tension occasionally bubbles over into violence in the streets - were the locations in which the BNP expected to win at least ten seats.

The news from across the Channel had put the BNP in buoyant mood. OBV declared that every vote would now count if the spectre of fascism in English town halls was to be countered.

If the BNP was to win ten seats, British politics and British society would 'clearly be in racial turmoil', according to OBV.

OBV felt that some Black and Minority Ethnic communities (BME) would be in fear for their wellbeing, others would be compelled to go on the offensive, often using violence. Britain's multi-cultural identity would be undermined, OBV argued.

With average turnout figures in the last local election being just 25 per cent in the vulnerable areas, voter apathy could spell success for a highly-mobilised BNP.


To ensure a large, or even record, turnout in those towns and cities where the BNP had fielded candidates. In order to comprehensively defeat the BNP, white communities would also be targeted.

Strategy and Plan

With a small budget and a core team of only 20 activists at its disposal, OBV devised a national media campaign and created an 'active community unit' to work at street-level and persuade people to vote.

A poster ad van was used to spearhead local community initiatives.

The vehicle formed the core of the campaign as it could be driven into the heart of the communities, and was available without breaking the bank.

The poster's message had to be powerful. After hearing an OBV activist use a phrase by 18th century parliamentary orator Edmund Burke in a speech, posters and flyers were designed with the strapline: 'All it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing: Thursday 2 May. Use your vote.

Use your voice'.

Press releases to national media were dispatched and the campaign team used media contacts to elevate the story wherever possible.

Half-page ads featuring the poster van appeared in local papers in Burnley, Oldham and south London.

Work on the ground saw national organisations, including The 1990 Trust and National Assembly Against Racism, collaborate with other local groups to form a 'coalition against racism'.

As the ad van travelled around the targeted communities and activists handed out leaflets and posters. The ad van was used to provide the focal point for activists to engage in dialogue on local and national issues.

The local press was informed for photo opportunities.

Measurement and Evaluation

Voter turnout for BME communities and wider society could be used to measure how effective the campaign was locally, and how well the local and national media responded to the PR effort. Ultimately, measuring success was based upon whether or not the OBV and its collation partners kept the BNP out of British councils.

The Daily Mail, Daily Express, The Guardian, Radio Four, Radio 5 Live, Sky News, BBC North and almost all the BME media covered the ad van story.

This blanket coverage was mirrored in respective local media.


The BNP failed to win seats in its targeted areas, specifically Oldham, Sunderland and south and east London - however, BNP councillors won three of its targeted six seats in Burnley. One of the BNP Burnley seats was won by just four votes after five recounts.

OBV admits that this is recorded as a failure on its part as a single BNP victory is deemed 'one too many'. OBV calls this a 'bleak picture', but there were 'silver linings'.

The BME turnout in the targeted areas was a massive and unprecedented 70 per cent. The ad van campaign was seen as instrumental in informing people and encouraging them to use their vote on election day.

Voter turnout overall in the targeted areas was 50 per cent higher than average recent turnout in local elections.

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