Comment: When will we treat anti-Gypsy comments like the racism they are?
By Felicity Hannah
"Jack Straw said Gypsies steal and defecate in doorways; David Blunkett said they would cause riots in Sheffield. It isn't just the Eric Pickles of this world; it is politicians of all political colours."
So says Jake Bowers, the son of a Romani man, and now the Green party's prospective parliamentary candidate for Hastings and Rye.
He's referring to a high court ruling which found Eric Pickles had been illegally discriminating against Traveller communities, breaching both human rights and equality laws when deciding the outcome of planning appeals. That could have been a political scandal but instead many of the newspapers covered it as though Pickles were boldly protecting the country from a threat.
While Bowers' frustration is palpable, he does also sound hopeful. He's discussing Operation Traveller Vote, a project launched by The Traveller Movement and supported by the Electoral Commission as part of its efforts to boost voter turnout within minority groups.
It's been estimated that just ten per cent of Gypsy and Traveller people voted in the last election, although Matthew Brindley, policy manager for The Traveller Movement, says there is no reliable figure on the proportion who vote. "From our experience on the ground we can confidently say that a significant proportion of gypsies and travellers, most likely a majority, do not vote. However, this is changing, making the approximately 300,000 Gypsies and Travellers living in the UK an untapped resource for politicians."
It's easy to understand why Traveller communities might feel disengaged with local and national politics. Many only encounter MPs and councillors when they are supporting eviction campaigns and protests. Few politicians go out of their way to meet them and discuss the root causes of any issues.
Campaigners for travellers' rights in Westminster Hall
And this goes all the way from grassroots politics to the top. Pickles has referred to unauthorised Traveller sites as a "blight", despite chairing a 2012 ministerial working group report which found travellers often suffered poor outcomes across a range of societal measures. It concluded: "If we want to create strong communities, built on a shared set of values, we must act to ensure that no-one, or no one group, is held back or left on the margins."
Yet that political effort has been lacking in this parliament – with politicians instead seeking greater support for dealing with illegal encampments. And in the run-up to May's general and local elections, MPs and local politicians are once again more likely to be found campaigning against Travellers within their communities than starting a conversation with them.
That's something that Operation Traveller Vote – based on the work done by Operation Black Vote – hopes to change. Its aim is to encourage Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities to register to vote and engage politically, but also to stimulate and educate politicians to engage with travellers in their communities.
"We know that some politicians campaign on Gypsy and Traveller issues to garner votes. There are so many stereotypes about Gypsies and Travellers, and unfortunately a lot of similar coverage in the media; whether it's to do with crime, or public disorder, or rubbish dumping. Too often politicians play on these stereotypes and fears, and this is completely unacceptable in this day and age."
Ten years ago, the former chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, referred to anti-Traveller sentiment as the "last acceptable form of racism". Yet some politicians are still describing Gypsies and Travellers with language that would be political suicide if it was used against any other group.
For example, in 2013 Mark Coxshall, a Conservative member of Thurrock Council, referred to a planning application from a group of Travellers as "my big fat Gypsy cesspit". He didn't make these comments in private nor did they slip out in an enthusiastic after-dinner speech – they were included in a Thurrock Conservatives press release.
Of course, not all politicians see championing Traveller rights as a vote loser and condemning them as a way to garner local support. Brindley mentions Andrew George, Lib Dem MP for St Ives and chair of the all party group for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, Labour MP for Hammersmith Andy Slaughter, and Conservative peer Lord Boswell as three examples of politicians who are very supportive and proactive when it comes to championing Traveller rights.
Andrew George is a keen supporter of travellers' rights
But the fact remains that many Travellers only encounter their local politicians when they are spearheading a campaign to have them moved on, a fact hardly likely to encourage Traveller voters to engage with them.
Jake Bowers says:
"With the exception of the Greens, politicians always try to gain votes on who can be the most anti-Gypsy in this country. No wonder they don't want to vote.
"But politicians need to understand that engaging with us can be a vote winner. Where there are concentrations of Traveller families, like in Cambridgeshire and Kent, if you engage with the community you could get a lot of votes. And that's not just progressive politicians, Ukip could get on there, there's opportunity for politicians of all colours."
Political and societal change is often a slow, grinding process but the travelling community has a number of eloquent representatives who are fighting for greater political awareness of the issues affecting them.
And although getting a greater voter turnout in the next election won't be a magic wand for the issues faced by this minority, it could force politicians to pay more attention.
"We believe that increasing political participation amongst Gypsies, Travellers and Roma will make a dramatic difference to how politicians treat these communities – and more importantly how these communities treat politicians.
"A key objective of the project is to support members of these communities to become politicians themselves. This is happening more and more, examples include a Ukip MEP James Carver from a Romany Gypsy background, Swedish Roma MEP Soraya Post and a TD in the Irish Parliament from an Irish Traveller background, Padraig Mac Lochlainn."
Perhaps this could be one of the last elections where politicians feel able to campaign and win votes using anti-Traveller sentiment. It is certainly time for MPs and councillors to recognise that they have a duty to everyone in their constituencies and not just those who live in bricks.
Felicity Hannah is a freelance journalist. You can follow her on Twitter.
The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.