In 2013, when my book, No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers came out, I interviewed some elders from the community about the importance of taking part in elections and what they intended to do. Of course things have moved on since then and Operation Traveller Vote has grown far bigger than anyone could have anticipated. But I thought the extract might be interesting for people to read anyhow. Whatever you do, please vote…..
Extract from No Place to Call Home, Revival:
Religion is hugely important to many in the communities, but the struggles that Gypsies and Travellers are facing require not just spiritual answers, but political ones. For all its flaws, it seems as though the Pentecostal church will be the most likely source of political leadership in the coming years. ‘There will still be a community in one hundred years’ time, but they won’t speak much Romani, and many of them will be living in houses, with
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a Romani Bible they can’t read. The music and songs will go on,’ Donald Kenrick, the Romani scholar said. ‘Many of them will be Pentecostals.’14 Could a Martin Luther King arise out of this new church, and harness together the cords of political and religious strength? For other passions are stirring at the grass roots of the community, and though they have links to Light and Life, these passions are directed at a very different agenda.
Just a handful of English Gypsies and Irish Travellers have made it into political life in the UK over the past forty years. These include the late Charlie Smith, who was elected a Labour council- lor in the 1990s and went on to become mayor of Castle Point in 2003; a year later, he was the only English Gypsy named to sit on the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Candy Sheridan too, had twice been elected a councillor for the Liberal Democrats in North Norfolk, but stepped down just before the 2010 election. A number of organisations were becoming increasingly vocal, as well, with well-respected spokespeople, such as Candy and Joe Jones at the Gypsy Council, Siobhan Spencer at the Derbyshire Gypsy Liaison Group, Helen Jones at Leeds GATE and Yvonne McNamara at the Irish Traveller Movement. Some young people, including Blue Jones and Nadi Foy, were standing up to articulate the voice of the community.
They had allies, of course, including many of the activists from Camp Constant, who had since formed the Travellers Solidarity Network and launched the ‘Fight for Sites’ initiative. Some in the communities had welcomed this support, but just as many felt that this outside intervention would only worsen their situ- ation. In October 2012, for the one-year anniversary of the Dale Farm clearance, the activists had staged a demonstration outside the Department of Communities and Local Government. Most of the Dale Farm residents were by now sick of the media coverage, and some said they were tired of the connection with the activ- ists and felt it was not useful to their cause. In the end, although the Travellers Solidarity Network sent a minibus to Dale Farm to collect residents living roadside, only three women had come out – and all three turned pale and shocked when some of the
activists allowed the demonstration to become physical, and police began arresting people. The network remains active, and many in it are genuinely committed to greater equality for the com- munity. However, whether the network will ever be trusted by a critical mass in this very disparate grouping of peoples, bound by strong family and historical ties that are difficult to penetrate and understand, remains to be seen.
Billy Welch, for his part, wants to build on the enthusiasm from within the Gypsy and Traveller community – particularly in his hometown of Darlington. At least eleven per cent, and up to fifteen per cent, of Darlington’s population self-declare as Gypsies or Travellers. The real figure may be higher, nearer to a third, as many have moved to houses in town and may not identify them- selves for fear of harassment. Nearby Doncaster and York also have significant populations of Romani Gypsies and Travellers. This is where Billy said he intends to start his initiative, in the next round of local elections.
‘We have gathered together influential people in the Gypsy and Traveller community, the shera rom, and the big men from the Irish Traveller community,’ he explained. They had recruited, for instance, ‘Big Dan’ Rooney, a one-time bare-knuckle boxer who was now a prominent preacher with Light and Life, as well as the Irish Traveller Alexander J. Thompson. Billy’s cousins, Davey Jones and Jackie Boyd from the Light and Life church were part of the conversation too. ‘We are all talking to each other about what needs to change,’ Billy said. ‘We have all these Gypsy and Traveller organisations, around 120 all around the country, and yet they aren’t run by people like us, the elders. The government loves a “yes man”, so they have built up a white man’s structure. We are going to change all that.’ His big dream is that his people do it for themselves by being less secretive and engaging more with settled society. He wants to launch an Obama-style ‘Yes, We Can’ political campaign among his people, starting with getting people to the polls. ‘We need a voice,’ he says, ‘So we need to vote.’
Billy estimated that close to a million people in the UK could claim some Gypsy or Traveller origin – a potential electorate
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that he said was all but ignored. Even if the figure were nearer to the official estimate of some 300,000, if the community voted together, this number could tip seats to preferred candidates in some areas. ‘Eighty per cent of our people live in houses now, and they don’t put that they are Gypsy on the census. We think the gorgers [settled people] can do what they want with their world; we live in our own world. My people aren’t interested, but they will have to be, the world isn’t the same place it was fifteen years ago. They are smothering us with laws and restrictions. We’ve got no voice in Parliament. When the authorities come down on us, I want my people to vote; I want the government to know how many of us there are. When there is a tight election, we could be the difference to someone getting kicked out. That is the only way we will get treated as equals, have some value in society. We need to register to vote. We are going to have to get involved in their world as well.’
He decided to launch his voter drive at the Appleby Fair in June 2013. Twenty people, some from the Light and Life church and others from clans from around the country, would distribute leaflets and talk to people as they wandered the fair grounds. ‘I’m the shera rom of my tribe, and I’m talking to the heads of all the other families. Some of them cover big areas, some small, but they are all influential. The communities will listen to us. We will decide which party is the best for us and this will be a collective decision. In some areas, with around one million of us, we can swing a vote; round here we can definitely swing it.’ He had heard from families in Scotland and Wales who supported his political campaigning as well.
Billy was motivated to become politically engaged by an expe- rience some twenty years before. He was on his way home from a business trip to Germany, and was set upon by a National Front gang. He was beaten so badly that his family didn’t recognise him when they visited him in hospital. Yet no action had been taken against the perpetrators of the attack. Then, in 2011, his outrage was renewed when he was barred from his local pub on the grounds that he was a Gypsy. Billy fought that case with the
aid of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, but he was aware that, up and down the country, Gypsies and Travellers were being targeted for their ethnicity and routinely refused access to hotels, restaurants, pubs and clubs. He wanted to change that – make a stand, not just for himself, but for the community.
The attitude of Gypsies and Travellers needed to change, he explained. ‘Our people have had a very coloured view of author- ity. The wider world has been out there and we have lived in our little world and thought, What they do doesn’t concern us, that nothing that we would ever do would influence anything in the community, so we have just got on with our life. But things have changed. A lot has happened in the wider world. It’s about time we started taking charge of our own destiny, started to influence. If we don’t vote, we will never improve the situation,’ he said.
‘We live in a democracy and we don’t use it. Because we don’t vote, we don’t have a value. Until we become worth something in electoral terms, to both local government and national govern- ment, they will continue to privilege the settled community over us. We are our own worst enemy, and that needs to change.’ Other groups were also planning to help – Simon Woolley, Director of Operation Black Vote, fresh from working on the Obama re-election campaign, had offered advice. The Gypsy Council was helping to register the residents roadside at Dale Farm too – in an auda- cious plan to vote in Len Gridley onto Basildon Council in 2014, to question the eviction and the money spent.
Buy No Place in any good bookshop, or online at Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/No-Place-Call-Home-Travellers/dp/1851689494