Long road to recognition
Our political system stinks, there’s no doubt about it. Twelve weeks into being selected as the Green Party candidate for Hastings and Rye, I’d seen first hand how the system is loaded against anybody from a small radical party. It’s not just the party funding, the tribal nastiness and apathy you’re up against, it’s the sheer inertia of the first past the post system itself. But sitting in the bar on election night (no alcohol tonight) I had a sense of something shifting. It wasn’t not just the hammering of the Lib Dems, but as each result came in like never before there were signs of very real green shoots.
I’m tired and it’s only just begun. So why did I let myself in for this? I’ve been political all of my life, but up until now it’s been on the streets, up trees and in broadcasting studios. I’m a journalist, and a blacksmith, and a Romany Gypsy. I am the second ever Romany that I know of, to stand for parliament and the first to stand for the Green Party. Over the past 15 years, I’ve worked as a campaigning journalist for the Romany community for the BBC, ITV and even Sky TV. Fifteen years covering the Gypsy world, that we would call Romanistan if it formed a state, has taken me to the most deprived communities in Europe.
Romany Gypsies are excluded and poverty stricken and they have very little interest in politics. Most of us know nothing of our national anthem (Gelem, Gelem) our flag or our national day. We rarely vote in elections, though across Europe Romani politicians are beginning to gain office – particularly where we are rapidly becoming majority populations much in the same way Hispanic populations are in America. We are the EU’s largest ethnic minority now and we have lots of kids. This biological reality is also a political one. Not only are the Gypsies of Europe its most enduring issue of deprivation, our political inclusion represents a challenge to all progressive parties. So far, they haven’t done so well.
In Britain, the Labour party has at best been benign in its attitude towards us. It’s true that the nastiest party of all has been the Tory party – its 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act for example outlawed our traditional nomadic way of life. But it has been Labour politicians that have often been the most outspoken against us. Former home secretary Jack Straw said we were all thieves who “defecated in doorways”. David Blunkett sounded just like Enoch Powell when he warned of riots if more Roma migrants came to Sheffield in 2014.
There are now 600,000 Gypsies Roma or Travellers in the UK. Roughly half of us have been here for generations, but since EU expansion our numbers have doubled because of Roma migration. Our cousins are fleeing Dickensian poverty and persecution from neo-Nazis across Eastern Europe and coming west to live in urban Britain. The long-standing British population however is largely rural, preferring to live in caravans on sites that are part refuge and part ghetto.
All of these issues are ones of equality, but they are also environmental. Ring any local council and ask to speak to someone about the Gypsies and you will be put through to the environmental health department. I can’t think of a better example of institutional racism. But is it really? Let’s look at the issues.
Gypsies are disproportionately blamed for fly tipping. There is an issue with environmental crime from unauthorized encampments, but much of this stems from a national shortage of sites. Some of the perception also comes from the fact that many Gypsy families are still involved with the scrap metal trade, which is actually of course an environmental benefit.
The overnight development of Gypsy sites on greenbelt land is very controversial. It is caused by the lack of sites and will only be prevented when local councils work together with local Gypsy families to identify land. The Green council in Brighton has been instrumental in finding a new site in the South Downs, but more councils should be doing far more.
Much of these issues connect directly with the issue of land ownership in Britain and how you view the British landscape. My own view is that we are human representatives of a largely human made land. We worked in agricultural labour for hundreds of years, but when the countryside became industrialised we were forced out. The thatched cottages remain, but the people have been forced out of the picture postcard. We however went nowhere; we use direct action to reclaim that space. To my mind, it’s an environmental issue and a human rights one with a direct parallel to the struggles of indigenous people across the world.
Research by the national charity the Traveller Movement suggests that greens are far more conscious of these issues than any other party. Unlike the other parties, our 2015 manifesto says they will “strengthen Travellers’ rights to sites and guarantee proper protection of the nomadic lifestyle of Travellers while ensuring the lifestyle of the settled population is also protected”. The research also showed that Green candidates were far more favourable to the Gypsy and Traveller community.
So we’ve made a start and as the first Green candidate from the Gypsy community I hope it’s much more than that. There are 600,000 more of us who are beginning to look at the Green Party as perhaps the only party that will go out and fight for our rights. Our long struggle for rights in Europe is now 500 years old and it’s still far behind the struggle of other ethnic minorities. It’s a wonderful example of an issue that knits equality and environmental justice together. However well I will have don in the Hastings elections, I hope we can work on this issue together.