Operation Traveller Vote

2 April 2015
Operation Traveller Vote

Above: the Traveller Movement are encouraging anyone who hasn't yet registered to vote to visit gov.uk/register-to-vote to register so they can make sure their vote counts at the election. Picture: Philip Wolmuth

  • To vote in the general election, you must register by April 20th
  • Areas with big Traveller communities can swing the vote
  • Travellers can help "be the makers of their own destiny," says Traveller Movement
  • "No reason we can’t have Gypsy Roma Traveller politicians ... The abilities and skills are there"

WITH just three weeks to go until the general election, anyone who wants to vote needs to make sure they've registered by 20th April. Who gets into power will have a massive impact on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people, and the Traveller Movement is taking the message to all of them with its Operation Traveller Vote

Rosie Toohey is a 17-year-old Irish Traveller  and has been an intern at the Traveller Movement since September. “I really enjoy it,” says Rosie. “I’ve been involved in Operation Traveller Vote, which is the biggest campaign we’ve got at the moment. I’ve been involved in the annual conference, youth meetings, I’ve been to the Houses of Parliament.” And what does the future hold? “When I finish my internship I want to go to college and do an access course, then go on to university and study community.”

Rosie's aiming high, but a lot of Gypsies and Travellers still feel completely outside of politics, says Traveller Movement CEO Yvonne MacNamara. "In order to change the status quo and how Travellers are viewed in the media, how they are viewed by a lot of stakeholder groups we work with, we really needed Travellers understanding and engaging much more with the political process," she says.

"In the run up to the general election we felt, given what had happened in the previous general election and the stereotypes that were bandied about, some of the hate speech that was bandied about, we felt it was time that the Traveller community themselves took very much of a lead," says Yvonne.

"With all that in mind, we decided to embark on a national Operation Traveller Vote campaign. It’s about self advocacy. It’s all about the community understanding how important it is for them to vote. They are the makers of their own destiny, in a sense.

"If they understand the political process, particularly in areas that are marginal, and there are very large Traveller communities, they have the power to swing that vote. And by swinging that vote, they could possibly get a lot of the local provisions that they actually need. They can be going in and demanding better provision in terms of accommodation, or better provision in relation to education and health, in relation to other communities. 

"Looking at other communities, Operation Black Vote has been going for a number of years, and there’s no point re-inventing the wheel, it’s about looking at models that actually work. And that’s a model of community empowerment that certainly has worked within the Black community. And if you look across the political spectrum, there are quite a few Black candidates, Black politicians, Black MPs coming to the fore.  

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"In areas that are marginal, and there are very large Traveller communities, they have the power to swing that vote," says Yvonne MacNamara. Picture: Philip Wolmuth

"When we think of Diane Abbott MP, people like that, there’s no reason why we can’t have politicians within the Gypsy Roma Traveller community. Because the abilities and skills are there, but there are Gypsy Roma and Traveller people who don’t feel that they can stand up and be counted yet. For whatever reason.

"Some of those reasons are personal to themselves. And some of that is because of the bigotry and racism that are leveled against Gypsy Roma and Traveller communities. So what we wanted to do was challenge a lot of the hate speech and prejudice that actually is out there," says Yvonne.

Aisde from Operation Traveller Vote, the Traveller Movement has been successful in fighting racism against Gypsies and Travellers in the media, the high street and in local politics. What's been the recipe for this success?

“I think a lot of it has to do with [the fact that] we’ve employed a racial justice approach to our work," says Yvonne. "And that’s very much about going out and working directly with the communities and making them aware of their rights and entitlements. So there’s a lot of grass roots work that does go on. A lot of that work isn’t with the usual suspects like the bigger organisations, it’s with smaller organisations and individual Travellers that most of us would never have heard of. And linking them, and ensuring that they have the confidence to challenge decisions at the local level. Having some kind of expertise in the thing.

"So for example, a lot of what Mike [Doherty] does with his media background, is being able to get the local media involved and highlighting those decisions. But taking that up to another level, a lot of the stuff that we’ve done with Ofcom, the Advertising Standards Agency, Channel 4, all that kind of stuff, again we’ve been able to I suppose capitalize on other people’s skills and abilities. Legal expertise is needed, and we’ve been very, very lucky in having a fantastic board of trustees, who are legally qualified and have been able to guide and support a lot of the work within the organization, and offer, where possible, pro bono support.  Because a lot of that stuff isn’t funded.

"And there are many more legal challenges we could be making, but the funding isn’t available. So I think our success comes from a number of different angles. It is about the pro bono support, but it is very much about engaging with communities, it’s a different approach. Rather than hosting lots of different types of events and bringing communities together in one big room, we’ve had a very different advocacy strategy in place, going out to places off the beaten track, and identifying particular cases where we can see there’s huge potential in them," she says.

Is the future brighter for Travellers?

“It’s a difficult one to answer,” says Yvonne. “Yes and no. I think the future is brighter when people are equipped with the knowledge and skills to meet a challenge, and they have good advocates fighting for them.  And I really do think it’s about education and training, and making people fully aware of their rights and entitlements. But if we are going to kind of take the back seat attitude, and say some of these things can’t be done and the community aren’t interested, then we’re leaving the community without any kind of protection. And things will get worse.

"Often you will hear that it’s very hard to engage with the Gypsy Roma Traveller communities. Well, I would say that sometimes we make that engagement too hard ourselves. It’s about the approach you actually take, and I think community advocacy underpins everything we do, and that’s absolutely vital. That you’re bringing the communities along with you, rather than developing without the community. And listening to what people want.

"Now, very few Travellers would have actually come up to us and said, “Well, we want to do a lot more about voting,” but packaging everything we’re hearing from the community, they do want to know about their rights and entitlements. And this is another way of making them fully aware of those rights and entitlements, and getting them to see the power of their political engagement, and the changes that it can bring."