Elections 2014: Poles seeking to get their voices heard

By Lila Allen
BBC News

image copyrightOther
image captionGeorge Byczynski is concerned that Poles are being singled out in the debate over immigration

May's local and European elections will see record numbers of Poles going to the ballot box in the UK. With up to half a million votes up for grabs, is it time British politicians took them seriously?

George Byczynski came to Britain five years ago to study.

He should be concentrating on exams but, as political leader of Polish Professionals, a networking organisation for Poles working in the UK, he is also involved in leading the vote campaign.

"Poles were pushed to politics, not by their own choice," he says when we meet in Ognisko, the Polish Hearth Club.

The building, in the heart of London's museum district, is a nod to historic links between Britain and Poland.

Historic relationship

As Britain's ally during World War Two, Poland set up its government in exile in London after France fell and its soldiers and airmen fought alongside their British comrades against the Nazis but, for some, this historic relationship has soured. After 10 years of EU membership, Poles are increasingly concerned about the way they are portrayed.

"You would switch on the TV and hear Polish people are responsible for certain problems. They are child benefit abusers, and some other ridiculous things," Mr Byczynski says.

From the prime minister's suggestion that he would like to see EU immigrants banned from claiming child benefits when he renegotiates Britain's EU membership, to Ed Miliband claiming Labour got it wrong by allowing unrestricted immigration, many Poles felt themselves the focus of problems, their contribution to Britain widely ignored.

In February, a demonstration was held outside Downing Street, after a Polish motorcyclist in Dagenham was attacked.

image captionDaniel Kawczynski believes there will be more MPs like him of Polish origin

An open letter sent to David Cameron, Ed Miliband and UKIP leader Nigel Farage, expressed fears that the rhetoric around immigration was giving way to xenophobia.

The feeling that Poles were being singled out is shared by Mr Byczynski.

"Even if there are some problems with immigration or the European Union, then you shouldn't target one minority and name them, scapegoat them," he says. "I think the only reason is because Poles do not have enough representation here, people that would defend them."

But that could be beginning to change.

Lucas Szlek came to the UK from Poland as a 16-year-old with his parents in 2001. Having spent most of his adult life in Britain, he is standing as a Labour council candidate in Southampton.

Process of integration

He describes himself as a "Polish born, British politician", and says he wants to represent the society he now calls home.

"I think voting in the democratic election is part of integrating with British society," he says.

"I believe lots of Polish people share the same principles as the British people and I think part of integration with a society is to contribute to the further decision making in Britain for everyone."

Research by Polish City Club and Ipsos Mori suggests 72% of Polish people currently in the UK intend to stay. Is Mr Szlek pointing to a future where greater Polish representation will be a natural element of Britain's political scene?

Daniel Kawczynski, for now Britain's only MP of Polish origin, hopes so. "I do see Parliament changing and evolving… to properly reflect the changing nature of British society," he says.

Other minority groups have set an example, he says, by "standing for election, getting involved in political parties and being part of our mainstream political debate".

He adds: "We haven't seen so much of that from the Polish community."

He recently hosted a debate in Parliament where representatives of the three main parties laid out their offers to the Poles.

"I felt as somebody of Polish origin myself that we ought to be encouraging these Poles, particularly those that are intending to stay in the United Kingdom, to get involved."

'Lot of talent'

Beyond the Polish plumber stereotype, Mr Kawczysnki is keen to point to the pool of potential the community offers.

image copyrightOgnisko restaurant and club
image captionThe majority of Poles living in the UK expect to stay

"I meet a lot of young Poles… in many cases they are upper middle management and they are getting into quite senior positions within different sectors… there's a lot of talent there.

"If we can encourage some of them to stand as local councillors, and if I can encourage some of them to stand to try to be Members of Parliament then I see that as a very good thing."

Although he acknowledges there have been some examples of anti-Polish sentiment, he sees his own experience as an example of British tolerance.

"When I was first standing for politics somebody said to me, 'Right, fine but you've got to ditch that surname,'" he recalls.

"I refused to change my name, and the people of Shrewsbury voted for me, somebody who was not only not from Shrewsbury originally, but wasn't from the country originally…. That shows that extraordinary British character," he says.

Getting out the vote

For now, the focus is on getting the Polish out to vote.

There is a plethora of organisations involved, from Polish Professionals, New Europeans, Polish City Club, to an online campaign Vote!

More than 100,000 fliers have been distributed through Polish parishes and adverts taken out in the Polish press. Facebook groups publish news of Polish candidates standing across the country and there is even a hashtag, #PolesinUK.

The 2011 census showed there are more than 600,000 Poles in the UK, and all EU citizens have the right to vote in both local and EU elections.

"These elections definitely will be those elections that Poles participate in, in the largest numbers, I think, throughout the last 10 years," says Mr Byczynski.

Not least because the issues affect them.

"We cannot talk about relations with the EU and ignore the voice of the main immigrant group,"" he says.

Marginal seats

But before it is assumed this means votes in the bag for the pro-EU campaign, the research by Polish City Club and Ipsos Mori paints a more complicated picture.

They found that half of Poles in the UK were intending to vote, but 50% of those were yet to decide who for.

"If the parties canvass their votes, they will receive support - even from a minority group called the Polish friends of UKIP," Roger Casale, chairman of New Europeans, says about the Polish community.

"Very few politicians seem to have understood this. Yet the number and the concentration of Polish expat votes will change the outcome of elections in many marginal seats.

"Some Polish candidates have enough support to win even as independents."