Andy Shallice, an socialist activist based in Sheffield, spoke to Solidarity about the background to David Blunkett’s recent attacks on Roma migrants living in Page Hall, Sheffield.
In the original Radio Sheffield interview Blunkett did [about frictions between Roma and other communities living in Page Hall] there were no quotes about race riots.
Yet the Daily Telegraph picked up on this in their subsequent report of the radio interview. To me the reporting is part of what the right wing press will be doing for the next six months up to the European elections.
It is what Blunkett said about the Roma having to “change their culture” that is slightly more frightening.
Blunkett is not ignorant about Roma culture and the context of Eastern Europe. He has been to Bulgaria and Romania on visits recently, he has met government officials and people from Romani civic organisations. He says he doesn’t expect a mass arrival of migrants from Bulgaria and Romania in January 2014 [when immigration rules relax for those two recent entrants to the EU]. He has distanced himself from the right-wing scare campaign. He has been supportive of community organisations who are working to improve the situation for everyone in the country.
But he accepts the local popular view that Page Hall has “gone downhill” since Roma migrants arrived. There is a back story to this which people need to know. Ten years ago Page Hall was marked down for demolition under the Pathfinder Programme. 600 existing houses would be knocked down and the land used to create a so-called “mixed community”, of owner-occupier and rented homes. Because of local pressure that programme never went ahead.
Now house prices have dropped. Buy-to-let landlords have bought up lots of housing. 35% (up from 10%) of houses are now privately-rented accommodation. The houses are badly managed and run down. That is why a big concentration of migrant families are living there —it is the only place they can go.
Blunkett has never really understood the changing nature of the working class and what diversity means in practice. He has a traditional view of the working-class — manual workers, self-educated, striving to “get on”. The world has moved on in the last 30 years. We have seen mass migration and globalisation. And massive cuts have affected all working-class people, all communities.
Blunkett has been running a campaign against the British government, for the UK and get European structural development money to support social projects. And he is right, such money might help Roma inclusion and general social progress. The government does not want to go to the EU on this because of its political stance against the EU.
Stupidly, Blunkett has tried to use shock tactics. He says to the government, sort yourself out and get some money to Sheffield (he mentioned the Migrant Impact Fund) or bad things will happen. But his words are divisive and irresponsible. The actions and behaviours of some people cannot be assumed to be the culture of the many.
No matter how grim it may be for Roma living in this country — the overcrowding in these rented homes — it is incomparably better than where they have come from.
Slovakian Roma have no running water, no electricity, no chance of work, and benefits are being cut. In 18 settlements, including big cities, local authorities have built walls, brick walls, to separate Roma communities from “non-Roma” people.
Here the opportunities for work are not good —low paid, casualised. But in nooks and crannies — the local pizza outlet, the corner shop, local builders’ cash-in-hand, the chicken processing plant — Roma men are finding some employment.
Page Hall is a place with dense housing. It is an intensively-lived community and actually it has always been like that. There is an increased use of the street, but at a time when all local facilities are being cut. Youth services have been decimated. Support for people in private sector housing has been cut. Street cleaning has been hugely reduced — once streets were cleaned four times a week; now it is every 13 weeks.
Romani parents have been labelled as people who do not send their kids to school. It is untrue: the average attendance of Romani children at the catchment primary school is exactly the same as other children. But if migrant families arrive mid-year, children can be placed in schools two miles away from where they live. Naturally these families struggle to get children to school on time, particularly if siblings are at another school.
The Roma are really under the cosh, in eastern/central Europe and in the west, and do not have political organisations to fight back.
The left should protest, but in my view the emphasis should be on the idea of pan-European unity, organising across Europe. Withdrawal from Europe is going to be pushed by all the right-wing parties in the next months. The left should not do the same.