I was stunned by this, I can tell you.
The image is gloomy: what may once have been a pleasant wooded park blighted by a large pile of rubbish. Untethered dogs roam in front of three caravans and vehicles are parked carelessly on the grass.
I mean - using a contentious image for cheap local political purposes? Surely not the Liberal Democrats? Actually, it wasn't Birmingham's own brand of Lib Dems, but the ones in Highbury East in Islington and the offending picture has now been removed from their website. The article remains, which continues to paint as serious policy what appears to have been a (poor) joke on the part of a Labour councillor. Across the country, it seems that Liberal Democrats have made much political hay out of proposed or rumoured traveller sites -
A headline on one local party's website in Berkshire calls Travellers and Gypsies who arrived in the area "unwelcome guests" in a headline. The same site brands the appearance of another group as an "incursion". In Leicestershire a plan to create more sites is heralded as a "bombshell" and "madness".While the LibDems are supposed to be committed to localism, this hardly ties in with their own Policy Paper dating from 2003, which notes
'There is a need for an additional 1,000 to 2,000 sites [for travellers], plus an extra 2,500 transit or stopping pitches, over the next five years’
and a traveller's website adds
The Liberal Democrats at a national level have supported the Government’s accommodation proposals... Some politicians at a local and national level, however, have not been so sympathetic
Candy Sheridan, a Liberal Democrat councillor in North Norfolk and from an Irish travelling family herself, explains
'I sit on a planning committee and whenever the word Gypsy or traveller comes in, you get hundreds of people coming to public meetings and everybody is goaded up to say no to planning permission.... Councillors who have signed up to creating new sites have lost their seats. What you have to do is take the responsibility away from local politicians.'
Meanwhile, over in Chippenham, the gypsies aren't under attack from the Liberal Democrats, but they are taking pot shots at the Tory parliamentary candidate, where their leaflets refer to 'the Conservatives' Devon farmer.' On the one hand, this is an absolutely accurate statement, as Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones is indeed both a Conservative and a farmer in Devon, so highlighting his 'outsider' status is an entirely legitimate tactic, but he is also black, so even more of an outsider in a community where ethnic minorities as a whole make up around 2.5% of the population, less than a third of the national average.
'Their strategy is: foreigner, outsider. It's not exactly racist, but ...'
Intentionally or otherwise - and I'd like to hope that it is an accident - using that particular tactic certainly blows a dog whistle for those who want to hear it.
I did like the honest opinion of the Lib Dems in Cornwall, where one of the opposition candidates was described in a Focus leaflet as a 'greasy-haired twat.' Far better to get the opinions out in the open, I think.