When Poland joined the European Union in 2004, huge numbers of Poles relocated to the UK. Polish residents are now the third largest foreign born ethnic group in the UK.
And while the repercussions of this never seem far away from political debate, its impact on the shape of the electorate is less often discussed.
Take the forthcoming London mayoral election for example. Many Poles have chosen to settle in the capital thanks to inexpensive transport costs from major Polish cities to London and plentiful jobs. In the 2012 mayoral election around 500,000 Eastern Europeans, most of whom were from Poland, were eligible to vote. That’s around 8 per cent of the electorate. There are no definitive figures on the number of Polish people now living in London, but some estimates now suggest it’s over 500,000.
So Polish voters could be very important in the upcoming mayoral elections between Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith. Out of the four London mayoral contests to date, Labour has won just one; the Tories with Boris Johnson have won two, and Ken Livingstone as an independent won the first. Although Labour lost in 2012, it was a closer contest than in 2008 – and indications suggest this year it will be even closer. Each candidate should try to make use of the source of Polish votes; they could be the ‘golden votes’ that make the difference.
In the 2015 general election, I spent a large numbers of hours knocking on doors and making phone calls in one of Labour’s marginal constituencies and spoke to many Polish voters about British politics and their preferences. They were engaged and often Labour-supporting. However, Polish voters were heavily underrepresented in the general election because the majority had not yet acquired British citizenship and so weren’t able to vote. It will be very different in the mayoral election where Poles, as EU citizens, can vote.
I have started contacting Polish citizens in London already. They are eager to have their say and many like what they have seen of Sadiq Khan as our future mayor of London. They prefer his goals: a home they can afford in the capital; jobs with decent pay; a modern capital transport system in a clean and green London. They prefer his vision. The task now is to harness this support.
In a tight election, the Polish electorate could make a decisive difference. The Tories won by just 62,583 votes last time. Even a medium or small turnout of Polish voters in May will amount to a much higher numbers of votes than that. In a campaign that is likely to be dominated by discussions about the UK’s place in Europe, strategists should be thinking hard about how to turn out EU citizens who are currently living in the capital.