“Glosuj na mnie!”*

Observations on the Welsh Assembly

The two languages Welsh and Polish have a similar tongue-twisting affinity for double and triple consonants. For the people of the largest town in North Wales, they are all too different.

Independent candidate John Marek, Wrexham's sitting Welsh Assembly member now fighting for re-election, has jettisoned the usual etiquette of duplicating his election leaflets in English and Welsh, and has opted for English and Polish. This year's Assembly elections are the first since the 2004 expansion of the EU and the arrival in Wrexham of 8,000 Poles with voting rights in local and European elections.

We're used to thinking of ethnic minority votes as wielded by the bedded-in second-generation Muslims or Asians of Birmingham or Tower Hamlets who've been in the constituency long enough to have bones to pick with the authorities. But how will the newly arrived Poles of Wrexham vote?

"I think Marek will get a lot of votes from Polish people," says Monika Czara, who runs the Polish shop in Wrexham where Welsh, Poles and John Marek himself buy their sausages and bread. "He helped one of my friends who was being exploited and gets a lot of loyalty that way."

PC Keith Sinclair - a man popularly regarded as monitor of the Polish pulse after he taught himself their language in his spare time, agrees: "The Polish population is very large - what used to be Marek's party office is now a registered Polish drinking club: Club Sakorski. This lot are mostly of voting age."

So, though they are young and in need of a political voice, are they as apathetic as their deeper-rooted counterparts? No fear. Monika Thomas, a translator of job applications and official letters for the 80 per cent of Wrexham's Poles who don't speak English, says their experience of the suffocated democracy of the cold war and communism makes the Poles enthusiastic voters: "We are very political people. We like to be involved." But involved they are not. Other than Marek's overtures, the Polish community - the largest minority in Wrexham at around 10 per of the population - is by no means a coherent voting bloc.

"Poles don't even know they can vote," Thomas says. "They come to my office asking what they need to do, and sometimes assume they are not allowed to vote. I tell them they can, and that there is not just one party in Wrexham, but lots to choose from."

Wrexham's other candidates have, paradoxically, seen the low registration levels as reason to translate fewer leaflets, not more. The Labour candidate, Lesley Griffiths, contacted Thomas, unsure whether to have her election literature translated, since the number of Poles registered to vote was only 1,000. Thomas finally convinced her, but no English words arrived to be translated.

"They are afraid to translate," Thomas says, "because of what happened with the fishing sign."

Last month, the Environment Agency put up signs to control fishing, at a lake near Wrexham, in English and Polish but without accompanying Celtic characters. Anglers whose first language is Welsh now vow to fish with impunity until a sign goes up in their native language.

Marek's majority is 900. By ignoring the fishing furore, he has reached out to a community who may well make all the difference.

* "Vote for me!"

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover