Poppy sellers at London train stations suggest safety fears for volunteers have been overblown
Hundreds of thousands expected in capital on Saturday - Armistice Day - for pro-Palestine march
Royal British Legion has backed right to protest
Poppy sellers at London train stations have dismissed fears over their safety ahead of the latest pro-Palestine march on Saturday.
Tracy Cooper, who has been running a Royal British Legion poppy stall at Paddington station for 12 hours a day over the past two weeks, told Yahoo News UK: “We’ve had no problems at all.”
It comes after Rishi Sunak told The Sun on Wednesday he was “appalled that some poppy sellers - many veterans who are the heart of our collective remembrance each year - have experienced intimidation and abuse when volunteering at train stations”.
Those comments were made as police investigated an alleged assault on a veteran selling poppies at a station in Edinburgh during a pro-Palestine rally last weekend. That probe was dropped on Wednesday due to “insufficient evidence”.
Meanwhile, at the London protest last weekend (where 29 arrests were made overall), one image showed poppy sellers at Charing Cross station in the middle of a large group of people holding Palestine flags at a sit-in protest. However, the sellers told The Sunday Times they didn’t feel intimidated. There was also a sit-in at Liverpool Street station on 31 October.
Yahoo News UK spoke to poppy sellers at major London stations on Friday. Volunteers at Waterloo, London Bridge and St Pancras refused to comment on Saturday’s march, in which hundreds of thousands of protesters will head to the capital to call for a ceasefire after Israel’s response to deadly attacks by Palestinian militant group Hamas last month.
“I stay out of political s***,” a Royal British Legion stallholder at Waterloo said.
But at Victoria, the UK’s second busiest station, another seller - who didn’t want to be named - said she had been “fine” over the past week.
And at Paddington, the country’s sixth busiest station, Tracy Cooper, 65, who has been selling poppies there for 22 years, said there have been no negative interactions over an entire fortnight: “I have been here for the past two weeks… and nothing. I’ve been here from 7.30am until 7.30pm.
“It has been blown out of proportion. All the poppy sellers we know have had no problems at all.
“They [the media] want to make the reporting so that it’s a lot more ‘in your face’. It brings the troubles in Palestine to the forefront of everyone’s attention, when there are troubles everywhere.”
On Thursday, British Transport Police criticised "misleading information circulating in the mainstream media" and said: "We want to reiterate that we have no reason to believe that those who sell poppies are at any risk or being intentionally targeted."
Cooper, whose son has also been volunteering at Marylebone station, turned her attention to why she sells poppies every year. Her father served in the Navy in the Second World War and her grandfather was in the Army in the First World War.
“It's my way of giving back to them for what they did for us to keep us safe."
'Missing stalls down to lack of volunteers'
At Stratford station, there wasn’t a poppy seller in sight, with one station worker saying: “We usually have a stall set up inside but I haven’t seen them there… I don’t know where they are.” Another added: “They’re usually here, they have a big stand up by the Jubilee line concourse. They were here a few days ago but they haven’t been around since then.”
There were also no poppy stalls visible at King’s Cross, Euston and Liverpool Street when Yahoo News UK visited on Friday.
Back at Paddington, Cooper admitted this was “unusual”, but said she thought it's not because the protests are putting volunteers off.
“It’s down to the fact a lot of people don’t want to volunteer, or can’t volunteer because they are too old. And the young people would have to take time off from work - during the cost of living crisis.”
Legion defends right to protest
In recent weeks, previous pro-Palestine rallies have split opinion because some protesters have chanted offensive slurs, clashed with police officers and carried images appearing to support extremist groups.
This Saturday’s march has been at the centre of a major political row. It coincides with Armistice Day, when people across the UK mark the moment the guns fell silent in the First World War. Rishi Sunak has labelled the protest “provocative and disrespectful”.
Meanwhile, home secretary Suella Braverman has been criticised for describing pro-Palestine demonstrations as hate marches, and accusing the police of favouring left-wing groups over right. Sunak is now facing calls, including from Conservative MPs, to sack her.
Amid the row, the Royal British Legion itself has defended the demonstrators’ right to protest on Saturday.
It said in a statement on Friday: “The British armed forces play a vital role in protecting the rights and freedoms of everyone in UK society, including the right to protest.”
Meet Britain's oldest poppy seller