Monday 1 May 2006

Local Elections: What to make of the BNP scare?

Two neighbouring boroughs, both amongst the poorest in the country, and yet in Barking & Dagenham, the British National Party is contesting 7 of the 17 council wards with a real prospect of gaining seats, whilst in Newham, they are contesting none. And because of the intervention of local MP Margaret Hodge, many column inches in the national press have been devoted to growing support for the far-Right in east London. So what's going on?

We have been here before, of course. After the General Election in May 2005, Hodge was warning in an article in the Observer of the danger of disaffected white working class voters drifting towards extremist parties. Then she said, “Now is the time for the new government to show it cares about those voters by addressing the things that concern them. The people in Barking need to know that they matter as much as the floating voters of middle England.” One year on, she told the Sunday Telegraph: "The Labour party hasn't talked to these people ... Part of the reason they switch to BNP is they feel no one else is listening to them."

At one level, it is tempting to be cynical and wonder whether Hodge will pull out dire warnings about the BNP at every election as a means of galvanising local Labour voters. After all, as Work and Pensions minister, Hodge has arguably had far greater opportunity than the average local MP over the last year to do something about causes of disaffection like run-down housing and crime. But, far from being a public admission that Hodge has failed to persuade the government she is a member of to take action on these issues, her warnings look a lot like an attempt to shift blame elsewhere.

Hodge follows other Blairites in blaming multiculturalism (and ethnic change in her constituency in particular) for frightening white communities. She has said: “When I arrived in 1994, it was a predominantly white, working class area. Now, go through the middle of Barking and you could be in Camden or Brixton. That is the key thing that has created the environment the BNP has sought to exploit.". But Hodge also blames the welfare state for prioritising the needs of immigrants at the expense of white voters, an idea given greater credence in government circles since the recent publication of The New East End by Geoff Dench and Kate Gavron, which has been much praised by Blairites like Trevor Philips at the Commission for Racial Equality (and comprehensively critiqued by Jenny Bourne of the Institute of Race Relations). Hodge told the Sunday Telegraph, “white families are angry at the lack of housing since immigrants began arriving in the area, and because asylum seekers have been housed there by inner London councils. There was nowhere for the local people to move to and we did not reinvest in social housing, nor did the Tories. Neither of us have done enough of that.”

One way or another, whether it be the need for support from the welfare state or because of a failure to integrate – the basis for the government’s disingenuous ‘community cohesion’ policy – black communities keep getting the blame for white racism.

From the Right, those Blairites that have criticised Hodge and against race being central to support for the BNP, such as Blair’s most enthusiastic cheerleader in the press, John Rentoul, have tried to argue that all forms of dependency on the state, not simply race, alienates white working class voters. Writing in the Independent, Rentoul has argued “the BNP flourishes where dependency culture is strongest, because those are the areas where the sense that some people are getting something for nothing is most poisonously strong”. The real problem, therefore, that the government “has not been New Labour enough”.

But why then has the BNP no presence in Newham? The borough also has high levels of poverty and residents on long-term benefits. In many ways, the situation in Barking & Dagenham is similar to that in Canning Town a decade ago. In 1994, the BNP came within 66 votes of winning a council seat. What has changed is that Canning Town is no longer a solidly white area. Far from failing to integrate, black people have successfully transformed the south of the borough for the better by their presence. The process has not, as Hodge claims, created an environment the BNP to exploit.

However, in 1994, anti-fascist campaigners could still argue ‘vote anyone but BNP’ with some credibility. Those on the ground in Dagenham, where Labour councillors and supporters dare not enter certain pubs for fear of their lives, do hot have that opportunity. There have been too many betrayals, too much disappointment in Labour, for that to be possible. There is clearly a space to the Left of Labour and in an article in the Guardian, Respect MP George Galloway rightly argues that “the worst thing to do… is to make concessions to the BNP's immigrant-bashing or to slander white working-class people as irredeemably racist, while continuing with the destructive neoliberal policies that are fragmenting and impoverishing working-class communities.” However, Galloway also claims that Respect “have been challenging, from the left, New Labour's refusal to represent those it was elected to serve”. A glance at the list of Respect candidates for May’s elections shows that is simply not true in Barking & Dagenham. Perhaps the party’s tacticians felt there was too much of a risk that Respect would end up splitting the working-class vote and increase the chances that the BNP would win seats. But it has left anti-fascists with no credible candidates to argue for as alternatives to both Labour and the BNP.

Whatever criticisms those on the Left may have of Respect, when the task of maximising the generally poor turnout for local elections is crucial to marginalising the BNP, leaving the field to the far Right and a utterly discredited Labour party looks like a terrible mistake.

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