Why are there so many BNP voters in Barking and Dagenham?

May 04, 2010
Griffin does well despite high-quality schools and housing
Griffin does well despite high-quality schools and housing

I visited Barking and Dagenham recently to gauge the strength of the British National Party in the area, where BNP leader Nick Griffin is standing against Labour’s Margaret Hodge—and where the BNP is also hoping to take the council. Jon Cruddas, one of Labour’s most eloquent MPs, is also fighting the neighbouring seat of Dagenham and Rainham (renamed after boundary changes). His seat is pretty safe from the BNP—as his three most troubling wards migrated across to Mrs Hodge—but he faces an energetic fight from Simon Jones, the Conservative candidate. So what’s there to fear about the BNP? Its vote share has risen in the area (it won 17 per cent in local elections in 2006, making it the official opposition in the borough), while Labour’s fiefdom has collapsed—from 65 per cent in 1997 to around 50 per cent in 2005. The party has made much of immigration into the borough, and has stressed the pressures that it has made on housing and education. On paper, Mrs Hodge’s seat is the most vulnerable post boundary changes. And on the doorstep with Mrs Hodge, people were quite happy to own up to voting BNP—in fact she opens her spiel with the words “BNP or Labour?” Many of the voters sound as if they are singing from a BNP song-sheet: talking about “coloured people” taking jobs and about their sons and daughters not being able to get housing in the area. But many BNP voters are in work, live in good council housing, and have nice-ish cars. What’s going on?

The usual reasons trotted out are local joblessness (high), lack of housing (true) and a solid, local BNP base. All of that’s true, but I think other reasons matter too. Labour and the other parties, concentrating as they do on voters in marginal constituencies, have neglected the white working class elsewhere (a point made well by Jon Cruddas, who attempts to explain immigration to local people, rather than avoid the subject). And the Labour party has, also, in the words of Tony Travers from the LSE, fallen “out of love” with the white working class as a group. Despite the fact that the housing stock in the area is in pretty good condition, and tenant satisfaction is high, that new social housing is being built (albeit slowly), and schools in the borough are very good indeed, white working-class voters feel spurned and powerless. Historically, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have also done little or no work in the area, although they are both raising their game this time around. But over all, it feels as though the political class as a whole has given up on some areas, among them Barking and Dagenham—and so the residents, wooed by the BNP, vote with their feet. But luckily that’s changing. Searchlight, the anti-facist organisation, has relocated to the borough for the election, and is working with church and community groups to combat the BNP in the Hope not Hate coalition. They draw attention to the BNP’s many failings—many BNP councillors are both lazy and greedy, drawing full allowances for attending just a few meetings, and a number of senior members also have serious convictions related to race hatred. And they praise what’s good about the area and about diversity generally, as they work the phones, employing Obama Big Schlep tactics to get out the vote and leaflet in a desperate attempt to keep the BNP from winning the council. The word is that canvass returns are looking much more positive for Labour, both in the two parliamentary seats and in the council. Mrs Hodge, who has been fighting the BNP for four years, tells me she feels a little more “comfortable” than she did at the start of the campaign. But even if the BNP don’t do well this time around, the political class has to formulate a new offer to the white working class, to stop them being tempted by the BNP—without, of course, moving onto the BNP's ground and imitating their rhetoric. If not, they will win, somewhere, sometime. And the consequences of that are pretty dire.