In 2006, the BNP secured 12 seats on Barking and Dagenham council in the local elections. They only stood 13 candidates and just one was beaten by Labour.
The party continues to pose an electoral threat. In the London Mayoral elections last year the BNP strengthened its hold in the borough, with support growing from 18.7 per cent in 2006 to 24.7 per cent in 2008. And research carried out by the Commission for Racial Equality after the 2006 elections, found that 7 per cent of those who voted BNP were from a black and minority ethnic background.
The recent emergence of the extreme right is much more complex than it was in the 1930s, 1950s or 1970s. As the BNP seeks to garner support across the country, it is clear that the conditions which enable the party to establish a foothold vary according to local circumstances.
Just as the Liberal Democrats in the 1980s tailored their message and their tactics to meet the local conditions, so the BNP today – with a very different political purpose – adjusts its tactics, depending on where it is campaigning. My experience in Barking convinces me that a local understanding is essential for developing an effective local strategy against the BNP.
However, national issues remain important. And as we respond to an unprecedented global economic crisis with the insecurities around jobs and mortgages that brings, the electoral threat the BNP poses becomes ever greater.
When I first publicly expressed fear about the electoral potential of the BNP there was criticism that I had allowed them to benefit from the oxygen of publicity. But refusing to openly acknowledge the threat they pose won’t make them go away. Indeed, failure to confront the challenge simply allows BNP support to grow. It is therefore vital that we develop clear and effective ways to reconnect Labour with its voters and strategies that work to undermine the BNP.
The public face of the BNP has changed. The party’s councillors and canvassers are no longer tattooed skinheads who engage in confrontation on the streets. Its activists turn up to scrub graffiti off walls; they support residents’ associations in their activities; they are not lazy and they are adept at claiming credit for local improvements.
They also distort or exaggerate facts to feed people’s fears and frustrations about jobs, crime and housing. In my constituency they falsely badged an incentive scheme to help council tenants buy homes and move out of council housing as ‘Africans for Essex’. In closeknit communities these rumours spread fast, gain credence very quickly and are difficult to rebut.
The BNP party and its activists are racist and repulsive but the majority of those who vote BNP are not. People vote BNP as a protest vote because they feel mainstream parties are out of touch with their needs and aspirations. But some also feel the BNP offers them policies which resonate with their frustrations. And that emerging trend is particularly worrying.
In my own constituency we have experienced a rapid change from a white working-class to a multiracial community. As a new MP in 1994 I had never met so many great-grandmothers who lived within walking distance of their great-grandchildren. Now the neighbours are new, the shops are changing and Labour’s discourse on migration doesn’t ring true.
Couple that with a lack of affordable social housing and a massive restructuring of the local job market as Ford contracted its workforce and one can begin to understand why people exercise a protest vote.
Condemning BNP voters as racists or fascists gets us nowhere. Indeed, we need to understand that people who vote BNP do not see themselves as racists and are willing to openly acknowledge their support for the BNP. The traditional shame has gone.
So bringing voters back to Labour cannot be based on negative condemnation and has to be built on positively convincing people that Labour is on their side, listening and responding to their concerns – and we need a more sophisticated narrative on the BNP.
Searchlight and Unites Against Fascism’s work is important but protest rallies at Labour party meetings do little on the streets of Barking and Dagenham to bring back those who deserted Labour. We need to respond locally, with Labour actively engaging with local people on local issues – and that requires hard work.
Our local Labour party had become complacent and inward looking. Campaigning meant little more than a leaflet through people’s doors and a presence at polling stations. New party members were not welcome and Labour councillors focused on their work in the town hall.
We have started to transform that. Indeed, fighting the BNP can be a formidable catalyst for change if you change how you do things. That’s what we are doing in Barking and MPs or parliamentary candidates are well placed to provide the leadership needed.
Now, far from declining party membership, we have recruited over 150 new members in the last couple of years. From being a predominantly older and white political party, we now have an energetic, younger membership that properly reflects the multiracial community in which we work.
We have a strong and growing volunteer force which is working to reconnect with our voters. Over 20 people are on the doorstep every week talking to voters about local issues. Others help organise street meetings and coffee afternoons when we talk to local people about the issues that matter to them. Face to face engagement may be time consuming and sometimes difficult, but it is essential if we really want to reconnect.
The political class talks a lot about re-engaging with our communities. But all too often, the agenda we set is ours, not theirs. So we think people want to talk about electing local police chiefs or fixing the council tax. In fact they want to sort out dustbin collection, parking, antisocial behaviour and filthy streets.
Most people judge their politicians through experience of their immediate community and local environment. We know that and that is why Labour has, for example, introduced new ways of tackling antisocial behaviour. Local MPs and local Labour parties need to work with that grain.
Our approach in Barking is truly bottom-up campaigning so that we respond and do not set the agenda. And then we seek to deliver on the very immediate concerns which drive people bonkers; and when we succeed, our
voters begin to believe that we mean it when we say we are on their side.
Equally, we tackle the difficult issues – like immigration, European workers or housing allocation – upfront. By talking through these issues we expose the abhorrent purposes of the BNP and begin to bring some people back to voting Labour and joining the Labour party. It is not quick or easy, but decades of political complacency cannot be turned around overnight.
In Barking, we are starting to witness the fruits of success. In 2008, turnout was higher in the wards where we concentrated our effort. And some of the wards which voted BNP in 2006 are showing signs of returning to Labour.
However, transforming the political culture beyond the constituency and across the whole borough is a huge challenge. It requires change at all levels and an understanding that resolutions at political conferences or in general committees won’t work. It’s a real renewal of the Labour party, engaging directly with those whom we wish to represent, that we need.