The task of taking on and defeating the BNP is one of the most challenging that we face. In my constituency in Barking, we’ve spent the last two years immersed in local activism trying to do just that.
I want to reflect on what we’ve been doing and what lessons I think can be learnt – for the campaign against the far-right and for the Labour party more widely.
The reasons for the BNP’s electoral pull are complex. Yes, it’s about changing communities; yes, it’s about the loss of traditional industrial jobs; yes, it’s about increasing migration; and yes, it’s about lack of affordable housing.
But most importantly people are voting for the far-right as a protest vote. They feel completely disconnected from and alienated by the Labour party and the mainstream political class.
For Labour, that’s in part because we didn’t focus earlier on issues like affordable housing. In part it’s because we’ve not shouted loudly enough about what we have achieved. And in part it’s also because we’ve failed to put forward a coherent narrative on migration – arguing for its benefits while saying we can cut and control it.
But it’s also about the Labour party itself.
First, we’ve shied away from being bold and honest about our values. Under Tony Blair it almost became a badge of honour. Ideology no longer matters, people would say – it’s what works that counts. We were scared of losing the support of the centre ground that we need to win elections.
But managerial competence is not a substitute for ideological conviction. People don’t vote for processes – whether it’s localism, competition or choice. They do want to know what we stand for. And if we don’t articulate that clearly people look to others they think share their values – single issue groups or one of the smaller political parties, including the BNP.
We must have the confidence to reassert our core belief in the pursuit of equality through redistribution. And we must have the confidence to justify that belief by asserting that a more equal society is a more cohesive society, a more efficient society and a morally better society.
Second, in too much of Britain our Labour parties have lost touch with ordinary people.
This is particularly true in the traditional Labour areas, where we got used to weighing the votes in and where we thought the odd leaflet at election time, the occasional mention in the local paper or the smiling face at a polling station was enough.
So because we aren’t engaging directly, people get fed up and feel we’re not listening to them. A focus group by the national Labour party is no substitute for direct contact with individuals in your area. We need to reconnect with local communities and start engaging them in politics.
This is particularly difficult for those of us facing the threat from the far-right. And no one should pretend there are any easy answers. But it simply doesn’t work to condemn those who vote for the BNP as fascist extremists. The party and its activists retain their hideous purpose and ideology, but those who vote for them are doing so because we’ve lost our connection to those in whose name we claim to campaign and work.
So for the last two years we’ve completely changed our approach in Barking. Everything we do has to pass the test that it helps us to reconnect to voters – whether it’s our work door-to-door, whether it’s local campaigns or whether it’s my regular coffee afternoons.
And that means starting from where people are at, not from where we would like them to be. We don’t set the agenda; our voters do.
Of course, what many people care about most are their homes and their neighbourhoods. So we listen and try and tackle their concerns about their local environment, housing conditions or antisocial behaviour. And if you start delivering then people do start trusting you again. Then they’ll start engaging on the other, national issues of the day, like the economy, public spending and Europe.
In Barking we’re beginning to experience the signs that we’re succeeding. At the European elections Labour’s vote went up 2% and the BNP vote was cut by 5%.
My constituents in Barking won’t understand if we continue to refuse to engage in public debate with the BNP. Ignoring them in the hope of denying them the oxygen of publicity will just convince people in my constituency that we don’t get it at all. We need to take them on directly and have the confidence that we can win the argument.
Last Friday I walked into one of my coffee afternoons and was confronted by a woman who was literally trembling with anger at me because she felt Labour had done nothing for her and we’d let all these immigrants get what should rightly have been hers. She was going to vote for the BNP. But by the end of the afternoon she’d felt we’d listened to her and she also listened to us and as I left the room, she came over to me and said ‘Thanks for that Margaret, I’ll be voting Labour.’
It is still all to play for out there. But we have to stop blaming others, and look outwards rather than inwards. Whatever the particular local challenges we face, we just all need to get off our backsides and do our bit to reconnect directly with voters in our constituencies. In that way we at least will know we’ve done our bit to help keep Labour in power.
This article is based on the text of a speech delivered to the Progress rally at the Labour party conference in September. It has been published in response to the ongoing controversy surrounding Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time this evening.