Anti-fascist campaigners are celebrating having delivered a crushing blow to the electoral hopes of the far-right British National Party, whose leader Nick Griffin was beated into a distant third in their number one parliamentary target seat of Barking. Worse still for Griffin, far from his candidacy having helped the party to seize control of the local council as he intended, the increased voter turnout meant that not one of the BNP’s 12 councillors who had formed the official opposition grouping managed to get re-elected.
Instead, Barking and Dagenham Council is now exclusively represented by Labour Party councillors. So what does this mean for the political future of the borough? Have we now seen the back of the BNP? And how can local residents make Labour councillors sit up and take notice in the absence of any opposition on the council?
Despite the terrible headline results, the national BNP vote almost trebled from the previous general election in 2005 – in large part because it stood more candidates. Even in Barking, Nick Griffin increased the BNP vote slightly in absolute terms. There are still some 15,000 BNP voters across the borough despite the BNP’s internal disarray, so complacency is certainly unjustified.
The BNP was defeated because of the substantially higher turnout. Unite Against Fascism claims that its efforts to unmask the BNP as a ‘Nazi’ party, working intensively on a door-to-door basis in parallel with the team of Labour incumbent Margaret Hodge, helped to alert wider sections of the electorate to the dangers of electing far-right candidates.
However, turnout also rose across the country at the May elections, as a tightly fought contest encouraged voters in London to turn back to Labour at the prospect of a Tory government. The capital saw several notable swings to Labour, helping the party to win control of councils such as Harrow, Brent, Camden and Islington. The increased Labour vote in Barking must be seen in this context.
But as Hope Not Hate campaign organiser (and newly elected Labour councillor for Barking) Sam Tarry told Red Pepper, ‘Although Labour party members and activists have played an important role in fighting the BNP, we could not have been certain of pushing them back simply by raising the Labour banner. The truth is that the local party had lost touch with the voters. Hope Not Hate has worked incredibly hard to activate and mobilise groups right across our community to fight for positive change rather than politics of hate and fear.’ Hope Not Hate has tried to carry through the spirit of the Obama campaign to use online campaigning tools to help drive offline activism on the ground, with the capacity to target specific groups such as pensioners, women, faith groups and residents associations with tailored messages.
As Tarry is quick to observe, ‘Hundreds of people have become actively engaged in local politics for the first time during this campaign. But we can’t just let this new force evaporate. People from right across Barking now have greater expectations about the sort of changes we want to deliver. The old political structures can be totally rejuvenated if they are willing to open up. As councillors we’ll pay the price if we don’t show that we are really listening to people.’
The Labour group itself appears split on ideological lines over the critical issue of housing. A group around Hodge wants to follow the example of Sir Robin Wales in Newham and push stock transfer to arms length management organisations (ALMOs), seen by groups such as Defend Council Housing as step one of a two-step housing privatisation process. Meanwhile a large group closer to Dagenham MP Jon Cruddas is seeking an expansion in council investment into its social housing stock.
The latter faction appears to be winning out, with the election of Liam Smith as council leader. However, against a context of a Tory government slashing public services, it remains to be seen whether the council can really make inroads into the shortage of council housing, which is widely seen as having opened up the door for the far right to stir up racial tensions.
For his part, Griffin appeared to concede that the party has no long term future in the area. Clearly shocked by the results, he told reporters, ‘I would say this to the people of Britain. It is going to be too late for Barking, but it is not too late for Britain.’ The BNP looks to be heading for a period of further internal schisms. That said, the far right vote in Barking has shown itself to be resilient. It would be deeply complacent to believe that the political alienation that underlies it has gone away.