The ruling party failed to make the case against racism and xenophobia, pandering instead of standing on principle
On Wednesday evening around 7pm, the Reverend Roger Gayler, vicar of St Marks parish, went to answer a knock on the door. It was the night before the Chadwell Heath byelection for Barking and Dagenham council in Greater London, and Gayler had recently written an open letter to his flock.
"I rarely enter the party political arena and do so very reluctantly, but as a matter of Christian principle I feel this time I must," he wrote. "The [British National party] would divide our community, spread fear through lies, and reduce services to those in our community who most need them (they proposed huge cuts in services for the elderly and young people in their budget). They preach the politics of hate."
The man at the door was Robert Bailey, BNP leader on the council. He was clearly agitated. "He asked me whether I'd written it," recalls Gayler. "I said 'yes'."
"This goes against the democratic process," said Bailey.
"It's all part of the democratic process," replied Gayler.
"You're just a fascist," said Bailey, and then scrumpled the letter and threw it at the vicar.
"There was no shouting or screaming but it was obviously a visit from a very rattled person," says Gayler.
The next evening, in Dagenham's council chamber, a multiracial team of council workers tallied the votes. The BNP had 12 seats on the council and was hoping this would be their 13th. In the end, a seat vacated by Labour was won by the Tories by a comfortable margin. Nothing strange there. The BNP candidate came third with 25% of the vote in a ward the party had never contested before. Sadly, there seemed to be nothing strange there either.
Terry Justice, the Tory victor, said he looked forward to working with all his fellow councillors. When I asked Margaret Mullane, the Labour candidate, what she made of the size of the BNP vote, she said: "You'll have to ask the BNP about that really." Leaving Dagenham civic centre, with the clock nudging closer to midnight, I felt I was heading back to the 30s.
Bailey is not the only one who should be feeling rattled. True, under the circumstances, the fact that they didn't win could be regarded as a victory. But those circumstances are dire.
The BNP's advances have been spotty - still limited to particular towns and regions. But over the last decade those spots have become larger and more widespread. Back in 1993, its gain of a single council seat in London's Tower Hamlets produced a brief, but intense, moment of national introspection. Today it has more than 50 councillors in around 20 councils plus a member of the London assembly. By increments it has become an accepted, if contested, fact of British municipal life.
For all the talk of Islamo-fascism - that desperately belligerent phrase that some hurl about in the hope that it may one day land on a coherent meaning - plain old-fashioned fascism is the force truly making gains. Elsewhere in Europe, where the far right runs councils and holds cabinet seats, things are far worse. In Italy, the state recently started fingerprinting Gypsies, along with a promise to take Gypsy children not attending school into custody. In Switzerland, the far right is in government. In Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France and Italy, hard-right, nationalist and anti-immigrant parties regularly receive more than 10% of the vote. In Norway, it is more than twice that; in Switzerland, the figure it is almost three times as much.
If our Enlightenment values really are under threat, then the primary challenge seems to be domestic - and far more familiar and entrenched than some would have us believe. This is not a handful of young, nihilist men with backpacks - it is marginalised communities with ballot papers.
None of this denies or excuses the rise in jihadism. Indeed, it is not only possible to make an effective stand against either by recognising the potency of both. The "tolerant, liberal" society that immigrants - particularly Muslims - are being told to join has long been eroding. While multiculturalism has been under assault, nostalgic visions of a mythological monoculture have been given a new lease of life.
Just as there is more to racism in Britain than the BNP, the BNP's rise tells us more about Britain than just racism. It is a canary in the mine - an early warning system signalling the complacency of our political culture in which our political class has been complicit. Trapped in a hopeless spiral of negativity, people will vote against anything - immigration, the Tories, Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson, Scottish nationalism, Gordon Brown or Europe, to name a few. But it seems a long time since large numbers of people voted for anything.
So the fact that the BNP has performed best in Labour strongholds should come as no surprise. Its rise and New Labour's demise are linked. The government is failing even on its own modest terms. Child poverty and pensioner poverty are up. Economic inequality is now greater than under the Tories. Inflation is rising, house prices falling, and last week workers were again asked to tighten their belts. Never mind no return to boom and bust - many feel like they are about to crash and burn. People are desperate.
There is nothing inevitable about this shift from despondency to demagoguery. Black and Asian people are overrepresented among the poor and vulnerable, and they aren't voting for the BNP. Nor are the overwhelming majority of white working-class people. Nonetheless, the trend has always been likely and logical. A party that has its historical roots and electoral base in the working class and then fails to advance the interests of that class will engender cynicism. New Labour's electoral project is based in no small measure on the calculation that the poor have nowhere else to go. A small but determined minority have retreated into their laagers in search of solutions and solace.
However, New Labour's decision to follow them there made no sense, either morally or strategically. Following the strong showing of the BNP in Burnley, Anthony Giddens, the architect of the third way, spoke of being "tough on immigration and tough on the causes of hostility to immigrants". Tony Blair prioritised "crime and social behaviour" and "immigration and asylum".
But these populist responses hold no sustainable answers to the particular and urgent material needs of the white working class. Incarcerating asylum seekers or bashing the niqab built no houses, created no jobs and educated no children. That does not, in itself, necessarily make them wrong - but as a response to the concerns of Labour's base they were worse than useless. New Labour's legislative shortcomings made a BNP revival possible; the government's rhetorical excesses made it electorally palatable.
Given its huge majority, Labour could have made the case against racism and xenophobia. But rather than stand on principle, it has preferred to pander. Having ducked the major challenges, it has left it to the likes of Rev Roger Gayler to literally face the consequences of the failure head on.
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