On a walkabout in east London, Nick Griffin is a magnet for feelings of grief as well as anger
On Thursday Nick Griffin paid his first official visit to Barking and Dagenham as the newly declared British National party candidate in next year's election. This took the form of "walkabouts" and the one I attached myself to went up and down the slopes on either side of Dagenham Heathway station on the District line, where there are shops and cafes and pubs and more white people than you can easily come across in Barking town centre, at the constituency's western edge.
Walkabouts are of course contrivances: the point is not so much to meet people as to be photographed meeting them. A small media mob followed Griffin and his minders. He shook hands with a couple of men in a white van and sat down at a table of drinkers in the Lord Denman pub. One passerby shouted: "Love ya!" and another: "Good luck!" How much of this had been pre-arranged is hard to say. The two women sitting outside a cafe who told him to piss off were obviously not in the script, but the drinkers and the white van – which passed us more than once, honking cheerily – may well have been. What can be said is that his appearance on Question Time has done him no harm.
A woman wanted to be photographed with him: "I saw you on that chat show." Then three white schoolboys posed with Griffin at their centre. A few other schoolboys – black this time – loitered at the crowd's edge. It wouldn't have been a surprise if they too had asked to be in a shot. Griffin appeared before them as a minor celebrity in a suburban high street. He might have been opening a new Boots. His face is soft-featured and he seemed anxious to please.
A reporter from the Barking and Dagenham Post asked whether, if elected, he'd serve all his constituents, no matter their origins or colour. Griffin said of course – he would work for anyone who had a right to be here and paid their taxes. So who would be excluded? The answer was many of those people who had "poured in" over the last few years, encouraged by a government that wanted to gerrymander its parliamentary constituencies. This is the BNP line: the Labour party has deliberately promoted immigration so that it can build up vote banks, with results that are particularly visible in Barking
His supporters followed him. Several were in their best suits. Richard Barnbrook, who is probably the second most famous member of his party, wore a sand-coloured number that might have been supplied as off-duty wear to the Afrika Korps. Another follower, buttoned up in lilac, turned out to be Lawrence Rustem, a Barking councillor and Elvis fanatic and "the only half-Turkish member of the BNP". He said he was "a refugee from Hackney", where he'd been mugged 18 years before. Consequently, he joined the party and became an activist. "For me, it's been a long form of revenge for what happened to me that night," he said.
Some things about the crowd were no surprise: that it was white, male and mainly about 50 years old. What I hadn't prepared for was the sense of loss and grief. Bob Bailey, who leads the BNP opposition on Barking council, outlined his career: son of a steelworker in Scunthorpe, 12 years in the marines, and now employed by "the security industry". The steelworks had sacked his dad, who never worked again, and now faced an uncertain future under Indian ownership. "We don't make anything any more, we don't own anything any more. It's an absolute disgrace. The country's just knackered. People have given up hope. They don't believe in anything, not in themselves, not in their neighbourhoods, not in their history. "
Bailey's solutions included the nationalisation of key industries, political withdrawal from the EU and military retreat from Afghanistan. He described it as "the politics of old Labour" combined with a "forward-looking nationalism". So far, so sweetly reasonable. Then I mentioned Barking's Labour MP, Margaret Hodge. "Poisonous bitch. Lives in Islington. A multimillionairess and a foreigner to boot."
A foreigner by this definition is a woman born Margaret Oppenheimer of wealthy German Jewish parents in Egypt in 1944, who has lived in the UK for at least 60 years and is minister of state for culture and tourism. That doesn't seem a very forward-looking definition. What chance then that the BNP accepts as full citizens all the Africans, Indians, Pakistanis and eastern Europeans who have so utterly transformed Barking since the 1990s? Their numbers are growing, and the BNP likes to cite their presence in Barking as an example of sneaky government strategy. In fact, they arrived through a much more chaotic agency, the free market.
Throughout most of the last century, the people of Barking and Dagenham depended on two institutions. For work and wages, there was the Ford car plant, which at its postwar peak employed 40,000. For housing, there was the local authority. In the 1920s at Becontree, the London county council built the largest municipal estate in Europe and smaller developments followed. In the words of Darren Rodwell, a Labour activist born and raised in the borough, Barking had "its own social system". You married and got a council flat. Children came along. You moved upscale to a three-bedroom house. When Margaret Thatcher's administration introduced the right-to-buy, this paternal system broke down. Tenants bought at discounts and sold on for a profit or let the houses to inner London authorities that needed to place homeless families. Most of the old housing stock is now owned privately. Relatively cheap property and fast trains into London make Barking an obvious destination for migrants. A borough that was once exceptional for its whiteness and familial connections changed with a bewildering speed that left its Labour rulers divided and broken. The party now accepts that voter alienation and disaffection were "endemic". In 2006, the BNP won a dozen council seats.
Some blame Hodge, who, like one of her Barking predecessors, Tom Driberg, has more of the West End about her than the East End. Others accuse a complacent local council that had never shed "workerist" attitudes born in the old Ford plant. The BNP fright has changed all that. Hodge has moved the centre of her operations to the town, knocked on doors and recruited 150 members, many non-white. In her office I met young men and women from, or with parents from, Nigeria, Pakistan and the Caribbean, as well an 83-year-old former mayor, George Shaw. All of them said much the same thing: the party had to reconnect to the electorate.
My guess is Griffin will lose, and possibly badly if Labour can get its targeted voters to the polls. But can they? Rodwell told me of his reconnecting spiel when he knocks on doors: "I can't do anything about the weather, West Ham or Gordon Brown … but you can try me on anything else."