February 13, 2010
Posted by Antifascist
Does that happen a lot? “What’s that?” asks Richard Barnbrook, a big wheel in the party and an elected member of the Greater London Authority. That man just spat at you. “No! Deliberately?” Yes.
“I didn’t notice,” he mumbles, with a little shake of his head. “We actually get a very positive reaction from many older ethnic minority people here.”
Such a claim can soon be tested. Mr Barnbrook parades along the streets in his “trademark” beige suit which, he thinks, “adds to my charisma — everybody knows who I am”. An Asian woman shudders and moves off the pavement when she sees him approaching. A black father grabs his toddler’s hand and guides her to the other side of the road. A group of teenagers ride by on bikes, yelling obscenities. “Maybe I get a few funny looks, every now and then,” Mr Barnbrook concedes cheerfully.
Welcome to Barking, a suburban town that the BNP wants to make its own, where truth — as well as whole sections of the local population — can be just inconvenient obstacles to be sidestepped or swept away.
The decision by Nick Griffin, the BNP leader, to stand as a parliamentary candidate in Barking has inevitably brought the poison of racial politics ever closer to the surface of an already pockmarked eastern outpost of London.
At the general election in 2005, Mr Barnbrook was only 27 votes away from claiming second place ahead of the Tories. In the following year the BNP grabbed nine of the 30 borough councillor posts in the wards that make up the seat. The party secured an average 41 per cent of the vote in seven contested wards, compared with 33 per cent for Labour.
This is why Mr Griffin abandoned the North West, where he was elected as an MEP last year, and elbowed Mr Barnbrook aside for the chance to stand in Barking. It is where the BNP believes that white working-class alienation can be best exploited to gain a first crucial foothold in Westminster.
Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP for almost 16 years and veteran of many battles in a political career stretching over four decades, recognises that she is in the fight of her life. “We face a real threat from the BNP,” she says. “Griffin is here because he thinks he can win.”
She has, in the past, been criticised for relying too heavily on the black and Asian vote. There have been complaints that she has amplified “BNP propaganda” with efforts to address white voters’ sense of unfairness. Last week she called for immigrants to earn the right to benefits or council housing over several years so that “local people” have higher priority.
Ms Hodge’s campaign has not been helped by an often dysfunctional relationship with Jon Cruddas, the MP for neighbouring Dagenham, who argues that Labour’s appeal should be around shared economic interests, not racial identity. But she has been more visible lately than before, opening a campaign office after the council elections and doubling party membership locally to about 400. Although a number of the party’s older councillors have been purged and are threatening to run as independents, Ms Hodge says Labour has been revitalised. “I’m so proud. We have all had to raise our game.”
Differences within Labour have been put aside because they are far outweighed by the need to “lance the boil” of the BNP. “I am really fearful that if they get a hold here, Barking would become a no-go area for the rest of Britain,” Ms Hodge says. “They bring division and violence.”
There has been talk of Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates pulling out of the election to present a united front against racism. The consensus among them, however, appears to be that this would merely reinforce Mr Griffin’s claims that the Establishment is ganging up on him.
A greater concern for Labour is the candidacy of the Rev George Hargreaves, leader of the Christian Party, who has strong links to the big Pentecostalist churches proliferating in the area and who may shave away significant numbers of black voters from Labour. “I would much rather he was not standing,” Ms Hodge says.
Barking’s menagerie of candidates will also include Frank Maloney, the former boxing promoter, who is standing for the UK Independence Party. He launched his campaign by challenging Mr Griffin to a fist fight and with a poster that spelt Britain as Britian. The BNP enjoys pointing out that error, but should not laugh too loud. Mr Griffin launched his own campaign for Barking last year in Dagenham, having got confused about the constituency boundaries.
There is much to ridicule about a party that has only recently started wearing suits in an effort to be taken seriously. Council meetings here have descended into farce on occasion. Some BNP councillors — the official opposition — have fallen out among themselves, walked out or been thrown out for misconduct.
On the doorstep Mr Barnbrook mixes talk about wheelie bins with a promise to put immigrant families in tower blocks because, he alleges, they got homes in a Labour plot to flood the constituency with non-whites. Has he got any evidence? “Yes, through our freedom of information requests. But I can’t disclose it at this time because of data protection laws.”
Outside his house, easily recognisable by the St George and Union flags, Mr Barnbrook insists — a little unconvincingly — that he is not bitter about Mr Griffin taking over as parliamentary candidate.
“Only Nick has got an ego big enough to deal with sitting alone in the Commons,” he says. “And, anyway, to control the council would be far more prestigious. I’m better with people, I have more charisma.” So how does he get on with his neighbours? “Great,” he replies. “We have black and Muslim families living here. I get on with everybody.”
A few inquiries at homes nearby suggests that this is not quite true. One black man says that he feels uneasy leaving his young family on their own because “a lot of people come to that house, I don’t like the way they look at my children”. A few doors down, a woman says: “I’m scared of them. Please don’t print my name.”
Mr Barnbrook may try to be nice. He clearly believes in the powers of all that charisma and his special suit. The BNP is ridiculous — even pathetic. But when fomenting such fear and loathing, it is not funny.