The London Borough of Barking and Dagenham is at war. The next two weeks will determine whether the area becomes the jewel in the crown for the British National Party – a BNP-controlled council with command of a £200 million-a-year budget. And sometimes, as this week, the warfare becomes physical. Police were called to Barking town centre after a punch-up began during a BNP canvassing session. And there were angry scenes in Dagenham last week when anti-fascist campaigner Billy Bragg had a stand-up row with Richard Barnbrook, the BNP’s London Assembly member.
But even Bragg, a Barking man by birth, has not grasped the seriousness of the situation according to one leading campaigner. “They think that a vote for the BNP is a way of lashing out against the local council”, Bragg said last week. Wrong, says Sam Tarry, organiser for the anti-fascist Hope not Hate campaign and a Labour council candidate in Dagenham. “That shame that used to exist about voting BNP is gone. It’s well beyond a protest now. The BNP have been gaining nationally for five or six years. I think the council is going to be very, very tight.”
The 2006 local elections saw 12 BNP councillors elected to Barking and Dagenham council, making them the biggest BNP council group in the country. According to campaign group Searchlight, the organisers behind Hope not Hate, the party only needs to swing six marginal council wards to gain control.
Away from the town hall, Barking Labour candidate and culture minister Margaret Hodge and Jon Cruddas in the new Dagenham and Rainham contituency seem quietly confident of their own electoral success. But a late BNP surge could yet see Cruddas (notional majority 6,581) unseated by his Conservative opponent. And in November, BNP leader Nick Griffin announced he was standing for Parliament in Barking. Griffin vowed to spend more than the party has ever spent on a constituency campaign: no idle threat, with he and his fellow MEP Andrew Brons now on the Brussels payroll. How much of a threat is he to Labour?
“Griffin’s not here to win a parliamentary seat – the council’s the real prize”, Tarry insists. “He’s here to take the heat off the councillors. Obviously our strategy is to bind those things together. Locally he’s seen as an outsider, someone coming to take advantage of the situation.”
When I arrive in Dagenham, Hope not Hate’s footsoldiers have been out in force at the weekend: 548 to be precise, a record number for any election campaign, delivering glossy leaflets and full-colour Hope not Hate tabloid newspapers. “We got the whole borough done. It was fantastic”, says an activist.
Labour’s big guns, too, are out in force, at least for Hodge. On the day I visit her North Street offices, David Blunkett has been and gone, deputy leader Harriet Harman and her predecessor John Prescott are planning a visit, and health minister Baroness Thornton has just dropped in for a cup of tea. The trainers on her feet prove she has been out canvassing.
“If people are going to support us, they are really going to support us,” she says, echoing some of Sam Tarry’s views. “There’s a strong Labour vote and quite a sizeable BNP vote.”
Indeed, she met some BNP voters today. How did she deal with them? “I said, look, these guys are Nazis! – I feel I’m old enough and mature enough – if it’s someone older I say, ‘did your father fight in the war? Do you want people who like Adolf Hitler running the borough?’”
For all the common cause they have, Searchlight and Labour do not always agree on how to fight the BNP. And neither do Hodge and Cruddas’ offices. Hodge’s profile dominates her literature in a “top of the ticket” strategy. Cruddas gets a more equal billing with his council candidates. Some privately think Hodge’s approach is not the best way to protect the council. But there is no doubting the Barking MP’s sheer hard work: she has pounded the pavements regularly every weekend for the past two years and is currently canvassing three times a day.
Darren Rodwell, Hodge’s campaign manager, is proud of what has been achieved. Three years ago, he says, only 7 per cent of the electorate were on Barking’s contacts database, compared to 54 per cent now. Would he stake his home on a Labour victory, I ask. “I’m as confident as I can be; I would never do anything that would risk my family”, he smiles, before admitting that, in any case, he would move out if the BNP won.
How the impressive efforts in Barking and Dagenham compare to the BNP’s own canvassing is hard to say: at the time of writing, my questions to them were unanswered. But the far-right party has not come from nowhere – its voting figures at general elections have grown steadily for nearly 20 years – and with two Brussels seats and the chance of a Westminster seat, it is certainly not going nowhere. Whether that continues depends on Barking and Dagenham.