Tanya Gold follows Nick Griffin, BNP leader, on the campaign trail against Margaret Hodge. And though his cronies are on hand, he doesn't get an easy ride
It is hot in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham. It feels like the first day of summer. And, in a park opposite Becontree tube station, BNP activists are gathering for their day of action. There are maybe 100 of them. Some are suited and booted, and some are in "Anglo-Saxon" T-shirts and tattoos, the very archetype of ex-National Front. Heartbreakingly, there are children here. As I stand, watching them muster, a small boy comes up to me. Where, he asks, can he get a BNP poster?
Nick Griffin is standing here against Margaret Hodge, the Labour Minister of State for Culture and Tourism (majority: 8,883). It is a stunt. But it is possible that Barking and Dagenham could soon have a BNP-controlled council. It is now the second largest party at local level with 15 seats and they aim to take absolute control; along with Stoke, this borough is the centre of BNP hopes. The BNP wants to reinforce its gains of 2009, when it took two seats in the European parliament and two county council seats. The anti-fascist organisation Searchlight is worried enough to have a permanent HQ here.
Before the muster, I spend an hour with Margaret Hodge, as she walks the empty streets. She is brisk and bossy. "Come back later," says one man, dragged out of bed, when Hodge wants to register him to vote. "No," she replies, "Let's do it now."
Hodge was born to Jewish parents and her maiden name is Oppenheimer. "He [Griffin] called me 'a Jew' a few years ago," she says. "I have been canvassing for 40 years, but this is the most important election I have ever fought."
A few minutes later, a black woman answers the door, holding a baby. Yes, she is voting Labour, she says. No, she won't put a poster in her window. "I am scared," she says.
I go to the Cherry Tree pub to wait for Griffin, who is giving a press conference. The drinkers come out to talk. They are all ex-Labour, now BNP. "It's housing, schools, hospitals and jobs, not colour," says one man. "I believed in Old Labour but not New Labour. They have failed in this borough."
"People have had enough," says a woman. "We are being pushed to the back of the queue. My son couldn't get into the school of his choice. He has no chance of a council house."
"You don't appreciate that our facilities are getting swamped," says another man. "If we vote BNP, people might start listening to us. Because we have been abandoned by our government."
I begin to sympathise with their grievances, because they are right – no council housing has been built here for 30 years. The rise of the BNP is one of Labour's greatest failures. But then comes the racist bile. "Go into a supermarket," says another man, "it's full of immigrants. Why?"
Griffin arrives at the Cherry Tree to give his set-piece speech in the car park. He has a driver/bodyguard dressed as a soldier. He is not a soldier. He is wearing the uniform, he says, "to show solidarity" with the troops in Afghanistan. This does not surprise me. There are plenty of fantasists and oddballs in the BNP leadership.
One parliamentary candidate told me his wife woke him up in bed because he was screaming: "I want to shoot myself in the head."
Another informs me that homosexuality "is an abomination. Buggerers will not inherit the earth."
We watch the new Griffin facing the cameras, polite, concerned, reasonable, a patriot. He denies he incites racism, "No, it is the Labour Party who have taken us into a racist war in Afghanistan." He claims his policies – "Voluntary resettlement" of legal immigrants, instant deportation of all others, withdrawal from the EU – "are what the British people want to hear." Where is the man who, just a few months ago, called mixed-race children "a tragedy?" The man who joined the National Front at 14?
Griffin gets into his car and we drive to Dagenham Broadway, where the BNP has erected its stall. We pass the BNP music bus, pulled over by the police for playing loud music. Griffin gets out and glad-hands; he seems to adore it. Reverend Robert West, the BNP candidate in Lincoln, shouts, "It is not racist to love your country!" as Pastor James Gitau, a black BNP supporter, stands next to him. Every time the Rev Mr West shouts a slogan, Gitau shouts, "Hallelujah!"
A young black girl stares on, astonished. A second black woman strides up to the black preacher, and berates him.
"Why are you holding this?" she shouts. "You are a black man. You should be ashamed." In response, Gitau waves his flag.
Outside Tesco's, Griffin finds some punters. "We are about putting British people first," he tells a spotty boy on a skateboard. "It's not about being white." Now some lads in England shirts arrive, holding pints of lager. "Are you going to do the job for us, Nick?" they ask. "I'm going to try," he replies. They man-hug and Griffin walks into a betting shop, to put £20 on himself to win this seat. "I got 4/1," he says, happily. So far, it is a street party, not a political party.
Then, quickly, it turns dark. A group of black women confront Griffin. "Do you see us as equals?" asks one. He pauses. "Yes, you are equal," he says. "Do you want us to get out of the country?" asks another black woman. "No, we just think the country is full," he replies. "These are my children," says a third, "and we work hard."
Griffin is trying to smile, but there are just too many black women shouting at him for his comfort. The grin melts and, seemingly as one, the BNP high command gets into their cars and drive off. They had stayed for only 20 minutes.
Griffin has, I learn, gone back to the Cherry Tree pub, where there is due to be a debate between all the parliamentary candidates in a private room. It is closed to all press and supporters except for Sky News, who will be broadcasting it. I arrive to find the gates to the car park locked, and a woman from Sky arguing with a Hodge employee. Margaret, he says, doesn't want to go into a BNP pub. But if she wants to debate, she must, "because no other venue would have Griffin". This is the mood in Barking and Dagenham.
I find Hodge a few doors away, outside her campaign headquarters, a brown, bare church. She is trying to find the Tory candidate's telephone number, so they can both pull out of the debate.
"That pub is BNP," she says, looking disgusted, "I don't want to walk through it." Having spent the day with them, I understand. With the BNP, menace is never far away, no matter how much they try to distance themselves from their fascist roots. They are, above all, a party of angry men.
“Margaret, it will be fine,” says her employee, “We’ll drive in.” Hodge squares her shoulders, gets into the car, and drives off. As I walk away, a black Labour supporter comes out of her house and waves at me. I tell her what the BNP supporters say – that they have been abandoned and that only the BNP understands their woes.
“The BNP councillors,” she says, “are nowhere to be seen here. They have the majority in this ward. What have they done?” She pauses. “The damage they will do [if they win the council],” she says, “to house prices, to investment, to race relations. The area will be tarnished for 20 years. It is not for me but for the children we are bringing up. We want them to learn to live together. I am old and I can shrug my shoulders. But the children…”