It is only through open debate that we can expose the BNP's false prospectus and vile intentions, argues Margaret Hodge
Several symbolic victories lightened the gloom for Labour at the election, but none more so than the trouncing of the BNP in Barking and Dagenham. I doubled my majority; the BNP was driven into third place by the Tories; and all of its councillors lost their seats. In short, the politics of hatred and racism were decisively rejected.
Four years ago, I warned of the dangers of the rise of the extreme Right, after a surge in BNP support in my area. Some believed that by raising the problem, I was creating it. But I remain convinced that we cannot deal with the issue by ignoring it. All that does is add to the alienation of those who believe that politicians don't listen to their grievances, and haven't a clue about their concerns.
The argument about whether we should share platforms with the BNP is redundant. It is only through open debate that we can expose its false prospectus and vile intentions. That is why, in Barking and Dagenham, the BNP leader, Nick Griffin, consistently refused to debate with me, or the other candidates. He knew he'd lose the argument – on immigration, on the BNP's hideous heritage, and on local concerns and priorities.
The people here looked to the BNP because they have legitimate grievances. They have experienced the most rapid demographic change in the country. All of us would feel some unease if our neighbours suddenly seemed foreign, and the produce in the shops became unfamiliar. The traditional employer, Ford, has cut back from 40,000 workers to 4,000. The sale of council houses created a lack of decent affordable homes. The local Labour Party became too complacent, and there was no mainstream opposition.
The result was a cocktail of circumstances that the BNP could exploit. In 2006, they put forward 13 candidates in the local elections and won 12 seats. With more candidates, they might well have taken control of the council. Our voters felt we had completely lost touch with them.
Our response was to do everything we could to reconnect with people, and give them a positive reason for voting Labour. In our coffee afternoons, street meetings and door-to-door visits, we didn't talk about national issues. Instead, we listened to what voters were concerned about – from potholes, to the resiting of bus stops, to anti-social behaviour. And, of course, they talked about immigration and the impact they felt it was having on housing, jobs, schools and crime.
First, we always tried to deliver on the local concerns, to show people we were listening. Second, we worked hard to stay in touch with those we met, so people got to know their MP and local activists. Finally, we talked about immigration. Voters of every race share the same concerns about the way housing and welfare benefits are allocated. We didn't promise to turn the clock back. But just by listening and showing understanding, we began to restore confidence and trust.
Since 2006, we have almost doubled our party membership, and are now truly representative of our community. In the council wards where the BNP was strongest, we put forward African and Asian candidates – and they won with handsome majorities.
Yet this is the beginning, not the end of the campaign. The BNP retained its deposit in 72 constituencies, and remains a threat to tolerant, democratic politics across Britain. In particular, we still have to find our way through the issue of immigration. To this end, we need a better system for rationing housing and benefits, with priority for those who have lived in an area for longest. This would immediately lance the toxic perception that the allocation systems are unfair. In that way, we could start to change people's attitudes to immigration, and relegate the BNP to the dustbin, where it belongs.
Margaret Hodge is the MP for Barking & Dagenham