The arguments about why the Nazi British National Party (BNP) won 11 seats in the borough of Barking & Dagenham, east London, in the recent council elections continued to rage last week.
New Labour has helped to create the conditions in which a minority accept the BNP’s racist scapegoating.
Building Respect in Barking & Dagenham, providing an alternative to those disillusioned by Labour, is a central element to driving out the BNP.
Another element is forging united struggles over social issues such as housing, and anti-Nazi campaigning through Unite Against Fascism, which can expose the BNP’s lies.
Such campaigns can draw together Respect members, trade unionists and those in Labour who are willing to fight.
There are encouraging signs of a readiness to build such a united fightback.
Lee Waker is a Barking & Dagenham Labour councillor in Village ward. Lee and his brother Phil won their seats, but the third councillor elected was from the BNP.
Lee spoke to Socialist Worker about the elections, and the steps now needed to resist the BNP.
“I put much of the blame on government minister Margaret Hodge,” he said. “She played into the BNP’s hands.
“The BNP has been quite dormant in this ward since the October 2004 by-election. We had been doing patient and painstaking work, explaining that the BNP’s myths about Africans getting grants to move into the area and similar lies were wrong.
“I really felt we were winning people over. And then Hodge mouthed off and said essentially what the BNP were saying about ‘white people’s resentment’ in a different way.
“Hodge said that people ‘see black and ethnic minority communities moving in and they are angry’. She added – with, if anything, the appearance of sympathy with the view – that white families were angry about the way that immigrants and asylum seekers have been rehoused in the area by inner London councils.
“This had the effect of reinforcing the BNP’s myths.
“It gave the BNP new energy, a real publicity boost.
“The weakness of the BNP is shown by the fact that its two lead candidates in the borough, Barnbrook and Bailey, used the address of a derelict house to register as candidates.
“Barnbrook comes from Blackheath in south east London. These are the outsiders coming in to wreck our communities.
“During the campaign we quickly found that resentment at the Labour Party nationally was hitting us hard.
“In March, when we started canvassing, there was the cash for peerages scandal. Then in the last week it was one blow after another with the Charles Clarke issue, Patricia Hewitt saying the NHS was having its best time ever – just as there were big job cuts – and John Prescott’s antics.
“It was demoralising to see our efforts undermined. We survived because we had done a lot of hard work taking up residents’ concerns, and fighting for their interests. I wouldn’t overstate it but we had won some improvements in leisure facilities and in some of the council housing.
“It was probably also important that in our newsletters in the ward we had said we wouldn’t be pushed around by the Labour leadership, that we would hold on to principles.
“There are now key issues to take up in order to push back the BNP , and to make life better for people here.
“Housing is absolutely central because many young people can’t afford a house and the BNP uses this issue to blame immigrants.
“The part rent, part buy housing which is pushed by the government is still too expensive for many people in this area who have very poorly paid jobs.
“We need council housing, a basic demand that seems to have been forgotten by a government which is obsessed with big business and people making money.
“You have flats rented out by private landlords at £350 a week with large amounts of that paid for by housing benefit. It has to be cheaper to build houses.
“I hope that we will soon be able to win the council over to a position of support for the fourth option (direct investment from the government in council housing) and for a serious campaign to get council house investment in the Thames Gateway.
“There is land here which could be used to build the homes we need. Instead it is directed towards private developments which will be out of the price range of most people.
“The council should say we won’t be dictated to by deputy prime minister John Prescott or London mayor Ken Livingstone or anyone else.
“If this means a ding-dong with the government, then let’s have a ding-dong with the government.”
Everyone knows that housing is an important question. After the election, Liam Smith, the Labour Party agent for Barking & Dagenham, said, “Social housing is a huge issue across London and a huge issue here. We simply have to address it.
“There are huge social issues we have to deal with and housing is the main one. That is what the BNP are tapping into.”
Barking & Dagenham is not unique. Brian Dow from the homeless charity Shelter told Socialist Worker that it is urgent the government builds more homes.
He said, “Both the major parties have neglected housing over the last 20 years. The number of social houses that has been built has declined steeply and much of the existing council house stock has been sold off and not replaced.
“In 1979 the government built 100,000 homes a year, that’s now down to 25,000.
“The result is there is massive stored-up need and desire for council housing. There are 100,000 households – 250,000 people nationally – living in temporary accommodation.
“When you get a shortage of housing like that and you have got lots of people looking for that housing, you get a blame culture resulting and that creates room for people like the BNP to move in.
“The government has a target of 30,000 social housing units a year. But that’s not enough. Shelter is calling for over £1 billion of extra government investment each year between 2008 and 2011 to fund an additional 20,000 social rented homes each year on top of the 30,000 promised.”
It would be a huge step forward if people from the Labour Party, the unions and Respect came together as part of a great east London movement to fight for such demands in the borough.
Labour councillors such as Lee Waker have fought hard for their wards. But a consistent assault on poverty and racism needs consistent opposition to the Labour government and its priorities.
That is why it is so urgent for Respect to grow in Barking & Dagenham.
Repeating Respect’s successes in Newham and Tower Hamlets would provide a positive focus for the many people – white, Asian and black – who are bitter at Labour and the traditional parties.
A serious, united campaign can begin to expose the BNP’s racist myths
Fighting seriously over social issues such as housing is central to driving out the BNP. But it is also a key political task to shatter the racist myths the BNP uses to con voters.
Other areas also have appalling social conditions, but the BNP has not grown there. The politics of the area—the failure of Labour and the other traditional parties—have allowed racism to flourish.
One sign of the hollowed out poitics is how few candidates there were at the recent council elections.
It is widely accepted that Barking & Dagenham has been “flooded” with asylum seekers and immigrants, and that this has led to the rise of the BNP.
But, as journalist Melanie McFadyean said, “The truth is that three houses out of 20,000 in Barking and Dagenham are occupied by asylum-seekers—less than 0.02 percent.
“If their asylum claims are rejected, they are evicted. If they get refugee status or leave to remain (temporary status), they are entitled to the same as anyone else.
“Moreover, Barking & Dagenham hasn’t in fact housed any asylum seekers since October 2002 when the government transferred housing and support for them to the National Asylum Support Services.
“Nor is it possible to tell how many houses have gone to ‘immigrants’ because there is no housing classification for any such category of people.
“The 2001 national census shows that in Barking & Dagenham, 85.2 percent said they were ‘white’ and 15 percent classified themselves as ‘black’ or ‘ethnic minority’.
“This does indeed show a demographic change from the census of 1991 when 96 percent said they were white, and compares to a London average of 71 percent.
“But it is not known how many people classified as white, black or from ethnic minorities occupy existing ‘social housing’—so how does Hodge know that white families can’t get homes because of black and ethnic minority people?
“The larger truth, which she all but ignores, is the simple lack of social housing.”
Ludi Simpson of Manchester University, a social statistician who specialises in population change in multicultural Britain, compares the census for 1991 and 2001. He notes that Barking & Dagenham’s boundaries were redrawn during the period to encompass 9,200 people mainly from the neighbouring borough of Redbridge.
This makes the change in the composition of the population very far from the “most rapid transformation of a community we have ever witnessed”, as Hodge claimed.
Unite Against Fascism has taken on the task of unmasking the BNP and its lies.
The GMB union in Barking has called a protest against the BNP councillors. Meet outside Barking town hall at 6pm on Wednesday 17 May. Unite Against Fascism is supporting the demo.
For more, go to Unite’s website www.uaf.org.uk