Councillors, trade unionists and anti-fascists in the east London borough of Barking & Dagenham have refuted claims by Margaret Hodge, the New Labour minister and MP for Barking, that the borough’s housing crisis is caused by immigrants.
Hodge, writing in last Sunday’s Observer newspaper, claimed that current housing policy “prioritises the needs of an individual migrant family over the entitlement others feel they have” and called for preference to be given to “indigenous” families.
But local activists say Barking’s problems are down to a lack of houses and have nothing to do with immigration. Hodge’s remarks have echoed the racist lies told by the British National Party (BNP), they say, and opened the door to the fascists.
Valerie Rush is a Labour councillor for Gascoigne, one of the most deprived wards in Barking. “The situation in Barking & Dagenham is that we need to build more council houses,” she told Socialist Worker.
“Every year the government takes money we receive in rents away from us – last year it was £14 million. If they were to give us our money back and allow us to build 8,000 council houses, we wouldn’t have this problem.”
The housing crisis in Barking is made worse by a chronic lack of social housing across the south east of England and London in particular, she adds.
Working class families from across London have been forced out of their neighbourhoods by spiralling house prices and have moved to Barking.
Hodge’s remarks on immigrants were “inappropriate”, says Valerie. “We don’t need to introduce immigration and racial comments into the arguments.”
Phil Waker is a councillor for Village ward in Dagenham. He describes Hodge’s comments as “outrageous, ignorant and hypocritical”.
Phil said, “Hodge has come out with the sort of fantasy stories that the BNP has been trying to peddle. It’s difficult to counter the perception that immigrants are getting priority when people are being told these stories.
“I don’t think she gives a monkey that she’s given the biggest boost to the BNP since her last comments, when she claimed eight out of ten white families were thinking of voting BNP.”
The way to stand up to the BNP is by campaigning hard for working class people’s interests, adds Phil.
“My ward was the only one in the borough where Labour beat the BNP last year. That is because we are fighting for working people. If that means fighting the government, so be it.”
Tom Baillie, branch secretary of Barking’s GMB union, also condemned Hodge. “As for economic migrants – well, I am one!” he told Socialist Worker. “I came here from Scotland 25 years ago. How dare we slate these people for coming here after we’ve invited them.”
Weyman Bennett, joint secretary of Unite Against Fascism, said, “We need to be challenging the lies the BNP tell about Barking & Dagenham instead of making concessions to their racism.”
Lindsey German, Respect’s candidate for mayor of London, said, “This is the despicable conclusion of New Labour’s rotten record on housing.You do not deal with these problems by pandering to prejudice.”
The anger against Hodge has led to a fierce battle within Barking Labour Party, Socialist Worker has learned. Hodge vowed to “clean up” the local party by purging it of traditional activists and replacing them with her cronies.
This resulted in an attempt to deselect Hodge from the seat by “Old Labour” forces in Barking. But she saw off that deselection bid last week. Labour Party sources say the timing of her latest comments reflect an attempt to consolidate her power base locally.
Margaret Hodge claims that her scheme to privilege “indigenous” families over “new migrants” when it comes to housing has nothing to do with race but is just about putting “British citizens” first.
But Hodge constantly brings in race. Her Observer article talks of how Barking has changed from “predominantly white neighbourhoods to many multi-racial neighbourhoods”. She has defended her remarks by saying she is voicing the feelings of “my white families”.
Housing allocation policies designed to favour “indigenous” people are invariably racist in practice. In the late 1980s Tower Hamlets council in east London – then under Liberal Democrat control – introduced a scheme, called “sons and daughters”.
This involved rampant discrimination in housing against the local Bangladeshi communities.
The results of this officially sanctioned atmosphere of racism were predictable. Racist attacks soared. In 1993 the Nazi BNP won its first councillor in the borough.
It took a united campaign to drive the Nazis out then. Now Hodge’s barely concealed bigotry risks letting them back into east London.
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