As if the BNP weren’t notorious enough, they’ve been given a thorough parading over the Easter break. First Margaret Hodge claims that Labour has failed the white working class, and then a couple of days later a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said that 24% of Londoners have considered voting BNP.
Contrary to what some have said, this isn’t scaremongering, although the press did blow it out of proportion. Yes, 24% considered voting BNP, but as this analysis of the Rowntree report says, the corresponding figure for Labour, Conservative and Lib Dems are near 50% for each. It’s just consideration, not action at the ballot box; there is as much chance of 24% of Londoners voting BNP as there are of any of the big three parties getting 50%.
However, results averaged over all of London can mask problems in certain areas. 17% of voters in Hodge’s seat of Barking
& Dagenham (down the road from where I live) actually chose BNP at the last general election, and Labour have done nothing (up until a week ago) to stop the rot; I fully expect the BNP to make gains this time round. To say it is just scaremongering is to further ignore a long-ignored malaise; a significant minority of those who will turn up to vote will be dissatisfied enough to vote BNP this election.
Hodge does, to be fair to her, make at least some headway. She isn’t, as some have unfairly labelled, just saying “a vote against Labour is a vote for fascism” but does try at least to appreciate that Labour has failed its core vote, the very people the party was meant to represent and help. Unfortunately, having done that, she goes on to make a complete hash of it.
How so? Firstly, because she plays right into the hands of the BNP by saying the issue is all about race. When it isn’t. Race is a factor (and not to be confused with immigration, another mistake she makes, particularly as much recent immigration into East London has been that of white Europeans) but it is not the only one. Labour have not just let down the white working class, but the working class as a whole. It wasn’t just white workers who got fired from the Ford Dagenham plant (the biggest but by no means the only industrial employer in the region), but black and Asian workers as well. It wasn’t just local white people who have been denied the opportunity to fully benefit from the enormous investment in Docklands while local industry was decimated, but all of them; sure, “trickle down” economics have helped keep the local construction and support service sectors going, but without local people themselves being able to work in the best-paid and most rewarding jobs in Docklands, all they see is middle-class people from elsewhere moving in and driving property prices up. True, the redevelopment of Docklands was a Conservative measure, but now Labour are set to repeat the same mistake again with the 2012 Olympics – lots of infrastructure and capital investment but strangely silent on human investment.
Toss that in with the usual problems – Labour’s muddling reforms of schools and hospitals which have produced few tangible benefits and the eternal spectre of crime and social deprivation, and you have considerable resentment. The BNP aren’t the only party out there who know how to exploit this; RESPECT have done the same for the Muslim communities in inner East London. Sure enough, the party was founded on opposition to the Iraq war and other foreign misadventures but they know that to gain local sympathy they have to exploit residents’ dissent about local issues and the inequality gap as much as possible (for example, their opposition to Crossrail, opposed not just because of the disruption but the disproportionate benefit to non-locals). As I noted after the general election last year, the whole region is now becoming caught between smaller parties at each end of the spectrum, whose roots lie in extremism and reactionary opposition to the government of the day.
Which leads onto Hodge’s second mistake. Namely, that people are necessarily going to express this anger at the ballot box. When in actual case many will just stay away; with a choice between a Labour party that doesn’t care and swivel-eyed extremists, I find it hard to drag myself to the ballot box. The turnout for the Borough of Barking & Dagenham in the 1998 local elections was 25.4% and in 2002 dropped to 22.76%; at the 2005 general elections turnout in Barking was 50.1% (which made it 606th out of 646 constituencies) and 51.3% in Dagenham (591st). Local people may be angry but by and large they are not stupid. The most natural consequence of cynicism and weariness is not retribution and adopting extremists, but sheer apathy.
The third, and biggest, mistake is only raising and recognising the issue at election time. The problems that afflict the local area have been going on for years. It’s not just restricted to Barking & Dagenham either; plenty of seats in the capital and in the North suffer the same problem, though few are occupied by a current government minister and so don’t garner the same attention. If Margaret Hodge (and Labour) really cared about the situation or the people they represent, they’d realise that it doesn’t begin and end with the ballot box; the vote is a mere symptom of a failure, both of the Labour party and more generally, of the highly centralised government they have created.
But they don’t realise this, and as a result a great deal of people will be shafted. The extremists at both ends will gain votes and council seats at the local elections, skewing the community into ethnic/religious subdivisions that they define, deigning to speak on behalf on the rest of us. In reality, turnout will be abysmally low yet again; a silent majority who oppose Labour but do not wish to be associated with either the BNP or RESPECT will find themselves caught in the void between the two. With their voice unheard, the Labour leadership (and that of the other two major parties – they’ve deserted the inner-urban vote too) will spend literally minutes wallowing in self-introspection and “isn’t it terrible?”, while tacitly breathing a sigh of relief that the low turnout and lack of credible opposition saved them from a bigger hiding. They’ll soon forget it ever happened and stop worrying about the relevant problems, until another round of elections arrives in a year’s time and forces them to pay brief attention again. Meanwhile, the people of East London (and many other poor areas in the country) will still be left in the same state they were before May 4th: uncared-for as well as unrepresented.
Update: Apologies, I forgot that although Barking & Dagenham is a single London borough, in Parliament it is represented by the two separate seats of Barking (which Hodge represents) and Dagenham (represented by Jon Cruddas, who co-authored the Joseph Rowntree report).
Further update: My copyediting of this post was abysmal, apologies. I’ve made lots of little tweaks and clarifications here and there which hopefully make the point a bit clearer.