Demography, race and class: New Labour and the BNP
Searchlight the international anti-fascist Magazine: June 2006
Jon Cruddas MP and Nick Lowles
The May 2006 local elections in England saw gains for the far-right, British National Party in Barking & Dagenham, including the defeat of one Labour councillor and RMT activist - a hero of the 7 July bombings 11 months earlier, who led his passengers to safety out of Edgeware Road Tube station. In this article from Searchlight magazine an analysis and some wider lessons of the election campaign are considered.
Barking & Dagenham has recently become synonymous with the British National Party. The borough has hardly been out of the news. For two weeks before the local elections the media were crawling over the area writing articles foreboding BNP support. When this became a reality on 4 May the media were back in town, this time reflecting on the political earthquake that was largely of their own making. Jon Cruddas MP and Nick Lowles argue that only a readjustment in public policy can defeat the BNP.
It would be easy to believe that the BNP gains in Barking & Dagenham simply dropped out of the sky: an overnight success that took everyone by surprise. This view is not only factually incorrect but leaves a dangerous gap in understanding why the BNP gained such support.
The BNP polled 4.9% across London in the Assembly elections in 2004, but in Barking & Dagenham it took 14.8%. Adding the UKIP’s 18% pushes the right-wing vote to above 33%. In several wards, including all those where the BNP gained councillors this year, the combined BNP UKIP vote in 2004 was over 40%.
A few months after the London Assembly election, the BNP won a Barking & Dagenham council by-election with over 52% of the vote. The party had averaged 35% in five council by-elections over the previous two years. At the general election the BNP collected 4,916 votes – 17.0% – in the Barking constituency; in Dagenham the figure was 2,870 votes – 9.3%.
This year’s BNP performance is significant not least because over the past few years there has been a sustained campaign against the BNP on the ground. At local level a new popular front politics has been forged through anti-fascist groups and churches, local union branches and voluntary and political groups coming together to combat the BNP.
Indeed election day saw a massive Labour vote mobilised. The Labour Party made seven gains from the Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and independents leaving only one Tory hanging on by five votes. Overall the number of Labour councillors fell from 42 to 38, the BNP took 12 (subject to a court correcting an error in the announcement of the results), the Conservatives held one and all other parties were wiped out.
The key was turnout, which rose from some 22% to 38%. In some wards it approached or even exceeded 50%. In short, there was both a massive Labour vote – the product of mobilising on the ground over a number of years – and a surge in BNP support in its seven target wards.
Alongside the strong Labour campaign there was a concerted anti-fascist operation co-ordinated by Searchlight. In the immediate pre-election period it included the distribution of 25,000 tabloid newspapers to every household in the borough and up to three letters to the 6,000 households containing black and minority ethnic voters. This was a phenomenal operation that was unrivalled anywhere in the country and built upon two years of systematic organisation at street level. Moreover it dovetailed with a vigorous union trade operation targeting members in the borough and providing troops for the broader anti-fascist mobilisation.
How then are we to understand the BNP vote?
Part of it is accounted for by the ability of the BNP to become the depository for anti-Labour feeling in a number of wards given the limited alternatives available to vote for any other party. Across the borough Labour stood 51 candidates, the Tories 23, the UKIP 17, the BNP 13, Liberal Democrats four and others seven.
However, compared to recent levels of activity and its general profile, until a few weeks before polling day the BNP had appeared weak and dispirited: it had few activists on the streets, limited materials were being distributed and its expectations were low. Indeed activists were being sent away to Loughton, seen as the party’s main electoral priority.
The real trigger for BNP activity, and consequently votes and elected councillors, was the media frenzy following Margaret Hodge’s comments that eight out of ten of her white working-class voters supported the BNP, her view that in some sense the profile of Barking resembled that of Brixton and the statement that other London authorities were actively depositing asylum seekers into the borough. What followed was arguably the most sustained, and indeed often benign, media coverage of the BNP that we have seen.
Many now believe that this coverage of the BNP actually served to reactivate and further build its vote in the borough. The figures for those voting BNP far exceeded all local intelligence-based estimates, as well as all quantitative and qualitative empirical data built up over the past few years on prospective vote and actual levels of support.
Indeed evidence and intelligence from within the BNP itself reinforces the view that this coverage electrified its campaign and support not only in East London but around the country and was directly responsible for many of its electoral successes. The final nine days of press coverage, especially of the Home Office lapses in deporting foreign nationals, reinforced this.
Yet these movements of votes over the last few weeks of the campaign hardly account for the material forces that underpin the BNP presence in the borough. The key forces at work arise from the extraordinary demographic shifts that are occurring against a legacy of poverty and sustained underinvestment in public services and infrastructure.
The key driver of this transformation is the relatively low cost private housing market; yet this consequence of the right to buy has also heightened demand for social housing given sustained house price inflation over the past five years. The borough retains the lowest cost housing across the whole of London and as such it has a magnetic pull for anyone in search of such housing.
The major demographic changes are still off the radar of public policy makers who remain attached to census data that offer diminishing returns in terms of understanding the day-to-day realities of life in the borough. The population changes have largely occurred since the last census. Yet public policy making assumes a stable – indeed slightly declining – population of 164,000 for allocating resources with a static ethnic make-up for every year since 2001.
The only data set that begins to uncover the demographic shifts of which every resident is aware is year-on-year data regarding school rolls. This shows up both a rapidly growing head count and dramatic shifts within that total. For example, between 2003 and 2005 the percentage of white children on the school roll fell by some 9.1%. Three quarters of this change is accounted for by black African children.
One of the key factors behind the emergence of the BNP is this rupture between the formal state perception of the borough and the day-to-day dynamics at work within it. The incremental state investment in public services on the basis of out of date population statistics cannot even begin to remove concerns that demographic change is occurring while resources are becoming more scarce. Therefore, it is a short step to perceive that these changes are actually reducing the social wage, be this in terms of growing health inequalities, reduced access to social housing or even declining hourly wage rates as the dynamic of migration triggers a rush to the bottom in terms of conditions at work.
Each issue of resource allocation is seen by many as an issue of race, which becomes the proxy by which, for example, health, housing and wage inequalities are viewed. The most acute politicisation of resources concerns housing. Yet it is considered through the prism of race rather than systematic failure to provide low-rent social housing units.
It is here that the issue of working-class disenfranchisement kicks in. New Labour has quite consciously removed class as an economic or political category; it has specifically calibrated a science of political organisation – and indeed an ideology – to camp out in middle England with unarguable electoral successes.
Yet the question remains whether the policy mix developed ever more to dominate a specific part of the electoral architecture of the UK actually compounds problems in other communities with a different history and contemporary economic and social profile.
It is not just about social housing, although this is the most concrete manifestation of the core problem. It is about the ability of the state to anticipate and invest in the poor urban communities that take the strain of rapid demographic change. These communities are the least able to navigate through such change as they retain the legacies of previous periods of political and economic failure.
It is across this seam of class, race, poverty, public service inequalities and the demography of urban Britain that the question of Labour renewal might be considered when cast alongside the rise of the BNP.
The policy remedies are easy to identify – housing strategy, labour market reform, sustained education investment, the removal of health inequalities, use of brownfield land, a creative approach to demographic change in real time, including a once and for all regularisation of illegal migrants so as properly to quantify population growth etc, etc. In many respects although unfashionable the remedies are often self-evident especially when you have the most brownfield land in London.
It is in reality an exercise in political will. Such remedies would allow us to return to the class disenfranchisement issues contained in current present strategy and the associated triangulations of New Labour especially as regards race. It would also create the positive sum environment to beat the BNP – at present our organisation takes place within a zero-sum policy framework.
What this would entail is an actual renewal in terms of policy and organisation of an electoral coalition. Yet all we hear from the provisional wing within New Labour is that last week’s electoral failures were solely attributable to not being New Labour enough – we simply lost those voters we gained in 1997. Empirically this is not the case but these facts cannot get in the way.
Ceteris paribus we must provide more New Labour reform. It is this fundamental distinction between renewal and reform that must resolved over the next months and years and it must be resolved not with recourse to an ever more extreme right-wing route map but by deepening and widening a genuine political coalition.