The Battle for Barking: won or lost?

A new film shows the kind of community likely to be hurt most by the coalition's cuts.

I've just been to see Laura Fairrie's excellent documentary The Battle for Barking, which is broadcast on More4 next month. It's a thoughtful and sensitive portrait of the election battle that took place earlier this year on the fringes of east London between Labour's Margaret Hodge and the BNP's Nick Griffin, following the campaign on both sides.

It works particularly well as a portrait of Barking's ordinary working-class residents and the frustrations that have pushed some of them towards supporting the BNP. A lack of decent housing -- as I reported earlier this year -- is at the heart of these frustrations. In one scene, a mother invites the camera into her poky towerblock flat. Tearfully, she explains: "All I want is a garden for my kids to play in."

The sense of isolation from and anger at mainstream politics -- not just from white, BNP-supporting residents, in fact, but others, too -- is palpable. And it is vital to remember that while voters may have kicked the BNP out of Barking, this anger has not gone away. Barking is exactly the kind of community most likely to be hurt by today's spending review. Homes and jobs are already scarce resources there; the planned cap on housing benefit and increase in rent for social housing will push more people out of inner London and towards the edges of the capital. Towards places like Barking.

These are people who were not listened to, even in the boom years; even by a Labour party that was supposed to represent them. I wonder: will anyone in power give a second thought to them in the years to come?

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.