Out there - Barking

Shiv Malik investigates the BNP's sudden surge

''My mum's voting BNP. All the older people are, everyone around here is," says Tate Keating, 21. Standing two minutes from Becontree Underground station in Barking, Margaret Hodge's constituency, I ask her why. "Well, it doesn't matter if you're white, black, Asian, Chinese: you don't want people coming here and taking your jobs," she says in a matter-of-fact way.

Further down the road, I stop the manager of a local co-op. Though he is voting Tory, he says that a lot of people want a "radical" change. He points out that at the building site for the new school down the road, not one employee is from "around here".

Barking is the British National Party's number-one target seat for the whole of the south. The chair of the local Labour Party, Jeff Porter, says the BNP is "flooding the area" with supporters from around the country, and completely outnumbering Labour supporters. And it's working. According to both BNP internal results and local Labour feedback, the BNP candidate, Richard Barnbrook, will come in a very strong second.

It should not be all that surprising. Last year, Barking elected its first BNP coun-cillor, Daniel Kelly, for the Goresbrook ward. Kelly came first in the three-member ward, winning 51.8 per cent of the vote, compared with Labour's 29.1 per cent.

Barnbrook says people are turning to the BNP because Labour has abandoned its traditional values and the working class. "I would say that we're more Labour than Labour are," says he, dressed in a beige cotton pencil-tie and brown suit, and sporting a short-back-and-sides haircut. And according to Barnbrook, it's not just the over-50, white working class who are voting BNP, it's second-generation black Caribbeans as well.

"I got a telephone call from a care worker; her parents came over on the Windrush. She was angry about - she quoted 'Africans' - and that they seemed to be getting a better hand, a better deal than the people she's actually caring for in her community," he says.

Out of 80 phone calls Barnbrook has received pledging support, he says six or seven have come from black Caribbean people. This is confirmed by Porter.

"A lot of them are confused," he says. "I met someone at the by-election - Afro-Caribbean, youngish guy - and he was saying, 'Yeah, it's all these asylum-seekers coming in, innit?' I mean, hello, hello!"

However, Porter disagrees that this is about voter disengagement. He says it's about immigration. Barking has been one of the cheapest places to buy a house in the London area and a lot of people - whites and non-whites - have moved in.

"The biggest thing is the speed of change: that's what is unsettling and unnerving people," says Porter. "They can't understand it; they can't explain it to them-selves. They think there must be something behind it. They can't believe that an African can earn enough money to buy a house," he says.

The BNP leaflets that have been handed out in the Goresbrook, Mayesbrook, Thames and Eastbury wards concentrate almost solely on immigration. Adorned with cartoons mocking Hodge - one has her exclaiming how nice it is that every-one gets on, while standing at the front of a class where none of the children speaks English - the A4 leaflets try to hammer home messages such as "Labour want more immigrants" and "BNP - we say what you think".

They also claim that Labour is giving away grants of £50,000 for immigrants to buy houses under a scheme known as "Africans for Essex", and that "in parts of Barking the black and Asian popu-lation is already almost 50 per cent and increasing daily".

The leaflets may be nasty and narrowly focused but, along with the rest of the BNP campaign in Barking, they are having an effect.

As Keating tells me before she leaves, "They make a lot more sense than the Labour ones."