The Battle for Barking

Were we right to be so worried about the BNP?

Although I love BBC4 and, to a lesser extent, More4, you can't get away from the fact that they have a lot of airtime to fill and a relatively small budget with which to do it. The upside of this is that both can explore subjects in depth; the downside is that sometimes they fail to edit stuff properly, the longer to stretch it.

This is precisely what happened with Laura Fairrie's film True Stories: the Battle for Barking (30 November, 10pm). She'd put in the hours and had plenty of stuff; she should have been able to pick and choose when it came to what she used. But, no: the film lasted more than 80 minutes (two hours, if you include all the ad breaks). For every riveting moment, then, you had to deal first with at least ten minutes of utter boredom.

Still, it was revealing. Was media anxiety about the battle for Barking - in which the BNP's leader, Nick Griffin, hoped to replace Margaret Hodge as MP for the area - misplaced, I wonder? I think myself that it might have been. In the end, Hodge - admittedly after a great deal of hard work - won big and has now been rewarded with a prestigious job chairing the House of Commons public accounts committee. The BNP could not even beat the Tories to second place. Fairrie's film made the reason for this - the BNP's incompetence - blatantly clear. I'm not saying that its policies aren't scary and vile. But you listened to its members talking to camera and were struck all over again by how inarticulate they are and, in many instances, how stupid. Faced on the high street and doorsteps with opinions different from their own, they could only shrug and walk away.

And what about the people they hoped would vote for them: Barking's white working class? Those of its members whom Fairrie interviewed were strikingly full of self-pity - "It's not fair," they blubbed, as if life ever is. Concomitant with that was a pathetic inertia that stymied Griffin's every repulsive move. They couldn't be bothered to get involved: with him, or anyone else.

I found Hodge more interesting than Griffin. I've had a few run-ins with her (over our library service, which, as culture minister, she did precious little to help) and I've come to dislike her. She can be extremely patronising. She can also dodge bullets with true New Labour alacrity. On film, though, she seemed more likeable. Granted, I was surprised that while she allowed Fairrie to film at her husband's funeral - he died last year - she did not let her inside the doors of her (presumably grand) north London home. But you would have to have a heart of stone not to have been moved when, having returned to work after compassionate leave, she described how lonely it was to go home after a long day to an empty house. A constituent had told her it would take five years to recover from her loss. Dabbing her eyes with a hanky, Hodge said she was not sure she could go on "feeling like this" for five years; on the other hand, she did not "want to forget how much I loved him".

It would be easy to take the mickey out of her. As she removed a kitten heel in favour of something rather more stout at a groundbreaking photo opportunity, it was revealed to us that she wears Jimmy Choos (yours for 300 quid). When she spoke to constituents, her voice changed hilariously, her glottal stops becoming even more exaggerated than those of a certain T Blair. "Hello, darlin'," she would chirrup, as if auditioning for EastEnders. But she was also plucky and unusually plain-speaking. "Hold your nose!" she kept saying to voters who expressed doubts about Labour. "Vote for us just this one time."

When the men in a mosque barracked her or - worse - a BNP supporter shouted at her to "go back to Germany" (she is the daughter of German- and Austrian-Jewish refugees), her disdain was rather marvellous: lofty, cool and slightly terrifying. No wonder that, at the count on 6 May, the BNP's swivel-eyed members looked so unusually sheepish. A small, still-grieving woman had made them, over the course of a few scant weeks, look even more gutless, witless and antediluvian than usual.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle