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Just the sort of place the BNP loves

Stoke is a town in decline and it is in declining towns that the far right is taking hold. Daniel Tr

‘‘They’re a bunch of robbin’ bastards and I’m not voting for any of them,” spits a passer-by in his fifties, in typically blunt Midlands fashion. Sheltering from the rain in the porch of a defunct Woolworths in Hanley, the main retail district of Stoke-on-Trent, anti-racism campaigners are doggedly trying to convince Saturday morning shoppers to vote in the imminent European elections. They are one of many local groups across the UK taking part in Hope Not Hate, a drive to keep the British National Party from gaining a seat – and several hundred thousand pounds of funding – in the European Parliament on 4 June. Thanks to the unfolding MPs’ expenses scandal in Westminster, the campaigners’ task has just got a lot harder.

“This has come at exactly the wrong moment for us – people are now saying they won’t vote at all,” says Olwen Hamer, chair of the North Staffordshire Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, which is run by a handful of committed – and, right now, soaking wet – volunteers. Fringe parties such as the BNP benefit from a low turnout; in the West Midlands region, of which Stoke is a part, the far-right party needs only 11 per cent of the vote to win a seat. Voters, who are lukewarm towards European elections at the best of times, now express an unprecedented anger at the political system.

The BNP sees this as an opportunity to expand its support, with a campaign slogan inviting the electorate to “punish the pigs” (an irony, considering the well-documented track record of corruption among the party’s councillors). Its leader, Nick Griffin, may boast about the BNP being about to go mainstream, but in reality it remains tiny, having attracted fewer than 200,000 votes in the 2005 general election. Stoke, however, provides the strongest example of how the party, which is desperate to hide its roots in racist violence and appear respectable, has become adept at exploiting apathy. Nine BNP members sit on the city council; Griffin describes it as his party’s “jewel in the crown”.

While the media and politicians have had their eyes trained on Islamic extremism during the past decade, the far right has consolidated its position in local politics. Peter Hain, the former Labour minister and veteran anti-apartheid campaigner, confirms this. “It’s crept up on everybody. It’s been very evident for a number of years that the BNP have got a serious strategy for establishing a platform for racist and fascist politics in suits. People in the mainstream parties, with the odd exception, have tended to be very complacent about that.”

Received wisdom says that the BNP does well in deprived former industrial areas, capitalising on the prejudices and frustration of the white working class. Stoke would appear to fit the bill. The city, a conurbation with a population of 250,000, was once supported by ceramics and coal mining (“pots and pits”, as it’s known locally). The pits were killed off in the 1980s – people here still talk about the miners’ strike as if it were yesterday – and the pots have been depleted by overseas competitors. Now, the landscape is dotted with the towers of derelict bottle kilns and factories. Sandy McLatchi, an unemployed pottery worker, tells me that racism is endemic in Stoke, mainly directed against the city’s 9,000 inhabitants of Asian descent, many of whom moved here in the 1960s. “The city is split and completely insular, each town is like a tribe of its own, and the culture lends itself very well to the BNP. They don’t like outsiders here.”

The local MP, Mark Fisher, is a rebellious Labour backbencher and former arts minister who has represented Stoke Central since 1983. When we meet, I ask if his constituency has been badly hit by the recession; he half-jokes that it has never recovered from the last one. Unemployment has been high since the 1980s and manufacturing jobs have been replaced by service industry jobs that come and go with the fluctuations of the financial markets.

But this tells only part of the story. I suggest voters in towns like Stoke are angry at the expenses scandal not because of the sums involved, but because it is yet more evidence that Westminster politicians think of themselves as a class apart, deserving of a lifestyle comparable to that of bankers and “wealth creators”. He agrees: “We’ve got a new class of politicians who are

careerists. MPs are younger now, they come straight from university to being a research assistant to becoming a candidate to becoming an MP. Everyone wants to be a minister.”

Meanwhile grass-roots support for mainstream parties has declined as ordinary people feel increasingly cut off from politics. This is particularly true in Labour’s case, where membership has plummeted from over 400,000 in 1997 to well under 200,000. The collapse is keenly felt in Stoke, which has been dominated by the Labour Party for decades. Effective opposition from the two other main parties is non-existent – the Conservative party branch is rumoured to have as few as 17 members.

Fisher points to two factors that have increased the rate of decay: Margaret Thatcher’s reform of local government, which transferred more power to Westminster, and New Labour’s enthusiasm for elected mayors, which he derides as a Blairite gimmick.

“I never felt that Blair had anything except the most superficial media-grabbing interest in elected mayors. He was never interested in local government; he didn’t understand the checks and balances that it requires.”

As a result, Stoke has a political culture that wouldn’t look out of place on The Wire. I wanted to speak to the mayor, Mark Meredith, but he has been arrested as part of a police investigation into alleged corruption and is on bail, along with Roger Ibbs, the former leader of the council’s Conservatives, and Mo Chaudry, a swimming pool owner who once appeared on Channel 4’s reality show The Secret Millionaire. On 8 May, the local government minister John Healey intervened with a series of measures intended to repair the “damaged” council.

It is in this context that the BNP has stepped in to fill a gap. Its activists have attracted votes in council wards neglected by other parties, in many cases by offering to cut residents’ lawns or collect their rubbish.

Alby Walker, the owner of a small joinery firm, and his wife, Ellie, are councillors in the Abbey Green ward of the city and candidates for the European Parliament. The BNP is hoping voters will find them the acceptable face of the far right. Sitting in their shared council office, calmly extolling the virtues of hard work, they could pass for run-of-the-mill Tory councillors, were it not for the wall plastered with far-right propaganda (“People like you – voting BNP”) and anti-Muslim headlines torn from the Sun and Daily Express newspapers.

Alby chooses his words carefully (“Oswald Mosley? Who’s that, Daniel?”), insisting that accusations of racism are slurs against the BNP. Ellie is less adept at staying on-message. Last year, interviewed on local television, she described herself as “racialist but not a racist”. Yet even Alby admits that when he first became a councillor, three years ago, “I didn’t fully understand the role. I’d just got the political ideology.”

The BNP’s ideology, he insists, is nationalist, rather than racist or fascist. But it is a nationalism based on race – only white people have the right to be British. Any non-whites, even if their families have lived here for generations, “can never be British, they are guests of Britain”.

The atmosphere in the wider community is more openly sinister. Mohammed Khan, a taxi driver whose parents migrated from Pakistan in the 1970s, tells me there are parts of the city he won’t visit for fear of being attacked. And the anti-racism campaigners I met speak of a pervasive atmosphere of intimidation. Black-suited bodyguards accompany BNP councillors on election platforms and fraternise with police at demonstrations. An often-used tactic for sowing disharmony is for a BNP activist to turn up at a pub and befriend regulars by talking about football, before moving on to untrue stories about preferential treatment for foreigners.

Most worrying is the party’s involvement with education. In May 2001, the BNP distributed a leaflet outside Longton High School, a Stoke comprehensive with a large contingent of Asian pupils, that spoke of a “race war” between children. Challenged by journalists from the local newspaper, Michael Coleman, the BNP’s branch secretary, acknowledged the leaflets were racist. He is now a councillor who sits as chair of the children and young people’s overview and scrutiny committee. Since June 2008, he has also been a governor at Longton High.

 

Ivan Hickman, secretary of the Stoke branch of the National Union of Teachers, confirms that the BNP has been making a determined effort to get its members elected to governing bodies of schools in order to look like a respectable political party. And a shortage of ordinary people willing to take up governors’ posts means that there are plenty of opportunities.

The evidence from Stoke suggests that the far right is being allowed to wrap its tendrils around the roots of democracy, helped by the collapse of public enthusiasm for its institutions. After 12 years in government, Labour can point to various attempts to promote “community cohesion”. But, says Fisher, these have been largely cosmetic. “We’ve done incredible things in

this city. We’ve got 90 new primary schools, a really good Sure Start programme. But that’s not community cohesion. We’ve been good on spending the money, but we’ve been bad at grass-roots politics and empowering people at

a local level.”

 

Rather than confront the problem, however, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Hazel Blears, tells me curtly that her government “has always been building strong communities”. By contrast, her Conservative shadow, Paul Goodman, identifies a need to “focus more rigorously on the extremism that underlies violence”.

Nor is Blears’s view shared by some of her colleagues. Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP who has made a name for himself by fighting the BNP in his Essex constituency, Dagenham, is adamant that, despite the public’s anger at mainstream politics, the BNP need not profit – but only if politicians acknowledge their mistakes.

“Voters have material frustrations around housing and work and take offence that all political parties are preoccupied with Middle England,” he says. “But we are witnessing the biggest anti-fascist mobilisation ever seen – thousands of people are pitching in.

 

It’s about not resigning ourselves to accepting that they will win.”

Back in Hanley, the sky has cleared a little and the campaigners are attracting a steady stream of people. A youthful organiser of the city’s Gay Pride festival drops by to lend his support. “The BNP try and stop us marching,” he says. “But we take that with a pinch of salt – we don’t care what they think.” Politicians may have written off the city, but its people certainly haven’t. If the left is going to rebuild itself, Stoke-on-Trent wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

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

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“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used. The letter was quite nasty because it talked about me being a huge burden to the company.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.

***

Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”


Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone.”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.”

She says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.