Show Hide image

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.

PAUL POPPER/POPPERFOTO
Show Hide image

No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain