Gone to the dogs

Barking in east London was once such a Labour stronghold that the party barely needed to canvass. Now the BNP threatens to seize control. Daniel Trilling follows both far-right and anti-fascist activists on the campaign trail.

 

As gap-year activities go, canvassing for a far-right party is not on most teenagers' wish-list, but that's what George, 18, has volunteered to do. With his public-school quiff and Union Jack tie, and armed with a clipboard, he is spending Saturday afternoon working his way along a street of squat 1920s semis on the Becontree estate in Barking, Essex. He is joined by Phil, a 34-year-old mental health worker from Lincoln. They have both answered the British National Party's nationwide call for activists to help the party's leader, Nick Griffin, seize a Westminster seat on 6 May.

After winning two seats in the European Parliament last June (Griffin in the north-west and Andrew Brons in Yorkshire and Humber), the party is putting up a record number of parliamentary candidates - more than 200 at the last count. It may have little chance of winning outside Barking and Stoke Central (where Griffin's deputy, Simon Darby, is standing), but by campaigning it has been able to influence mainstream debate - not least on immigration. "The rhetoric of the Express and the Mail could come from one of our own newsletters," George tells me. "But then they have to say, 'Don't vote for those fascists!' It's ridiculous."

In a neat cul-de-sac, two men in their thirties are sitting on the front step of a house, drinking lager in the sun. "Is it true the BNP want to get rid of all the Gurkhas?" one of them asks, referring to the retired Nepalese soldiers who have been granted the right to settle in the UK. "No," George says. "In fact, our chairman Nick Griffin said he'd gladly replace 100,000 British-born Muslims with 100,000 loyal Gurkhas who fought for this country." The man looks impressed. "Yeah, I'd go for that."

Back on the main road, George and Phil are given a shout of support from a man across the street: "You're doing a good job, boys! Get rid of all those niggers." A black mother and her two daughters who are walking past at that moment quicken their pace. George and Phil exchange an awkward look. "He's probably had a bit too much to drink," George says.

Barking has become the heart of perhaps the most bitter battle of this year's election. Located on the eastern fringes of London, its high street is a mix of shops run by black, white and Asian people; you hear eastern European languages as you walk through the market crowds. Yet immigration has increased more recently here than elsewhere, and it has become a source of resentment among the white population.

The BNP has won support by exploiting local concerns. In 2006, it published two leaflets that claimed "various Labour councils are giving Africans grants of up to £50,000 to buy houses under a scheme known as 'Africans for Essex'". It wasn't true, but the BNP now has 12 seats on Barking and Dagenham Council and there are fears that the party may take control here in May's local elections. Anti-fascist groups and local Labour activists are making frantic efforts to ensure it doesn't win the 14 extra seats it needs to make that happen. The Hope not Hate campaign has temporarily moved its base of operations to a warehouse in Dagenham.

There was a time when Labour was so dominant in the area that it barely needed to canvass. When the Barking MP Margaret Hodge was first elected in 1994, she won with 72 per cent of the vote; in last year's European elections, Labour's share across Barking and Dagenham was 31 per cent. This mirrors a drop in Labour support nationally, but because neither the Tories nor the Lib Dems have ever had much presence here, the BNP has stepped in to fill the vacuum.

In an attempt to regain support, Hodge is hosting a question-and-answer session in a school hall with the former EastEnders actor Ross Kemp. But despite the star guest, there is little enthusiasm for Labour in the audience. Ann Steward, a member of a Becontree tenants' association, tells Hodge: "The only politician who attends our meetings is Richard Barnbrook [a BNP councillor] and that's why the BNP do so well. They come round and trim our hedges. Now the elections are looming we see Labour, but where have you been? We need your presence."

Steward, like many of her neighbours, has lived in Becontree her whole life. "I still have my mum's old rent book from the 1930s," she says. "For two weeks, she paid 8s and 6d." A vast estate built for skilled workers who were moved from the East End slums after the First World War, Becontree remains the largest such development in Europe. People here have never been wealthy, but they could once count on at least one certainty: a home provided by the council.

Since the Conservative government's Right to Buy scheme began in the 1980s, however, the number of homes provided by the council has been in decline - from 26,969 in 1990 to 19,303 today. Many former council houses have been sold on and the plentiful supply of properties has made Barking one of the cheapest places to rent or buy in London. As a result, it has become an attractive destination not just for immigrants, but for people across the capital pushed eastwards by rising house prices.

Yet it is also one of the most deprived places in the country, and the growing population puts an extra strain on public services. The problem is compounded by other London councils being allowed to place their own tenants and homeless people in private rented accommodation in the area. Even Tory-controlled Westminster - located on the other side of London and with some of Britain's most expensive streets - has placed 56 families here.

There are 11,695 families on Barking and Dagenham's housing list and local anger has been directed at the new faces they see down the street. As I follow Hodge canvassing, complaints about housing crop up again and again. We hear tales of families that have had to wait three, five or even more years to get a home. One man has spent eight years living in a one-bedroom flat with his wife and four children. Hodge and her team patiently explain that this is because of the Right to Buy, but few seem convinced. Many seem to have accepted the BNP's line that immigrants are the problem. A young mother says she's considering voting BNP because she likes the party's insistence that "local people get local housing". She adds hurriedly: "I'm not racist, though - half my family are black."

Hodge, who has been dashing between doorstep conversations with a bright "Hello, I'm your MP", turns to me and grimaces, as if to say: "You see what we're up against?" Hodge has made an effort to turn around Labour's fortunes in the borough. She has moved her office here from Westminster and last year oversaw moves to rejuvenate the local party and boost recruitment. Several councillors were deselected and the party has taken on a wave of younger, ethnically diverse members.

But is Hodge dealing with a problem partly of her own making? In 2006, shortly before that year's local elections, she told the Daily Telegraph that eight out of ten of her constituents were considering voting for the BNP. "They see black and ethnic-minority communities moving in and they are angry," she said. "They can't get a home for their children."

The BNP went on to win 12 seats on the council and the GMB trade union called for Hodge to resign. A year later, she said British families had "a legitimate sense of entitlement" to housing. The then education secretary, Alan Johnson, said her words were "grist to the mill" for the BNP. In February this year, Hodge argued that migrants should be made to wait up to 12 months before they could get access to the benefits system.

“The left don't like what I've been saying," she concedes. "But I think you can puncture racism by dealing with the feeling of unfairness that people have." But don't her statements - particularly given the dominance of anti-immigration newspapers - simply encourage racism? "Politicians always shy away from talking about immigration and the difficult issues that are associated with it. If we don't address those issues, we allow that territory to be captured by the extreme right."

This talk of "capturing territory" is a reminder of Hodge's intimate role in the New Labour project (in 1994, she co-nominated her Islington neighbour Tony Blair for the party leadership). Over the past 13 years, senior Labour figures from David Blunkett to Gordon Brown - with his speech on "British jobs for British workers" - have tried to sound tough on immigration in an attempt to head off criticism from the right. The 2010 Labour manifesto even carries a section titled "Crime and Immigration", as if the connection was obvious.

Yet none of this has stopped support for the party ebbing away in its former heartlands. Under pressure from figures on the left of the party, including the Dagenham MP Jon Cruddas, Labour has in recent months begun to address the lack of affordable housing. But is it too little too late? "Both main political parties should have invested far more in affordable social housing much sooner," Hodge admits. "But social housing is not universal, it is something that has to be rationed, and socialism has always been about the language of priorities."

Her team knocks at another door. The white-haired man in his fifties who answers says he'll vote "for whoever is going to stop all this
immigration. I drive a bus, and no one on it speaks English any more."

“Well, they all should speak English," Hodge replies.

In her 2006 interview, Hodge claimed that Barking had undergone "the most rapid transformation of a community we have ever witnessed", and she echoes that view during our conversation. But Ludi Simpson, a leading social statistician based at Manchester University, observes that between the 1991 census and the one in 2001, Barking and Dagenham's boundaries were redrawn to include 9,200 people, mainly from nearby Redbridge. So the "rapid" change is partly a statistical anomaly.

Simpson points to the most recent evidence, the 2008 School Census, which indicates that Barking and Dagenham still has a lower proportion of ethnic-minority pupils than most other London boroughs. "Hodge is wrong," Simpson tells me, "if she suggests that her constituents' local services, community spirit and jobs will be raised by restricting immigration or by diminishing immigrants' rights as citizens."

Josephine Channer, a 31-year-old small business owner, is one of the Londoners who have been attracted to Barking by its cheap property prices. She is also a Labour council candidate, but sees things differently to Hodge. "With a lot of the white community, I think support for the BNP is just plain racism," she says.

In the five years she has lived in Barking, Channer has seen her estate change from being largely white to a more typical urban mix. "Barking and Dagenham is experiencing what the rest of London experienced 50 years ago. I'm of West Indian origin and my mum had all this rubbish when she first moved to Britain. People say they're worried about housing and jobs, but they don't like to see a black face around here." She claims to have encountered prejudice within the Labour Party. "One councillor who was deselected said that they would run as an independent if they were going to be replaced by a black candidate."

Such attitudes would not have helped build support for Labour among Barking's black and Asian communities. In particular, Hodge has had difficulty winning over the area's African residents, even though they have been victimised by the BNP. Pastors in Barking's Pentecostal churches have been urging their congregations to vote for the fundamentalist Christian Party, whose leader, George Hargreaves, is also standing for parliament.

Hodge acknowledges this may split the anti-BNP vote, but plays down the threat. "I'm getting a mixed response. But I think the Christian Party is not about what I've done locally, it's about my attitude to abortion and stem-cell research." Channer takes a bleaker view: "We've pissed off the white community, the black community, the Asian community, and now we've got to try and mend it in four weeks."

In the garden of a Barking pub called the Cherry Tree, Nick Griffin is launching his party's campaign. Standing by the party's advertising bus - they call it the "Truth Truck" - he is giving interviews to television crews and wilting a little in the warm spring sunshine. He has been busy of late: aside from his duties as MEP for England's north-west (for which he receives a salary of £82,000), he has been trying to keep the lid on a crisis in his own party.

On 5 April, an urgent meeting was called to discuss an attempt at a "palace coup" by the party's publicity director Mark Collett. Police also took statements relating to an alleged threat to kill Griffin. The dispute is reported to have centred on money. An investigation by the anti-fascist Searchlight magazine this year found that many party members are unhappy about the extent to which the party's fundraising consultant Jim Dowson, a hardline Protestant Northern Irish businessman and anti-abortionist, now "practically owns" the party.

When we speak, however, Griffin tells me morale is "excellent", and he is bullish about his party's chances. "We're going to give Margaret Hodge the fight of her life. We want to win this seat, and we want to take control of the council." He seems to have borrowed some of Hodge's language, saying that the BNP offers "fair play for local people" and that "the key issue is housing". He tells me that a BNP council in Barking would build 5,000 new homes for "sons and daughters of local people". Presumably, for a party whose constitution commits it to restoring "the overwhelmingly white make-up of the British population that existed in Britain prior to 1948", this would mean housing for white locals. "Not at all," Griffin says. "We've had West Indians who have been here 25, 30 years, why should they be at the back of the housing queue?"

In fact, what BNP councillors in Barking and Dagenham have already proposed is to place people in urgent need of housing on a brownfield site "equipped with previously used caravans". ("That's a temporary measure," Griffin says, irritably.) Party election material promises to cut "politically correct projects" and translation services, while the party's 2009 county council manifesto declared that mixing white and non-white children was "destroying perfectly good local secondary schools".

Yet Griffin is adamant that the party has left its racist past behind. "The British National Party has changed already over the last ten years. We're here in the modern world, we listen to what people say. And the simple fact is that people who've come here and assimilated into our society and our communities aren't a problem; it's the recent incomers and those who want to change our country in some way foreign, that's the trouble."

Alby Walker, a former BNP councillor in Stoke-on-Trent, tells a different story. He describes to me the racist atmosphere that existed behind closed doors. "When you went to a social occasion, you'd get a feeling of what they truly believed. You'd have to be very careful how you talked about football, for example - you couldn't praise black players. I support Stoke City and they've got a good Jamaican forward, Ricardo Fuller. You couldn't say ,'Did you see that great goal Fuller scored at the weekend?'"

Walker is dismissive of Griffin's claim to have modernised the party. "He says that publicly, but when we stood for the Euro elections last year, we were given media training on how to avoid questions about the Holocaust.

“I realised then that it [Holocaust denial] went up a little bit higher in the party than I'd previously seen." Griffin says Walker's claims are "lies". But I press him on the issue of media training. Does it include the Holocaust?

“That subject does come up, yes."

I am hurried away by one of Griffin's bodyguards. In the pub garden, as the leader's wife collects empties and jokes with supporters, it is tempting to dismiss the BNP's campaign as a mere sideshow to the election. But now that British politicians across the board are talking about immigration as a threat, lasting damage has been done.

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

This article first appeared in the 19 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The big choice

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

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The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

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The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

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Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

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Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

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Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 19 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The big choice