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Column by Lindsey German, May 2006
Margaret Hodge's claim that eight out of ten voters in Barking have considered voting BNP has given a massive boost to the far right.
I never had much time for Margaret Hodge when she was the leader of Islington council back in the 1980s, and I never knew what wrong the people of Barking, one of London's poorest areas, had done to deserve this millionaire as their MP.
But her behaviour in recent weeks has really put her beyond the pale. I simply don't believe her claim that eight out of ten white families she canvassed in her constituency were "tempted to vote BNP". Even the BNP don't believe that, or they would have put up a full slate of candidates across all the wards in the constituency.
I base my belief on some experience. Last year I stood as the Respect candidate in West Ham, part of the London borough of Newham, coming second with 20 percent of the vote. My colleague Abdul Khaliq Mian won just over 20 percent in neighbouring East Ham. Barking is only one tube stop away from East Ham. And, while there are major differences between the boroughs in terms of their ethnic make-up, the concerns of white working class people in both areas are undoubtedly similar.
Respect received thousands of votes from white people in Newham, and my experience canvassing there again in this year's local elections is that we are winning more white people towards us. We win support from white, Asian and black people on the basis of campaigning against war, but also against privatisation of housing and hospitals, against city academies, and against an east London which benefits the property developers. Virtually no one mentions the BNP, and the fascists are not standing in a single seat — even in the predominantly white areas. Next door in Tower Hamlets, where the BNP had an elected councillor as recently as 12 years ago, it is standing in only one ward out of 17.
The real story in east London is how the fascists have been driven out — from Hackney where they were strong 30 years ago, from Bethnal Green, and from Newham. With 111 candidates from Tower Hill in the west of Tower Hamlets to Little Ilford in the east of Newham, Respect is the major challenger to Labour in east London. And last year Bethnal Green elected a Respect MP committed to anti-racism and equality, not to scapegoating immigrants.
Because Labour has jettisoned its old policies of public welfare provision, it finds itself in trouble with its traditional supporters. Some look to the BNP, but in my experience the dominant view is not an overtly racist one. On the doorstep what you hear time and again is that white people feel abandoned, and that they wrongly perceive that ethnic minorities are getting a better deal from the state. Above all else, this is a cry of pain from people who see what little they have being taken away from them.
The issue which matters most to all working class people in east London, regardless of race or nationality, is housing. The existing housing is bad enough, terribly overcrowded and in short supply. New builds around the tube extensions or the old docklands are simply beyond the reach of most people — especially of their children, who are forced to move much further east if they are to afford anything.
Add to that poorly funded schools, inadequate hospitals, longer working hours and relatively high unemployment and you get the discontent the BNP is trying to tap into — without that much success, by all accounts, until Margaret Hodge generously gave them the oxygen of publicity.
Her motives were, I think, twofold and both reprehensible. One was to cynically get the Labour vote out by hyping up the BNP threat. The second was to play up the BNP, hoping that the media would ignore Respect. It is worth noting that Labour is mobilising its members from across London to come to Tower Hamlets and Newham to fight Respect, rather than to Barking to fight the BNP.
Hodge is helped in this by pundits who have willingly ignored Respect's success (three of the top ten swings in last year's general election were to Respect in east London) and instead have played up the much worse results of the BNP. If the BNP win in Barking on 4 May, remember the role of Margaret Hodge.
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