Campaigning against those accused of stirring up racial hatred is nothing new for Michael Foot. He helped to put an end to Oswald Mosley in east London in the Thirties, and yesterday he was back on the streets vocally opposing the BNP.
This time he was a little further east, at Hornchurch which, along with nearby Barking and Dagenham, is firmly under the right-wing party’s spotlight, leading the area to have been dubbed the BNP Triangle.
Foot arrived in the High Street, on what was his 70th anniversary of joining the Labour party, pushing a Zimmer frame that doubled as a seat. When supporters came up to meet him he took his glasses off and tipped his head to one side to listen. At 92 years old he was as articulate as ever.
Looking at literature from the BNP that had been circulated locally, he said. ‘They are a disgrace to this country. We had a similar problem with Mosley in the East End. They came in and tried to steam up hatred on racial grounds. Labour led the opposition to Mosley then, and they will do it today with the BNP. People have to vote Labour to stop this.’
Foot praised Hornchuch’s Labour candidate John Cryer and said the party had to pull together. ‘John opposed the war and so did I. But now we have to stay together and you bet we will win the election.’
Down the road in Barking—Margaret Hodge’s ‘safe Labour’ seat—the BNP claim to be getting the support of between 48 and 50 per cent of voters on the doorstep. ‘They are going hard after Hodge,’ said one Labour activist. On Friday there were 40 party members leafleting the area.
Hodge herself said she was concerned about the BNP, which is trying to capitalise on local anger at the influx of immigrants to the area. ‘The rate of change has been very fast,’ said Hodge. ‘When I arrived 11 years ago it was a fairly homogeneous, white population and now it is pretty multiracial.’
It is clear to see why she is worried. Richard Barnbrook, the BNP candidate for Barking, has a polite and charming manner, and he is going after disillusioned Labour voters. ‘Some say, we are more Labour than Labour,’ he said.
On Friday he was canvassing on the Thames View Estate dressed in a brown moleskin suit, white shirt, beige tie and polished shoes. His demeanour was at odds with a man handing out leaflets that read ‘It’s official; immigration can damage your health.’
However many voters are not easily won over. One house had a huge England flag hanging from the upstairs windows. Keely Stone, 32, a divorced mother of three came to the door: ‘I won’t be voting for the BNP,’ she scoffed.
Stone is not alone. There are plenty of people, within the triangle, unhappy to see the BNP activists on their estates. Mark Harnwell, a forklift driver, who used to be in the army, thinks the BNP are a ‘load of crap’. ‘When I was in Kosovo and Albania, the local people really helped us, inviting us in for coffee or beer. They were so hospitable, why can’t we be like that?’
But 20 minutes walk away in the Goresbrook ward, there is more support. Last September, BNP member Dan Kelley won a seat on the local council. Two nearby tower blocks, are known locally as ‘the Kosovan towers’.
‘The only reason I am voting for the BNP is because the Afro-Caribbean people are given grants to come here,’ said Paul Houlihan, 36. ‘It is nothing personal against other races but we do not have the resources for these extra people.’
He is talking about the BNP claim that London boroughs—including Tower Hamlets—have given ‘Africans’ up to £50,000 to move to Barking and Dagenham. When The Observer contacted Tower Hamlets council it said the ‘cash incentive scheme’ , which helps people in council housing to buy homes, was taken up by 54 households in 2003/2004. Of those just five moved to Barking and Dagenham, of whom three were white British, one mixed race and one unknown. On average they received £19,000.
Despite his image, much of Barnbrook’s election literature is provocative and aims to stoke up fears about immigration. ‘That is my bugbear,’ said one activist, Jill Jones, jabbing her finger at a picture of a woman in a full burka. ‘I’m not a rabid racist but I feel isolated from those people when they wear their veils.’ The picture had a tagline: ‘Ladies in Barking today, thanks to Labour and Conservative immigration policy.’
Another had a cartoon, showing health tourists overtaking British patients, with a man pointing and saying: ‘Aids and TB cases this way.’ In the corner was an unflattering depiction of Hodge, saying ‘greetings to you all.’