Hugh Muir, Guardian (London), May 7
Labour party chiefs are preparing to read the riot act to their own officials after the far-right British National party took advantage of poor campaigning and voter disenchantment in Barking, east London, to secure its highest share of the vote in a parliamentary election.
Senior Labour officials have told the Guardian that they plan to call the constituency party — and its MP, Margaret Hodge — to account for a lack lustre reaction to the BNP’s heavily advertised surge into the constituency.
Though Mrs Hodge won comfortably, the BNP secured 16.9% of the vote, beating the Liberal Democrats into third place and losing out to the second-placed Conservatives by just 27 votes.
Barking was known to be the BNP’s number one national target and the result increases the possibility that the party will make sweeping gains in the local elections next year, thus gaining the foothold in the south which had previously eluded it. Ten of the seats it will contest require just a 5% swing.
Labour strategists are particularly aggrieved by the fact that the BNP had switched its focus to Barking from neighbouring Dagenham precisely because the Labour party there had taken pre-emptive action and placed enough activists on the ground to stave off the threat.
Though the BNP secured 9% of the vote in Dagenham it was placed fourth.
But Richard Barnbrook, the BNP candidate in Barking, claimed his party was thriving. “We have quadrupled our vote, this has been a victory for us,” he said.
One senior Labour figure said: “Some hard questions are going to be asked. We want to know what is happening in the [Barking] constituency. It is a question of leadership. They have to take the fight to their opponent. The ramifications for the local elections are very serious.”
Mrs Hodge said the party would be working hard to defeat the BNP. “We will not take our foot off the accelerator,” she said. “We have to take this very seriously and demonstrate that that type of politics has no place in a traditional east London seat. Labour, Britain and the East End has a tradition of tolerance and we need to recapture that.”
A coalition of activists and trade unions had worked hard to blunt the BNP attack. They galvanised more minorities to vote, challenged untrue statements in the BNP’s election literature, and raised doubts about the credibility of the candidate himself.
Nick Lowles, of the anti-fascist organisation Searchlight, said: “It was about holding the line this time. But serious questions have to be asked and I think there are people in Barking Labour party who now understand that. The good news is that we know the anti-BNP vote is there.”
The BNP strongholds are on the edge of the borough, where many elderly residents and “white flight” families react angrily to the presence of black and eastern European newcomers. One housing block is locally known as Kosovo Towers. The BNP has spread the myth that councils have paid scores of African families £50,000 each to move into the borough.
The fear is of changing landscapes, foreign faces, foreign voices. Dave Smith, 40, striding purposefully through the main shopping centre, said: “The thing is I can walk from my house to the shops, 1,500 yards, and never hear an English voice.” Carol Riddle, 52, a shopworker, said: “I know most of my colleagues voted BNP. In the store there is a lot of trouble and it is always eastern Europeans and Africans.”
Charles Fairbrass, leader of Barking and Dagenham council, attributed much of the disquiet to fear of the new but warned the BNP not to expect an easy ride. “We will spend a year hammering home the message that these are our neighbours and that you treat people, of whatever colour, with respect,” he said.