On Thursday 4 May 2006 the local elections across Britain delivered a political shock to the New Labour government and the political establishment as a whole: the far-right British National Party (BNP) doubled the number of its councillors (from twenty to forty-four), and in the east London area of Barking & Dagenham it won eleven of the thirteen seats contested, making it the second-largest party on the council.
A survey conducted before the election had revealed that as many as 25% of people would consider voting for the racist, xenophobic and anti-immigrant party. In the wake of this revelation, Margaret Hodge member of parliament for the Barking & Dagenham constituency as well as being minister for employment and welfare reform and a close ally of prime minister Tony Blair made some extraordinary remarks in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph in which she appeared to be endorsing the BNP's racist rhetoric and policies.
In this Hodge joined a chorus of fellow New Labour ministers who, far from challenging the prejudices of sections of the electorate worried about perceived levels of immigration to Britain, have cynically exploited their disaffected, white working-class voters by adopting a chummy, phoney, populism. The 4 May election results show that their approach of indulging rather than confronting the BNP has seriously backfired and rendered a disservice to democracy itself.
Margaret Hodge's contribution
What was the background to Margaret Hodge's intervention? She had been canvassing voters house-by-house in Barking & Dagenham when she told the Sunday Telegraph that most of her white working-class constituents were considering voting for the BNP because they were fed up with the changing ethnic mix in the borough, and with immigrants and asylum-seekers. These voters had already elected a BNP councillor in a by-election in September 2003, taking 52% of the vote to Labour's 29%. The BNP then gained 14.8% of the vote in the area in the 2004 European elections, and 16.9% in the 2005 general election the highest anywhere in the country.
This frightening swing to the right is the response of a disaffected and angry group which has been encouraged to blame immigrants and asylum-seekers (themselves loaded terms tangled in confusion) for perceived social and personal ills. These white working-class families were, Hodge reportedly said, angry in particular at the lack of affordable housing: "They can't get a home for their children."
Hodge blamed this in part on the policy spearheaded by the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher (1979-90) in which houses owned and rented by local councils were sold to their tenants, thus depleting the stock of rentable houses for people on low incomes. She admits that Labour should have built more houses since it came to power in 1997 (the number has declined from 25,081 in 1997 to 16,737 in 2004-05). But, Hodge continued evading any further reference to this significant failure "they see black and ethnic minority communities moving in and they are angry." She added with, if anything, the appearance of sympathy with the view that white families were angry about the way that immigrants and asylum-seekers have been rehoused in the area by inner London councils.
The true picture
She should have paid attention to her fellow-MP John Cruddas. He contributed to the study The Far Right in London: a challenge for local democracy, published by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust in October 2005: "Counteracting the growing support for the far right will involve tackling policy misconceptions particularly on the relationship between immigrants and local issues .public relations initiatives could make a difference."
The truth is that three houses out of 20,000 in Barking and Dagenham are occupied by asylum-seekers less than 0.02%. The number, a council spokesman says, has been declining steadily. If their asylum claims are rejected, they are evicted. If they get refugee status or leave to remain (temporary status), they are entitled to the same as anyone else.
Moreover, Barking & Dagenham hasn't in fact housed any asylum-seekers since October 2002 when the government transferred housing and support for them to the National Asylum Support Services. Nor is it possible to tell how many houses have gone to "immigrants" because, says the spokesman, there is no housing classification for any such category of people. Hodge made no mention of this in the interview she gave the Sunday Telegraph.
Margaret Hodge said that when she was first elected in 1994, "(it) was a predominantly white working class area. Now go through the middle of Barking and you could be in Camden or Brixton." An immediate response to this might be to question why it should be regarded as a problem that an area should come to have (like these areas of north and south London) a multicultural and multiracial mix.
In any case, the 2001 national census shows that in Barking & Dagenham, 85.2% said they were "white" (of whom 80.9% classified themselves as "white British") and 15% classified themselves as "black" or "ethnic minority". This does indeed show a demographic change from the census of 1991 when 96% said they were white, and compares to a London average of 71%. But it is not known how many people classified as white, black or from ethnic minorities occupy existing "social housing" so how does Hodge know that white families can't get homes because of black and ethnic-minority people? The larger truth, which she all but ignores, is the simple lack of social housing.
Ministers and MPs have a duty to present evidence-based information and not to be casual with the truth, both in principle and when this can fuel the flames of racism. Ludi Simpson of Manchester University, a leading social statistician who specialises in population change in multicultural Britain, compares the census for 1991 and 2001 and notes that Barking & Dagenham's boundaries were redrawn during the period to encompass 9,200 people mainly from neighbouring Redbridge. This makes the change in the composition of the population very far from the "most rapid transformation of a community we have ever witnessed", as Hodge had claimed.
Where change occurs, the civilised way to address the fears that accompany it is to welcome the shifting racial mix and accommodate everyone who needs social housing to build more houses, not more racism. A fraction of the huge amounts of money spent on the military adventure in Iraq would be enough to provide enough houses and so help obliterate the support for the racist BNP.
Margaret Hodge's intervention was the latest in a stream of comments, insinuations and inaccuracies from leading New Labour politicians which have had the effect of reinforcing prejudice against immigrants and asylum-seekers. The voters of Barking & Dagenham have given their answer. If Britain's rulers indulge and covertly endorse the BNP, they cannot be surprised if people vote for it. Meanwhile, after the local-council elections Hodge must be top of the BNP's hit-parade. She certainly deserves to be.
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