The BNP's election successes in Barking are devastating but not surprising. The sense of powerlessness and frustration has long been documented since the far-right party gained 17% of the vote in last year's general election. A slick and effective campaign, in which the party appeared to be listening, exploited peoples misconceptions and fears around four principle areas: housing, education, health and crime.
Speaking in the House of Commons the MP for Dagenham, Jon Cruddas, who lives with his family in the heart of the community he represents (unlike Hodge who lives in leafy Islington), sets the scene:
‘Let us consider some of the basic characteristics of the community that I represent. It is the lowest-wage economy in Greater London and one of the most deprived boroughs in the capital. Adult numeracy is the second lowest in the country, literacy is the fourth lowest. The number of residents with higher educational qualifications is the lowest in the country. Heart and lung disease, infant mortality and life expectancy are among the worst in the capital.’
One of the biggest reasons for this rejection of Labour is apparently housing. Barking and Dagenham has the cheapest house prices in London but they are still unattainable for the many. Most of the properties are ex-council flats and houses. Herein lies the problem. There is a lack of social housing because it has unceremoniously been sold off. Some of those who complain their children cannot get a council flat fail to realise that this is in large part down to themselves, others in their families and their friends who have bought their council-owned properties, sold them on at a profit and consequently they are rented out privately at much higher rates. This is not acknowledged and the housing crisis is blamed on the newcomers – mostly foreigners.
In my block of six flats only mine is still municipally owned. Two are lived in by the people who own them; the remaining three are rented privately at twice the price of mine per month. These three flats are rented by foreign families – one African and two Polish. They all work incredibly hard for their money -long shifts and often unsociable hours - and yet are stigmatised, quite wrongly, for scrounging off the State.
My teaching career started in Barking and Dagenham. The lowest achieving pupils all come from the indigenous local population – white working class boys. Barking is characterised by a huge underclass where education is not seen as important. Expectations are low and, at times, non-existent. Children and their families have little or no aspirations for the future. Local industries are on the decline, e.g. Fords at Dagenham, once a one-trade town, and there are few opportunities for unskilled labour – even though the Borough still pays some of the lowest wages going. Immigrant families place much more emphasis on doing well at school and often lead much more structured lives. These pupils get a better start in life and when they succeed cries that they have been given the best over the local white kids soon follow.
The big diseases – cancers, heart and lung conditions – are common. From what I can see, and from the children I taught, diets are unvaried and poor. Cheap frozen and processed meals; sugary, fatty snacks and gallons of fizzy drinks. Fresh fruit and veg is readily and cheaply available on Barking market but the take-up is probably nowhere near the recommended five a day. Combined with smoking and drinking from an early age and a lack of exercise health problems proliferate. The pressure on the local health services is high and can lead to a perceived lack of quality and urgency. The blame is attributed to foreigners having too many children and bringing illnesses – such as HIV and Aids – with them. It doesn't seem acceptable to ask people to question their own lifestyles and to point out it is people who are very similar to themselves who are clogging the system.
People are scared of crime. Big groups of kids hanging around with nothing to do and are often seen as intimidating. Car insurance is higher than most areas in the country due to the massive risk of vandalism or theft. The statistics for sexual assault, robbery, vehicle theft, burglary and violence against the person are higher than the national average. The latter has a national rate of 16.5 per 1,000 people. In Barking this rises to 31. It's all very depressing.
So, where does this leave us? Suspicious of one another and universally hated. I was apoplectic with rage when I read two letters in the Barking and Dagenham Post, one from Tyne on Wear and another from Suffolk, which told the people of Barking that we should be ashamed of ourselves and congratulated us in the most sarcastic tones for having elected the BNP to the council.
Shocking though the result is we need to keep a sense of perspective. The turn out rate was 38.3% for the borough as a whole. The BNP gained 12 seats out of a total of 51 – fewer than a quarter of the seats. The majority of people in Barking and Dagenham did not vote for the BNP and are not racist. Tarring us all with the same brush is lazy and disingenuous.
The wake-up call cannot be clearer or louder. It is now up to all the people who do care about Barking to work with the other mainstream political parties locally, however odious they may at times appear to be, to promote practical solutions to some very big problems.