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Margaret Hodge MP on how to fight the BNP

Posted on 22 October 2009 | 4:10pm

With so much focus on Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time tonight, I thought visitors to the site might be interested in this piece from Margaret Hodge, Labour MP for Barking. It is a seat where the BNP has campaigned actively for many years, and where Labour bucked the trend at the European elections, where Griffin’s winning of a European Parliamentary seat gave rise to his appearance on the BBC tonight.

I don’t agree with everything Margaret says, but she speaks from long experience of fighting the BNP, and her views are worth an airing here. 

The task of taking on and defeating the BNP is one of the most challenging that we face. In my constituency in Barking, we’ve spent the last two years immersed in local activism trying to do just that.

I want to reflect on what we’ve been doing and what lessons I think can be learnt – for the campaign against the far-Right and for the Labour Party more widely.

The reasons for the BNP’s electoral pull are complex. Yes, it’s about changing communities; yes, it’s about the loss of traditional industrial jobs; yes, it’s about increasing migration; and yes, it’s about lack of affordable housing.

But most importantly people are voting for the far-Right as a protest vote.  They feel completely disconnected from and alienated by the Labour Party and the mainstream political class.

For Labour, that’s in part because we didn’t focus earlier on issues like affordable housing. In part it’s because we’ve not shouted loudly enough about what we have achieved. And in part it’s also because we’ve failed to put forward a coherent narrative on migration – arguing for its benefits while saying we can cut and control it.

But it’s also about the Labour Party itself.

First, we’ve shied away from being bold and honest about our values. Under Tony Blair it almost became a badge of honour. Ideology no longer matters, people would say – it’s what works that counts. We were scared of losing the support of the centre ground that we need to win elections.

But managerial competence is not a substitute for ideological conviction. People don’t vote for processes – whether it’s localism, competition or choice. They do want to know what we stand for. And if we don’t articulate that clearly people look to others they think share their values – single issue groups or one of the smaller political parties, including the BNP.

We must have the confidence to reassert our core belief in the pursuit of equality through redistribution. And we must have the confidence to justify that belief by asserting that a more equal society is a more cohesive society, a more efficient society and a morally better society.

Second, in too much of Britain our Labour parties have lost touch with ordinary people.

This is particularly true in the traditional Labour areas, where we got used to weighing the votes in and where we thought the odd leaflet at election time, the occasional mention in the local paper or the smiling face at a polling station was enough.   

So because we aren’t engaging directly, people get fed up and feel we’re not listening to them. A focus group by the national Labour Party is no substitute for direct contact with individuals in your area. We need to reconnect with local communities and start engaging them in politics.

This is particularly difficult for those of us facing the threat from the far-Right. And no one should pretend there are any easy answers. But it simply doesn’t work to condemn those who vote for the BNP as fascist extremists. The party and its activists retain their hideous purpose and ideology, but those who vote for them are doing so because we’ve lost our connection to those in whose name we claim to campaign and work.

So for the last two years we’ve completely changed our approach in Barking. Everything we do has to pass the test that it helps us to reconnect to voters – whether it’s our work door-to-door, whether it’s local campaigns or whether it’s my regular coffee afternoons.

And that means starting from where people are at, not from where we would like them to be. We don’t set the agenda; our voters do.

Of course, what many people care about most are their homes and their neighbourhoods. So we listen and try and tackle their concerns about their local environment, housing conditions or antisocial behaviour. And if you start delivering then people do start trusting you again. Then they’ll start engaging on the other, national issues of the day, like the economy, public spending and Europe.

In Barking we’re beginning to experience the signs that we’re succeeding.  At the European elections Labour’s vote went up 2% and the BNP vote was cut by 5%.

My constituents in Barking won’t understand if we continue to refuse to engage in public debate with the BNP. Ignoring them in the hope of denying them the oxygen of publicity will just convince people in my constituency that we don’t get it at all.  We need to take them on directly and have the confidence that we can win the argument.

Last Friday I walked into one of my coffee afternoons and was confronted by a woman who was literally trembling with anger at me because she felt Labour had done nothing for her and we’d let all these immigrants get what should rightly have been her’s. She was going to vote for the BNP. But by the end of the afternoon she’d felt we’d listened to her and she also listened to us and as I left the room, she came over to me and said ‘Thanks for that Margaret, I’ll be voting Labour.’

It is still all to play for out there. But we have to stop blaming others, and look outwards rather than inwards. Whatever the particular local challenges we face, we just all need to get off our backsides and do our bit to reconnect directly with voters in our constituencies. In that way we at least will know we’ve done our bit to help keep Labour in power.

Margaret Hodge MP and her team are always looking for more volunteers to help them in their campaign to defeat the BNP in Barking. If you are interested please give her office a call on 020 8594 1333 or email her at hodgem@parliament.uk.

  • Patrick Marsh

    It is refreshing to hear a Labour politician admit some blame in this. The white working class have felt neglected and overlooked and it is no good telling them they’re racist when they feel others get a bigger or better share of the cake. But she is right that you have to expose the BNP for what they are – opportunistic, racist, nasty and with no real solutions. I agree that too many Labour parties take people for granted but where the MPs and candidates work their butts off for their constituents it can make a big difference

  • Carla Bruton

    Am in two minds about whether to watch tonight. I don’t want the BBC to be rewarded for what I see as a publicity stunt – where was the pressure coming from to ask him on? And I don’t want Griffin to be able to say he was responsible for their highest ever ratings

  • botogol

    yes, she might have been a better bet on QT than the sinister Jack Straw.

  • Tania Ziegler

    I think the reasons you give for not watching, Carla, are the ones that make the most sense to me and therefore I will not be watching.

  • Bob

    Seeing as Jack Straw inflamed and added to the whole racism thing with his niqab rhetoric why the hell is he on the program?

    The mainstream politicians have used Islam as a political football since 9/11 how can they wonder why the BNP are doing ok. They should remember that their words and actions have consequences.

    Anyway, the BBC should have wheeled-out Griffen in front of Paxman for his first tv appearance, he would have actually have answered some questions.

    But anyway, I think Margaret Hodge has got the right idea and it’s democratic too.

  • Jane A

    I’m not watching, for precisely the reason Carla Bruton outlines. I am sure NG would love to take the credit for a higher than average viewership & use it to say the British people are in agreement with him. I am therefore boycotting QT. I hope others do the same.

  • Alina Palimaru

    I would like to think that BNP’s surge is only opportunistic, riding the anti-immigration wave that is naturally high (all over Europe) during economic depressions. Historically, the BNP inherited some of the worst ideological baggage toward immigration policies, so in that sense I think this is just history repeating itself.

    I have just looked at their website and got the goose-bumps… the two pictures they selected say it all: one of fair-skinned girls and one of women wearing burkas. Next to these visuals, the BNP is demanding a stop to immigration, and everything British for all British citizens. They also claim that this is what the British people ‘think’ and the BNP does them a favour by actually saying it. Well, I would like to think the British are far more sophisticated than this, so the BNP framework is quite insulting.

    As it currently stands, the BNP’s agenda is very shallow. But I can also share some people’s concern that, as a strategic move, the BNP may want to evolve from a single-issue party to something broader, capitalizing on constituent frustration with the political establishment. And this is where the Labour Party can help. In times of crisis, visceral reactions are natural and understandable. But listening to and talking to people will make a huge difference.

    Margaret Hodge’s story is a good illustration of how to turn things around, and I believe it is feasible. My own experience tells me so. I was working in the U.S. Congress in 2006, during a very tumultuous summer for immigration policy. My boss’s office was flooded with hate calls and letters, especially that he was leading numerous foreign congressional caucuses. As a foreigner here I felt particularly frustrated by the misinformation (and scandalous Fox News coverage) that moved these people to call us. The fun part was that, because I speak English with an American accent, the callers were not aware of my background and immigration status. After their rant I’d disclose this to them, and they felt ashamed and disarmed. Subsequently, it was a lot easier for me to explain (and for them to understand) that I wasn’t there to give them any diseases, I hadn’t come here to steal their jobs or their houses, and I had no intention to undermine their culture and traditions…

    So the bottom line is: get out there, talk to the people, explain Labour’s record, expose the BNP’s and the Tories’ deficient proposals and essentially demonstrate that Labour’s the way to go.

  • Trevor Malcolm, Portsmouth Hampshire

    EOS JUVAT IN TEMPORIBUS OMNIBUS, PUPIL ALASTAIR CAMPBELL …VERSUS HEADMASTER ALAN QUINN

    ========================================================

    Request to inspect Headmaster Alan Quinn’s disciplinary Progress Report on Pupil Campbell (see your blog, 21 October, responding to comments posted by Tina Harris’ allegations “boring old posts to AC” from AQ, published the day previous)

    … Alan Quinn responded: ” … Campbell, report to my office in the morning … ” Crikey, heaviest wording; and crumbs, harsh punishment awaiting Our Boy, AC …

    AC Sir, oh and Alan Quinn, Esquire, too. Whilst I found Mr Quinn’s appropriate riposte to a comment you published about him, yesterday on 21 October, entertaining and highly amusing, often school teachers appreciate a drier humour. A stoical wit, if you will

    Still, jolly good fun to side with the educated shower, for once, eh?

    Hence, … Mr Alan Quinn: reference your comment today, 22nd October, in response to another blog-reader’s disrespectful comment, to reassure you, you did the right thing – summon Pupil Campbell to your Headmaster’s study for a dressing-down, forthwith

    Impertinent lad, too. Cocky, with it. Convinced Pupil Campbell will never amount to much. Convinced, too, he’ll end up in some Camden Town gutter. There’s still time

    Taking on yet more responsibility like this, Mr Quinn, sir, you must feel irked at your obligation to correct this unruly Keighley lad’s wayward ways, having to summon Pupil Campbell to your study, disrupt your own schedule, just to admonish the lad’s misbehaviours, meddling impudences and repeated outspokenness

    Yes, teach him a lesson, this time. Overdue and fully justified

    An impassioned lecture on the need for respect, perhaps. No chance, forget it. Extra homework, then? Like 500 lines “ … I must behaved like a Good School Pupil. And honour the headmaster’s authority … “ Mmm, no hope of that happening, either

    Or a good ticking-off. Too big for his size-10 boots, the AC lad needs taking down a rung or two; that approach

    Final option? Severe Arse Whipping. Bringing back the traditional, disciplinarian regimen, like the “good old days” – especially for such incorrigible grownups. The only language these lippy and larky pranksters understand – harsh thrashing. Show no mercy

    What’s even more preposterous, this AC lad’s not even mastered the Classics yet. Incredibly, he can’t even speak Greek and Roman fluently, the same way we all do

    Yet – get this – I hear he’s already out there scribbling diaries to sell, webblog content, fundraising speeches for the LR charity, autographed poetic sonnets wot he claims he rote ‘imself

    Even novels, (next one in retail shops by February 2010), the long-awaited follow-up to his critically acclaimed, first novel, “All in the Mind”

    Shows you what a perilous state of affairs our education is in, humph. It didn’t happen in MY day, for sure. I remain, faithfully yours, Mr Quinn, etc etc

    (NOTE WELL, PLEASE … The above in strictest confidence, as stuff generally is in education, and hopefully greeted and received by all concerned in the jovial and light-hearted spirit here intended … )

    Trevor Malcolm
    Portsmouth, Hampshire

    ////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

    ///////////////////////////////////

  • George Woodhouse

    BNP got nearly as many votes as the Greens and almost 50% of Labour’s vote at the EU elections in June. I hope no one believes that all these people have just become racist.

    The reason for the BNP’s surge in apparent popularity is because all 3 mainsream parties have got it badly wrong.

    Our democracy is in tatters – and the imposition of, and unstoppable march, of the EU with it’s anti democratic institutions are a major factor in driving people to the extreme parties, both UKIP and BNP.

    The renegeing by this government on the promise of a referendum on the EU constitution, and the likelyhood of an unelected President Blair are just the tip of a very large iceberg, but nevertheless iconic in their significance.

    It is in the hands of the mainstream parties to defeat the extremists by listening to the people.

  • Andy Ford

    @ those who “won’t be watching”

    1. The BBC has a long held position of inviting on representives of any party that has a sitting MP or MEP – it’s democracy in action.

    2. Unless you’ve signed up to be part of the ratings monitor scheme the only way that “they” can know you were watching is if you tell them. Viewing figures from participating homes are added to by street interviews. Don’t tell the researcher that you were watching “Question Time” and they’ll never know.

    Don’t abstract yourself from the democratic process and underestimate the enemy by failing to recognise how they work and why their argument is persuasive to so many people.

    The only way to tackle the BNP (and the EDL etc.) is to absorb all that they have to say in order to produce a cogent argument against them – not just the “no platform for Nazis” of 30 yars ago.

  • Richard

    Alastair, the best way to fight the BNP is to stop behaving like a lynch mob in the streets, stop our politicians from making stupid half truth statements on race and immigration. Get the Poor disseffected (mainly white) population in marginal city estates back to work and restore the pride back into Britain as a country.
    Not one of the panalists on QT would come out well against a well researched onslaught from a baying mob, hostile Metropolital studio audiance, biased host and 4 other equally hostile panalists. In true British spirit…we all love a fair fight and a spectacle but we get a little queasey at a lynching….it can be counter productive.
    No good hiding from the difficulties we face in this country and being ever more PC will not wash with the likes that support the BNP. All parties need to focus on the inequallities of modern life for the poor working class in some of the worst parts of Britain. the growth of the wannabe sub culture of our youth where achievement is measured only in bling, money, and gossip column inches highlights the feeling that some sections of the population are devoid of any real grasp on what it takes to move out of the class divides.
    Like it or not some people in this country DO feel swamped and DO feel helpless and Do think Nobody is listening to them……Protest votes are what are lifting the BNP.
    Time the politicians woke up.