Margaret Hodge, the Employment minister, placed the issue of race at the top of the political agenda in an extraordinary interview with the Sunday Telegraph. Ms Hodge said her constituency of Barking had undergone "gobsmacking change" since the days when it was a predominantly white, working class district. "Now, go through the middle of Barking and you could be in Camden or Brixton. That is the key thing that has created the environment the BNP has sought to exploit."
The minister said that as many as eight out of 10 white families in her Barking constituency in east London admitted that they were tempted to vote BNP. "When I knock on doors I say to people 'Are you tempted to vote BNP?' and many, many, many - eight out of 10 of the white families, say yes," she said. "That's something we have never seen before, in all my years, even when people voted BNP they used to be ashamed to vote BNP. Now they are not."
Although she rejected suggestions of a far-right breakthrough in next month's local council elections, she admitted that the BNP could win some council seats in the constituency, where they have been campaigning hard. Ms Hodge said she had been out knocking on doors two days a week in an attempt to counter their efforts.
Many families were, she said, angry at the lack of housing since immigrants began arriving in the area and because asylum seekers had been housed there. "They can't get a home for their children, they see black and ethnic minority communities moving in and they are angry. It is a fear of change. It is gobsmacking change," she said. "Nowhere else has changed so fast. When I arrived in 1994 it was a predominantly white, working class area."
She said that there had been a "lack of leadership" from Labour on race and that the "political class" were frightened of the issue. "It is the poorest whites who feel the greatest anger because there is no way out for them," she said. "The Labour Party hasn't talked to these people. Part of the reason they switch to the BNP is they feel no one else is listening to them."
Although Labour has frequently used the threat of the far-right in an attempt to get its own voters out in the past, Ms Hodge's intervention will surprise many of her colleagues, suggesting as it does a degree of sympathy with the views of BNP supporters.
Her analysis echoes that of a recent book, The New East End: Kinship, Race and Conflict, which identified the switch from entitlement to need in allocating housing as a factor in the breakdown of the white community.
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