"When I knock on the door and I say to people 'are you tempted to vote BNP?' eight out of 10 families say yes." Margaret Hodge's remark, in an interview the MP for Barking gave to the Sunday Telegraph's Melissa Kite, has been greeted with a mixture of horror and disbelief.
My first reaction on reading it was that Ms Hodge had been the victim of a misunderstanding: obviously when she put this leading question to her constituents they assumed that she was the BNP candidate, and in order to get her to leave the premises quickly, eight of 10 gave the answer they thought she wanted to hear.
On further investigation, however, I learned that another Sunday Telegraph reporter had scoured the streets of Barking, and could not find anyone at all who would completely rule out voting for the BNP in the forthcoming council elections. So this column must, I'm afraid, ask the question: why has Barking gone barking?
The simple answer is that a number of inner-London authorities with insufficient space for the asylum-seekers in their care have managed to find council homes for a large number of them in Barking, which has long been a white working-class area dominated by families traditionally connected with Ford's Dagenham factories. It is hardly surprising that the BNP has flooded the area with its activists, and is putting up more candidates than it is anywhere else in Britain.
In the last local authority elections, the BNP used similar tactics in Oldham and Burnley, following the Oldham riots. As a parasite upon discontent, the BNP has no equal in the British body politic - although Conservative and Labour campaigners would insist that the Liberal Democrats are the true masters of opportunist pavement politics.
Whichever is the case, it would be wrong to see the BNP as a grave threat to the established parties nationally. Margaret Hodge, as the MP for Barking (and the wife of the chairman of the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal), is bound to see what is fundamentally a local issue in almost apocalyptic terms.
David Aaronovitch of The Times has suggested that "what may be fuelling the BNP vote is the moderation and commitment to multiculturalism of the Conservative Party." It is true that David Cameron has described the BNP as "an evil party", and it may also be true that the Tory leader's current trip to the Arctic Circle to capture the polar bear sympathy vote is not best calculated to engage the burghers of Barking.
But the Conservative share of the vote in these parts of Greater London had declined dramatically long before the impeccably liberal Mr Cameron became leader. Margaret Hodge is absolutely right about one thing: if the BNP is indeed a threat, it is a threat to New Labour.
This should surprise no one who has bothered to read the BNP's policy documents: they are fundamentally Old Labour - very Old Labour, in fact. Here is a selection: "The BNP will take the railways back into public ownership as a single company." "It is time to take our soldiers home from America's Iraq war." "The BNP totally rejects the globalisation scam. Exporting manufacturing industry and call centres abroad may make big profits for the multinational fat cats but it is an economic and social disaster for Britain and British workers in particular."
"We believe that as much of industry as possible should be owned by those who work in it - the owners should work and the workers should own. Strong Trades Unions are vital to protect the workers from exploitation." "The BNP pledges to put the needs of Britain's pensioners first and to restore the link with earnings abolished by the last Tory government."
So it was equally unsurprising that, in his speech on Good Friday launching his local election campaign, the BNP chairman Nick Griffin attacked UKIP as "an extreme right-wing party" which "can only take its votes from old Conservatives. We can and will take Old Labour votes."
It is certainly true that Old Labour was not overtly racist. But the last Old Labour prime minister, Jim Callaghan, was not just working-class by origin; he never lost sight of the white working-class fear about competing for jobs and housing with new immigrants. As Home Secretary, he rushed through the legislation which prevented British passport holders from coming to this country if they did not have a British parent or grandparent. This was his response to the decision by the Kenyan government in 1969 to threaten with eviction Kenyan Asians who refused to take Kenyan nationality. As a result of Callaghan's actions, about 150,000 Kenyan Asians were rendered stateless.
The remaining socialists in the British labour movement tend to refer to the BNP as "fascists." I have no argument with that. But they in turn need to accept that fascism has never been anything other than a toxic mixture of socialism with nationalism. Its founder, Benito Mussolini, sprang from the Italian socialist movement, but broke ranks over the issue of participation in the Great War, when he founded the Fasci d'Azione Rivoluzionaria.
As FL Carsten wrote in The Rise of Fascism, "Mussolini had a profound contempt for those whose overriding ambition was to be rich. It was, he thought, a kind of disease. He declared he was fighting the socialists, not because of their socialism but because they were anti-national and reactionary."
In power, Mussolini launched a public works programme, building schools and hospitals on a scale unprecedented in his country's history. A similar policy, although with roads and railways more to the fore, was Adolf Hitler's answer to the mass unemployment of the Thirties. National Socialism was not just a label: it was a description.
In Great Britain, Oswald Mosley left Labour with six colleagues to set up his New Party, soon to become the British Union of Fascists, precisely because the Labour Party conference (by a narrow majority) rejected his plan to defeat mass unemployment with a gigantic programme of public investment.
There is, I think one significant difference between fascists and socialists (apart from the split between extreme nationalism and internationalism). Whereas the hard left - of both sexes - give off the impression that they regard any form of sexual relationship as in some way corrupt, for some reason fascist leaders and their male activists have always exuded a rank odour of sexual weirdness and perversion.
I know that neither Labour nor Conservative MPs have a record to be proud of in the area of sexual scandal. But in the highly improbable event that Mr Griffin's party gains a presence in the House of Commons, we might soon learn of practices that would stop eight out of 10 people saying that they might support the BNP.Reuse content