Johann Hari: BNP votes are a cry of white working-class anguish

We dismiss them as 'chavs', 'pikeys' and racists, and jeer at their names
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The Independent Online

The London results were so bleak the election coverage soon turned into an edition of Have I Got Noose For You. Mayor Boris has gone from punch-line to punch-out, and I watched it all in a black cloud, waiting for his pledge to rule on behalf of all Londoners – white, Asian or piccaninny.

But there is worse news still: the far right have seized their fattest electoral prize since the 1930s. The British National Party now have a seat in the London Assembly, continuing a dramatic rise: in 1992, it won 7,005 votes nationally; by 2005 it hit 192,746. This is their most effective lurch into the mainstream yet.

Of course, it’s tempting to ask: does this ugly protest vote matter? The BNP will never take power – so let them spew their bile from isolated seats. But whenever I think this, I remember Robert Cottage. In the most under-reported story of the past year, this 49 year-old BNP election candidate was discovered to have stock-piled explosives and bomb-making manuals in his house. He wanted to use them in a “race war”; they were found along with a letter from BNP leader Nick Griffin thanking him for his hard work. Cottage’s wife believed joining the party had led to this point, saying, “The BNP changed him.” This isn’t new: the Soho nail-bomber was a BNP activist, as are many members of Combat 18. As the party grows, the opportunities for men like this to be hoovered up into far right radicalism swell.

Yet there is a big difference between the party and its voters. It would be easy to say the BNP vote represents simply the remaining rancid scraps of racism – but it’s not true. I spent last Thursday canvassing the vast concrete estates of East London, where I live, and I spoke to half-a-dozen openly pro-BNP voters. They were not straightforwardly bigoted: one single mum said she would vote BNP “if my kids weren’t mixed race.” Instead, they were angry and alienated, and the BNP seemed to them to be the sharpest needle to jab into the eye of the political process; as one fiftysomething white woman said, “I just want to tell politicians to fuck off.”

How do we persuade these voters to make better choices? The first step is the easiest: expose the party for what they really are. The BNP has tried to rebrand itself, hoping we will forget its founder declared “Mein Kampf is my Bible”, and its current leader attacks even David Irvine for admitting some Jews died in the “Holohoax.” This leads to the second step: stop trying to silence them. The trial of Nick Griffin for hate-speech wasn’t just immoral – he has a right to free speech, no matter how foul – but also dumb politics. The way to discredit the BNP is for people to hear what they say. No more no platforms: take them on. Read out their pro-Hitler quotes. Watch them implode.

But we also need to address the biggest worries of BNP voters. Most of them are anxious about immigration not because they don’t want different-looking people walking the streets, but because they feel it damages them, in three distinct ways: through housing, wages, and the unequal provision of public services.

Of course we have to start by debunking the Littlejohnian lies. No, asylum seekers are not “hosed down” with benefits: a single asylum seeker struggles by on forty-four quid a week. No, they are not put ahead of you in housing queues: some 90 percent of people in council houses were born in Britain, and only 5 percent each year go to recent arrivals. No, they don’t commit more crime: the Association of Chief Police Officers says so. But not all their concerns are based on myths pumped out by bigots; many are real, and legitimate.

Let’s start with council housing. We need to say: yes, it is a scandal. The Thatcher policy of selling off council houses was a good way of spreading property ownership – but the Tories didn’t put the proceeds into building more new council homes. Instead, they frittered them away on tax cuts for the rich, and for ten years, Labour let the waiting lists sky-rocket and the housing stock deteriorate. The fact this coincided with a rise in new immigrants – who almost all live in private rented accommodation – created the false impression they were linked. The best tactic to stymie the BNP is a huge programme of council house construction, immediately.

How about wages? It’s true that immigrants boost the economy overall, and boost public services and pensions because they pay back £6bn more than they take from the Exchequer. But it’s also true that British people don’t benefit equally from it. It’s simply a fact that if you significantly increase the supply of cheap labour, the hourly rate for it comes down: that’s why wages for builders and waitresses and cleaners have barely budged for ten years now. For people on the lowest wages, immigration does depress their wages, and it is wrong to deny this, or wave it away as unimportant. Instead, we must advocate a simple non-sectarian answer: a higher minimum wage. A campaign calling for this creates a new dividing line: instead of the white working class vs. immigrants, it puts the white working class and immigrants side-by-side, against the CBI and the super-rich who want to preserve their vast profits at their expense.

And what about ethnic divisions in public services? Again this is uncomfortable to face, but we have to be honest about it. If you build a Bengali community centre, you create demand for a ‘white’ community centre to match it. Faith schools are the worst offenders, dividing up communities on ethnic lines when they are at their most impressionable: Muslim kids this way, white kids that way. How can we be surprised if people then convert this tribalism into their political preferences too? Our public services need to be run so they bind us together, not carve us into ethnic chunks.

But instead of offering these solutions, we have turned the white working class into a national punch-line. We dismiss them as “chavs”, “pikeys” and racists, and jeer at their clothes, voices and names. So we don’t really have the right to act surprised when they vote in a way designed to tell us – as the woman standing in her damp flat, carrying bags of economy-brand food from Iceland, told me – to “fuck off.”