John Rentoul: Sound the alarm! Man the barricades! The BNP is coming (and it's all Tony's fault)

The alienation of working-class voters is not really about race
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The Independent Online

Sound the alarm! Ring that old liberal tocsin! The British National Party is coming! And - guess what? - it is all Tony Blair's fault. He has abandoned the Labour Party's working-class base for the fickle swingers of Middle (class) England. What, therefore, could be more logical for the most disadvantaged white parts of the working class, their patience exhausted, than to turn to the one form of protest voting that will put the wind up their bleeding-heart do-gooding masters?

It is a knee-jerk thesis eagerly adopted by Blair-bashers. There are many Labour people who think that the party's focus on centre-ground politics has freed the white working class to flirt dangerously with racism. Their analysis is wrong. Labour is, in fact, the party that takes the interests of the working class more seriously than any other - and Labour voters remain the least likely to defect to the BNP.

Let us pause, first, to deconstruct the latest panic over the electoral rise of the far right, one of many convulsions over the years. This one was started by Margaret Hodge, the Work and Pensions minister and MP for the outer east London seat of Barking, where the BNP won 17 per cent of the vote in last year's general election. She said that most of the people in her constituency whom she canvassed for next month's local elections told her that they would consider voting BNP this time.

Why would she give Labour's opponents the benefit of such free publicity? Because, one suspects, she was embarrassed by the BNP's success last year. There were mutterings at Labour headquarters that the local MP should bear some responsibility. The Guardian quoted "one senior Labour figure" as saying: "It is a question of leadership. They have to take the fight to their opponent." Well, Hodge reads The Guardian and her response can be understood if not perhaps condoned. She launched a pre-emptive strike to prevent unnamed party "figures" from saying, on 5 May, that disastrous BNP gains in Barking were all her fault for being so passively complacent. Instead, she will be on television saying: "I tried to warn you."

The second part of the deconstruction is to point out that the BNP tends to steal votes not from Labour but from the Conservatives. Friday's YouGov poll suggested that a week's free publicity had lifted the BNP's rating from 0.4 per cent last month to 7 per cent. This gain came more at the expense of the Conservatives, down three points, than Labour or the Liberal Democrats, down one point each.

These are not, then, natural Labour working-class voters, but rather the naturally Tory working class. Psephologically, the BNP is the blue-collar wing of the same tendency as the UK Independence Party. It is unfair, of course, to bracket UKIP with the BNP: UKIP is more plausible in its rejection of racism, but both parties are fishing for the same right-wing voters who, if they vote for a mainstream party at all, tend to vote Tory. Perhaps Hodge was not merely engaged in self-defence, but in a stealthy attack. By raising the BNP's profile, Labour might siphon off votes from David Cameron's resurgent Conservatives.

But let no one accuse Labour of mere negativism. After the synthetic fuss over the party's "Dave the Chameleon" broadcast, one of the least personal and lightest-hearted attacks in the history of political advertising, it is only fair to point out that New Labour has positive policies too for holding on to its working-class support. Currently, they are embodied in the substantial and reassuring form of Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary.

Paradoxically, these policies are often condemned by the same people who lament Labour's abandoning of the working class. New Labour is often criticised as illiberal or accused of pandering to the baser instincts of the electorate (code for the views of the white working class on immigration, violent crime and anti-social behaviour). Yet much of this criticism seems confused. The suggestion, for example, that the parole system is working well because "only" 100 serious offences are committed each year by criminals on early release is hard to sustain. The Home Secretary was surely only doing his job last week when he sought to tighten the rules on the supervision of offenders.

The middle classes are just as capable of being fearful of crime as the working classes, but it was one of Tony Blair's New Labour insights that working-class people suffer disproportionately from crime, and that being "tough on crime" was an issue for the party's core voters.

But the real problem with this Government is that it has not been New Labour enough. Another of Blair's insights was that it had to match rights and responsibilities. It has made a start, with difficult and slow-acting incentives for people to work rather than stay on benefit. But there are big issues that remain.

A major cause of working-class resentment of immigration is the system for allocating social housing. In a book called The New East End, Geoff Dench and Kate Gavron revisit the territory of Michael Young's historic study, Family and Kinship in East London. They discover that the white working-class resentment of immigrants who are given council houses by simple measurement of "need" is shared by older immigrants who feel that they have contributed to their host society, unlike newer arrivals who are given priority.

The problem of assessing need without reference to responsibility has been taken up by Labour backbenchers of varying ideological sub-stripe, from John Denham to Frank Field. As Field pointed out last week, the alienation of working-class voters in areas of high state dependency is not really about race. In some of the places where asylum-seekers or immigrants are most resented there are hardly any of either. In others, such as his own Birkenhead constituency, Field says the sense of unfairness "centres on the advantage that single parents or the homeless have in sweeping the weekly housing jackpots".

The principles apply to all forms of dependency on the state, whether for homes or cash. In Barking, 15 per cent of the working age population is on benefit. The BNP flourishes where dependency culture is strongest, because those are the areas where the sense that some people are getting something for nothing is most poisonously strong.

The electoral threat from the BNP has been exaggerated. Not that any right-thinking person can feel comfortable at the prospect of the party winning any seats on local councils. But the lesson is not necessarily what many supposedly right-thinking people think. It is not enough simply to build more social housing, but to rebuild local societies in which people are confident that hard work and responsibility will be rewarded.