Michael Brown: Margaret Hodge is right about the BNP

The BNP and UKIP are now the outward and instant methods of choice for voter disaffection

Share

The British National Party and the UK Independence Party are the two elephants in the room for the Labour and Conservative parties. Neither will ever form a government, but from time to time they wallow in their 15 minutes of electoral fame, forcing the main parties into reluctantly commenting on subjects where silence is the preferred political response. The BNP and UKIP have the capacity to shock and, since the establishment of the Lib Dems as a serious third-party contender, they are now the outward and instant methods of choice for voter disaffection.

Protest votes are often cast in the heat of the moment, with little thought given to the longer-term consequences. The BNP will not make a breakthrough next month (there are only 360 BNP candidates out of 4,000 contests), but a dozen BNP mid-term election gains from Labour in each of only half a dozen councils are far more likely to shake the body politic than two or three hundred council-seat gains by either the Lib Dems or the Tories.

In the days when they could squeeze into a taxi, the Liberal Democrats were a party of protest. Voters would use the opportunities presented at by- elections and local elections to vent their frustrations by giving their vote to the third party. A vote for the Lib Dems now, however, is no longer a vote for protest, it is a vote for a party with serious prospects of power - at least in local government. The Lib Dems have consequently become part of the political establishment at a time when voter disaffection is thought more likely to be addressed by anti-establishment parties.

So just as the Lib Dems have vacated the role of the dustbin of politics, the vacuum is filled by the BNP and UKIP. Not for one moment am I suggesting that the Lib Dems have ever sought to attract, on the basis of fear, the type of voters currently tempted to vote BNP. But it is a simple statement of fact that as parties move nearer to power, other new parties will seek to address - and exploit - the fears of the alienated and dispossessed. There has always been a protest vote at elections other than general elections (the Greens in 1989 and UKIP in 2004), and Margaret Hodge clearly thinks that the 2006 local government elections in east London could be the year of the BNP.

Whether Ms Hodge was right to air her fears publicly is an open question. She may be tactically talking up the threat in order to increase Labour turnout. But Labour apparachiks were clearly scared by her public ruminations - so much so that she appears to be rowing back from her original comments in the weekend press.

Some will argue that she has merely given the BNP a massive shot of the oxygen of publicity that their own resources could not achieve. But silence from the main parties on voter alienation caused by the impact of sudden demographic change, is probably part of the reason for the growing BNP support in Barking and Dagenham, where traditional Labour voters feel that no one is listening to them. And with the overwhelming evidence adduced by the Rowntree Trust of growing potential for BNP support, along with the research conducted recently by the Spectator's Peter Oborne, it would seem only sensible for at least one government minister to speak out publicly about her fears.

Mr Oborne recently observed the BNP canvassing in Ms Hodge's constituency, and found that potential BNP voters were invariably respectable working-class or even lower-middle-class voters - and they could give the BNP enough seats to become the main opposition party. Whether we like it or not, racist politics may yet be on the march.

This is thanks to the decision of the two main parties effectively to discount or ignore all voters who are not the 800,000 electors in the target 100 marginal constituencies. Oborne notes that the neighbouring Dagenham Labour MP, John Cruddas, blames New Labour's obsession with the preferences and prejudices of the swing voter in the swing seats for "driving the white Dagenham working and lower middle classes straight into the arms of the BNP".

The targeting of such a defined voter profile excludes general policies tailored to the working-class masses. For the Tories, the same game is being played, and there was a hint of criticism in yesterday's interview on Today by Iain Duncan Smith - who represents neighbouring Chingford - that the Tory party leadership's obsession, also, with only swing voters has caused the Tories to vacate the field in Labour areas of disaffection, leaving the pitch clear for the BNP.

The Tory party's problems in handling the BNP are compounded by their recent experiences in the last general election. Michael Howard raised the issue of race and immigration to the exclusion of the rest of his agenda. The swing voters reacted badly, so now anything to do with race, asylum and immigration is, like tax and Europe, off the Tory political agenda. To get a front-bench Tory to muse on the current debate is impossible.

"The Conservatives refused to comment" was invariably the last sentence of every newspaper article of the past few days since Ms Hodge gave her interview. But as Ann Widdecombe noted yesterday, race and immigration have often been the sleeper issues on the doorstep.

Three related issues stand out for the main parties to ameliorate voters' concerns: health, housing and education. It seems a patently natural response for voters in areas of sudden demographic change to get hot under the collar if they now have to wait 10 days for a GP's appointment, if they are denied their previous place on the social housing list, and if the character of the classroom is so changed that within two years English is no longer the first language.

I doubt that white Dagenham and Barking voters are any more racist than their counterparts elsewhere in London where integration has over time proved successful. But it is inevitably the case that, if local services are completely overwhelmed, there will be resentment at the ballot box where the shoe pinches hardest.

The worst response of all is to attack the voters. Ritual denunciations of the BNP the morning after the night before are usually the best recruiting ground for a further BNP advance in the future. If normally loyal Labour voters are turning to the BNP along with former Tories (because sometimes there are not even Tory candidates), there is a message to the main parties.

Blaming voters for doing the wrong thing is not usually the best way to win them back to the mainstream. Listening to Ms Hodge and Mr Cruddas might be a good starting point - provided they are not silenced by the rest of the political establishment.

mrbrown@talktalk.net

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Former Tory MP Harvey Proctor speaks during a press conference at St Ermin's Hotel, London, where he insisted he is  

Harvey Proctor and a worrying case of justice by lynch mob

James Hanning
The House of Lords is totally unelected but can influence laws  

Peerages: from birthright to bauble is not progress

John Rentoul
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future