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The BNP and the white working class

Gavin Hewitt | 09:46 UK time, Thursday, 22 October 2009


The attention that British National Party leader Nick Griffin is currently receiving stems from the European elections. The BNP got nearly a million votes and ended up with two seats in the European parliament. He and Andrew Brons became MEPs. They have not, as yet, made any impact in Brussels, but perhaps that is not surprising as their aim is for Britain to withdraw from the EU.

Some people were surprised by the numbers who voted for a party which is regularly denounced as racist. There was a similar reaction in 2006 when the BNP won a clutch of council seats in Barking and Dagenham. I did a report on their campaign for the BBC's Ten O'Clock News. Initially I thought it would be difficult to find people who would openly admit on camera that they intended to vote for the far-right party. It was easier than I imagined.

At Dagenham Working Men's Club I found potential BNP voters, and some were willing to talk openly. Among then was a brick-layer, a trainee nurse and an electrician. I got them to look straight into the camera. They gave their names, their occupations and said they intended to vote for BNP. All were either former Labour voters or came from Labour-voting families. None of them knew much about the BNP beyond the fact that it was anti-immigration. They knew nothing about the history or the background of the party's leaders or activists.

The mood in the club was one of sullen resentment. The neighbourhood around them was changing rapidly. Their known world had gone. I remember that one of them had got hold of the Labour manifesto from 1997. There was only a brief reference to immigration but the man read out the words "every country must have firm control over immigration and Britain is no exception". They felt betrayed and voiceless. In their view Labour had not been straight and no-one had asked them whether they wanted a sharp rise in immigration.

Certainly in that club the bond between the white working class and Labour had been broken. They seemed isolated, adrift and in that mood voted for the BNP. They did not particularly like the party. Theirs was a protest vote, a cry to be heard.

Later the Labour MP for Dagenham Jon Cruddas criticised my report. He felt the publicity could benefit the BNP. In fact it had been one of his Labour colleagues, Margaret Hodge, who had drawn our attention to the area when she warned that the shortage of housing for white working class people was driving people into the arms of the BNP. In the event the BNP did well and now have 12 councillors in the area.

It was easy to show the BNP for what they really were. Their election literature did that.

Many of the people I met knew that the BNP was regarded as a racist party but it did not deter them from voting for the party. They did not care because they felt ignored and sidelined. I also recall a comment from a colleague. He said the white working class was probably the only section of society that could be openly abused. They could be called "trash" or "chavs"' and no one objected. What I took away from Barking and Dagenham was the need for the mainstream parties to re-connect to white working families.


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