Barking: the land that Labour lost

White east Londoners' votes for the BNP seem to be more about resignation than racism.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

If you read the papers, Barking in east London is split apart over race and the forthcoming local elections on 4 May. The British National Party (BNP) is apparently tempting white working-class voters away from Labour folds: Margaret Hodge, employment minister and MP for this area, warns that eight in 10 white residents could vote for the BNP. Commentators will be watching the district’s voting returns, and reading BNP success as a harbinger of ethnic strife.

But in Barking town centre this week there was little sign either of the local elections or of racism. Two women brushed off mention of the elections with a ‘Not really interested. Thanks all the same’, or ‘won’t be voting, doesn’t bother me who’s in government’. There were no party stalls in the high street; no posters on the walls or in windows. Nobody I spoke to had met a political campaigner or received any election materials. The Labour Party wasn’t answering its phone.

Station Street couldn’t have appeared further from ethnic strife: Iceland lies alongside Caribbean food stores, Birds Bakery next to fried chicken shops. Stephen, 38, from Ghana, says that racism is ‘no problem for me’. Justin Warner, a young black Londoner, said he had seen some BNP graffiti at a bus stop, but otherwise he hadn’t witnessed any conflicts with immigrants. White residents were at pains to point out that they didn’t have anything against blacks or Asians.

Still, some of those white residents were thinking of voting for the BNP. The resonance of the immigration issue with the white working class is often seen as a bomb ready to explode. Votes for the BNP are seen as preludes to riots and lynchings. But such views often represent the fears and prejudices of an isolated elite more than the reality on the ground. Many are turning to the BNP, not with racist anger, but with a sense of resignation. At base, the immigration issue is a depoliticised way of understanding decline: the loss of jobs, of the Labour Party, and of community identity.

Barking is a case study of Britain’s economic and political malaise over the past two decades. Once people in the area worked at the Ford car factory at Dagenham, at the docks, or at a collection of firms in Barking itself. ‘They made everything – tin boxes, matches’, said Mrs Ball, 58, who now works at one of the few remaining factories. The community was built on the foundations of unions and the Labour Party at work; youth clubs, bowling clubs, dance halls.

Over the past couple of decades of industrial struggle in the 1980s and the ensuing deindustrialisation and depoliticisation, this structure has collapsed. One 75-year-old woman, who had lived in Barking all her life, says: ‘This whole area has degenerated beyond recognition. Nobody has any manners. All the nice shops have gone.’ The Dagenham factory, which once had 34,000 workers, cut production repeatedly over the years. The docks closed and now local firms are moving out: Mrs Ball says that her company is relocating to Tunisia, ‘where they can pay people £1 a day’.

One fortysomething steel engineer says that his take-home pay was better when he was 17, ‘when I didn’t have any qualifications’. Hayley, an 18-year-old, said that she was thinking of voting BNP because ‘there are no jobs, although I have been looking for one for ages. There are no flats’. Apparently there was once a three-year wait to join the bowling club; now the club is facing closure. Many have left; some of those remaining have plans to follow, with one young woman talking about Canada, and the steel engineer saying that ‘New Zealand is looking better by the day’.

The area has certainly declined in economic fortunes. One 2005 study found that Barking and Dagenham was the twenty-sixth most deprived borough in the UK – up from the forty-seventh most deprived in 2000 (1). But Barking isn’t a British Bosnia, as some of media accounts would have us believe. Most people have jobs, even if they aren’t great ones. The rate of those who are unemployed and looking for work is 6.7 per cent, which is only slightly higher than the London average of 6.2 per cent (2). Indeed, male unemployment in the area has fallen from a high point of around 15 per cent in the 1990s (3). It seems that it is not economic problems per se that are the issue, but the way in which political exhaustion means that they are experienced as particularly demoralising.

As the unions and Labour Party lost ground in the late 1980s and early 90s, New Labour reformed to fill the gap. Margaret Hodge is a New Labour archetype: she was a councillor in Islington for over 20 years, then worked as a public sector consultant for Price Waterhouse Coopers. She became an MP in 1994, the year Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party, and was parachuted into the safe Labour seat of Barking. Hodge is a prime example of how New Labour exists on another plane. ‘Nobody in parliament lives in this world’, says one Barking pensioner, ‘they haven’t taken any notice’. ‘It’s in one ear and out the other with politicians’, said a thirtysomething mother. Meanwhile, Peter Hughes, a 67-year-old, says that ‘Tony Blair and his colleagues have let us down across the board’.

Concerns about immigration are ways of understanding decline, at a time when politics no longer offers solutions to social problems. When there is no sense of political entitlement, of demanding or expecting more from government, the holes in the community seem to be caused by the immigrants who fill the gaps. Barking’s Liberal and Labour Club is tatty and faded on Ripple Road, with unopened letters lying on the mat and litter strewn around; in contrast, the nearby Gospel Faith Mission International has two cars outside and a full programme of events posted up in bright letters. The painted signs are all that is left of old businesses such as B and K Furnishings (‘Wanted: all household items for cash’), now replaced by open-air shops selling plantain or cheap international phone cards. The loss of the old seems to be caused by the new.

Economic problems appear as a question of ‘too many people’. If we can’t demand a bigger pie, it seems simply that there must be too many mouths at the table. ‘Politicians have let too many people in. They get free treatment, though they haven’t paid for it – that is why the NHS is in such a mess’, said one 67-year-old man, who admitted that it has ‘crossed my mind to vote BNP’. A bus driver in his fifties, a lifelong Labour voter, said that this time he wouldn’t be voting: ‘I feel like I’m in a minority, I feel hard-pressed.’

Politicians’ aloofness from the white working class is seen as a result of them defending other people’s interests. ‘Tony Blair is always trying to appease other countries, and putting us down’, said one man. ‘We have to wait six months to get a house. If immigrants come in, they get a house straight away’, said 18-year-old Hayley. A woman in her thirties said that immigrants are ‘given more rights, there is one rule for them and another rule for us. If there is trouble, the coppers won’t touch them because they are afraid of being called racist’.

But there was little sign of aggressive racism among those who were thinking of voting BNP. The only signs of aggression came in the form of a couple of patriot-style vans, one with blacked-out windows and fighting dogs, the other plastered with the St George’s Cross. Most I spoke to emphasised that they had nothing against immigrants; that ethnic minority communities had problems too; that they had always got on fine with black and Asian people. ‘It’s not their fault’, said Hayley, ‘we need more houses and jobs’. Few were in favour of mass deportations: ‘they shouldn’t be kicked out, but we should limit the new ones coming in’, said one young woman. One man said that he might vote BNP to ‘give Labour a kick up the bum’; another just to ‘give them a go. Everybody else has made a mess of things’.

The truth is, however, that politicians aren’t defending immigrants’ interests; they are sloshing money and ideas around among themselves. The otherworldly quality of New Labour policy is exemplified by the fact that Barking and Dagenham has received millions of pounds in public art funding. The area might not have good jobs, but it was blessed with A13 Artscape, a series of sculptures and art programmes running alongside the A13, proclaimed as ‘one of the largest and most ambitious public arts projects in the UK’, funded by Transport for London, Barking and Dagenham Council, and Arts Council England. A new series of works are nearing completion in Barking town centre, in part funded by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

The regeneration industry floats sublimely above the grime, telling its own heady story of optimism and dynamism. Arts Council England sponsored ‘five international artists from Plugfish to put together a trail of video projections highlighting the local heritage and creative energy of the borough’. Plans are afoot for a ‘Lighted Lady of Barking’, which will form a gateway into the town centre from the A406. The work, by a Dutch artist, will be lit with multiple colours at night, ‘reflecting on our current multicoloured society and celebrating the benefits of this rich mix’. These works make Barking seem even more of a foreign land to its residents. ‘It’s like they are trying to turn Barking into a resort’, commented Hayley.

Even though many of Barking’s white voters may put their cross by the BNP on 4 May, this isn’t a sign of racist pogroms to come. Indeed, in some ways the vote is a very private and passive form of expression. There are no rallies against immigration in Barking’s main street; concerns exist quietly at the back of people’s minds, rather than out in the world of public debate. The vote, once an outcome of political debate and mobilisation, is now a replacement for it; it’s a message in a bottle to politicians.

There is no going back for Barking, but there are perhaps more positive signs for the future. Everywhere there are examples of everyday collaboration between the area’s different communities. One pensioner recounted how her neighbour, a Ghanaian, came around every day with food when she was ill; many businesses have both white and black workers; black and white kids can be seen playing together. In the right circumstances, residents might be able to work together to avert the area’s decline, and shake up a decadent and distant political elite for real.

(1) Tackling the Poverty of Opportunity, Center for Economic Performance, London School of Economics, June 2005 [pdf]

(2) Barking and Dagenham unemployment statistics, Nomis

(3) Male unemployment – Barking and Dagenham, A Vision of Britain Through Time

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Topics Politics


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