Sure, it was easy to say, ‘Pah. I’m disillusioned and not voting,’ or to cast a resentful protest vote that did no good in the long-term. That’s certainly not in my DNA, but this fear and resentment was alive and well. In the east London constituency of Barking and Dagenham, the far-right fascist British National Party hoped to capitalise on this brewing negative sentiment by nabbing a seat in Parliament and taking control of the borough’s council. B&D was their key battleground, and in politics, nothing’s impossible.
But the BNP forgot one thing. That people wanted hope, not hate. A lovely slogan yes, but also the name for the non-partisan organisation led by Searchlight magazine, backed by the trade unions and singer songwriter and political activist Billy Bragg. During the election, hundreds of antifascist activists, including myself, met up at Hope Not Hate HQ in Dagenham, distributing leaflets to local residents. They were young, old, black, Asian, male, women, but what they had in common was they had been identified as opposing the BNP.
In post-election Barking & Dagenham, dubbed the ‘race hate capital of Britain, the BNP are no longer. Far from winning control of the borough’s council, they lost all 12 of the seats they already had, and failed to secure the parliamentary seat. In fact, in a night characterised by huge Labour losses, the sitting Labour MP Margaret Hodge was re-elected with an increased majority, defying belief and all the odds.
But what now? The anti-BNP vote was cast loud and clear, summed up passionately in the words of Margaret Hodge: ‘The message from Barking to the BNP is clear - get out and stay out. You're not wanted here, and your vile politics have no place in British democracy.’
It’s with a heavy heart I admit these vile politics will perhaps always appeal to some although this victory remains sweet. But to loosen the grip would be a sad mistake. The concerns in B&D remain, over housing, immigration, education, the NHS, and the pressure on these local services. And unless these issues are addressed, the BNP could well gain ground again in this, their one-time stronghold.
But for now, on a night where almost everyone was a loser – the Conservatives failed to get their landslide, Labour said goodbye to 91 MPs, the Liberal Democrats lost seats despite more votes – there was one outright winner. Hope. It had comprehensively beaten Hate in Barking & Dagenham.