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Labour’s lost ground

A recent article in The Guardian comfirms what we have long predicted: the BNP is filling the vacuum created by the collapsing Labour Party and the strategies pursued by professional anti-fascist organisations—who seek to keep the BNP on the sidelines together with the disenchanted working class communities who might be tempted to support them—are actally helping to promote the mistaken belief that the BNP are the radical alternative.

This attempt to defeat the nationalist right by technical means alone (non-aggression pacts between mainstream politicians, increased turn-outs) will surely fail as it has done across Europe over more than two decades.

It is persevered with because its backers may well want to destroy the BNP by fair means or foul, but they also want to do so without offering any criticism of the status quo or disturbing the political equilibrium.

So instead of genuine anti-fascism what we have is a sterile anti-extremism that can be deployed equally against both the ‘far-right’ and the ‘hard left’, as IWCA activists can testify.

But precisely because of the interests it represents, right-wing anti-fascism is well funded, press-friendly and enjoys an undeserved influence in blue collar trade unions like the RMT and GMB.

Though thoroughly alienated by New Labour, the leadership of these unions nevertheless encourage their membership to volunteer for Unite against Fascism or ‘Hope not Hate’ donkey work; the principle beneficiary of such campaigns being New Labour, whose mission statement so clearly runs contrary to the interests of the self-same working class volunteers.

Until these contradictions are politically addressed, until there is an objective analaysis, until working class communities are properly organised, more former Labour heartlands like Stoke-on-Trent (see below) will to fall to the BNP.

Labour’s lost ground

Stoke-on-Trent used to be a Labour stronghold, but now it has nine BNP councillors. Some fear that the far-right party could be running the town hall by 2011. Patrick Barkham reports on how the left is losing the battle for white working-class votes

Patrick Barkham
The Guardian,
Wednesday May 28 2008

Up the hill, past trimmed privet hedges and rows of interwar semis is Bentilee neighbourhood centre. Opened last year, the £10m building has panoramic views of Stoke-on-Trent and sparkles in the sun. At its front is a bustling butcher, baker and small supermarket. Behind is a library, doctor’s surgery, dentist, community centre, youth service and “one-stop shop” for every kind of environmental and housing inquiry. Without the Labour-led city council and its private finance initiative-funded project, the Bentilee estate would still have its shabby old shopping precinct. But this glittering building, the new nursery down the road, immaculate streets and a 39% fall in crime on the estate do not fill many residents with joy and appreciation.

“They haven’t just let me down. They’ve broken my heart,” says John Oldcroft, sitting outside the centre. “Stoke-on-Trent has been Labour for 60-odd years and they’ve taken everything for granted. Labour are just turning into Conservatives. We’ve got a local BNP lad who lives on the estate and he came and had a word.”

Oldcroft voted for the BNP this month, and the far-right party now has nine representatives on Stoke-on-Trent council, including all three representatives elected from Bentilee’s ward. Three gains in the May election gave the BNP their second largest council group in the country, after Barking and Dagenham’s 12 councillors. Stoke City’s promotion to the football Premier League has spread a feelgood factor across the city but there is also foreboding: it is not just the BNP talking up its prospects of power. Labour activists fear the BNP is now the strongest single party in Stoke. On May 1, Labour polled 14,000 votes in 20 seats; the BNP polled almost 8,000 standing in just 10 seats. A minority Labour administration struggles on; the council chamber is fragmented by independents and neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats are bigger than the BNP. Senior local politicians, commentators and residents believe this city of 250,000 could be controlled by the BNP within three years. How has Stoke got here?

Like the other large estates that have become far-right strongholds in Stoke, Bentilee residents are overwhelmingly white. Census records show just 1.9% of the population is from black and ethnic minority communities. Nearly 50% of Bentilee’s residents don’t work; most, like Oldcroft, are “on the sick”, as locals say. He has a visibly painful back complaint, but is more concerned about housing. His 24-year-old daughter lives at home and is still waiting for a council house. Immigrants, he claims, always seem to get set up with houses. “You can’t park your car and there are arguments here and arguments there. We’ll soon be like Bradford. People have got to listen to our views.”

Oldcroft’s concerns are voiced by plenty of residents but they are not supported by the facts: in June last year, just 2.7% of council tenants on the Bentilee estate described themselves as from a black or ethnic minority background. The BNP, however, is listening keenly to these complaints. Later that day, Alby Walker, the BNP group leader on the council, turns up for his regular bingo session at the nearby Abbey Hulton community centre. “I’m not a bingo fan myself. You go along and help put the tables out and take the money. It could be described as a surgery because everyone knows we’ll be there,” he says.

Walker is articulate but not a demagogue, a businessman who runs a small joinery firm and a family man whose wife, Ellie, a school governor, has also been elected as a BNP councillor. Above him in the BNP’s high-ceilinged room in city hall, is an election poster that reads: “People like you, voting BNP.”

Apart from calling Labour councillors “scruffy” – he wears a pinstripe suit and fat tie – Walker’s favourite piece of vocabulary (to the Guardian, anyway) is “community champions”. The BNP’s councillors “are good hardworking grassroots councillors who are real community champions”, he says. Other parties are “scaremongering” about the BNP, he says. “All the old lads say to me, ‘We’re disgusted. How can they say that about you and Ellie? You’re such lovely people.’”

Walker likes to talk about all the things he has done for local people since he was elected in 2005. “I’m getting birthday cards off 80-year-old ladies,” he says. There is no BNP army – they cobbled together 40 activists for the local election campaign – and it is hard to find anyone in local politics who believes the BNP are performing constructively or effectively in Stoke’s council chamber. But even their political opponents agree that the BNP councillors are busily visible in their local areas. “The BNP have gone into the communities, they’ve listened to what people said and they’ve engaged with them in ways Labour haven’t for years,” says Mick Temple, professor of politics and journalism at Stafford University.

“The men and women of the BNP look like your neighbours,” says Michael Tappin, the former Labour group leader and ex-Stoke MEP who lost his council seat on May 1. “They are not the mythical 25st men with body-piercings and tattoos as portrayed by antifascist demonstrators. They are respectable. It’s impossible to demonise them. They wear suits, they look tidy.” As Tappin says, they pick up old ladies when they fall over in the street, shop for the elderly and cut people’s lawns. “It’s like that saying about Mussolini – ‘at least he made the trains run on time.’ Here, it’s ‘at least they get your grass cut.’”

The rise of the BNP in Stoke is also the story of Labour’s catastrophic decline. Twelve years ago, Labour won all 60 seats on Stoke’s new unitary council. Now it holds 15, plus the mayor. Vast swaths of the city – 13 of 20 wards – have no Labour representation: 12 of their councillors represent four wards where Stoke’s ethnic minority populations are concentrated. “We’ve become a minority party,” says Tappin.

For years this sprawling conurbation served up manual labour in PPE – pits, pots and engineering. The unions were strong and there was only ever one party to vote for. Allegiance to Labour passed through families. Three decades ago, more than 50,000 people worked in the potteries; now 6,000 do. Stoke has one of the lowest proportions of people in employment in England and Wales – fewer residents work than in the Thatcher era. Unemployment has fallen in the city since then but more people claim incapacity and disability benefits. Some say that Stoke’s white working class has become an underclass.

As jobs and unions disappeared, so Labour withered, losing dynamism at its grass roots and suffering the complacency and arrogance of any one-party regime. It was a “dynastic situation”, says one former local politician: fathers and sons ran the party and controlled community centres. Elsewhere, local Labour groups were modernised by polytechnic lecturers or lawyers in the 70s and 80s. In Stoke, there was no pool of talent for the party to renew itself. Labour insiders say local membership is below 300. Tappin’s verdict on his local party is damning: “It’s been allowed to fester and become inward-looking. It’s become concerned with arcane debates about rules, not about policy. Most of the Labour party still resides in the 1930s.”

Michael Wolfe realised the growing unpopularity of Labour when he began a campaign for a referendum on whether Stoke should have a directly elected mayor. The charismatic former head of the city’s Citizens Advice Bureau, Wolfe gathered a 10,000-signature petition, forced Labour to agree to a poll and became the city’s first elected mayor in 2002. Stoke has become a testbed for a unique form of local government with its elected mayor guided by an unelected chief executive and decisions taken by an executive board of elected councillors from different parties. The election of an openly gay independent mayor was seen as a sign Stoke was moving with the times, but Wolfe lost his post in 2005 to Labour. Wolfe says Labour has been unable to reinvent the economy of a failing manufacturing city. Tappin agrees: “Labour has not offered people a vision of how to get out of deindustrialisation, how to get its 42,000 residents on benefits back into work. It’s put sticking plasters on [instead of] wholesale reform.”

Ask local people what concerns them and the big issues are seldom national, although Gordon Brown gets a kicking over the 10p tax band. Most mentioned are Labour’s closure of care homes in Stoke, its Building Schools for the Future project (closing old schools and constructing new ones) and the city’s regeneration, which will involve the anachronistic-sounding demolition of streets of Victorian terraces. All three projects are viewed with suspicion. Labour leaders past and present defend the policies, which they argue will lead to more elderly people being properly cared for in their homes, the overhaul of Stoke’s battered, underachieving schools, and a cleaner city with more shops, jobs and affordable homes.

Prejudices have also been allowed to fester, believes Wolfe. He says he suffered homophobic insults from the Labour establishment and would hear local politicians casually refer to “darkies”. Some of the city’s ruling elite never accepted the equality agenda, he argues: “It was always seen as too controversial to take on the equalities thinking of other councils such as Manchester.” Estates such as Bentilee and Abbey Hulton were allowed to stay almost completely white as Labour councillors helped block the black and Asian people taking up council homes in the 80s and 90s, he claims. “In effect, we have racially segregated estates. Race is a very beguiling solution to economic problems but what drives people into the BNP’s arms is poverty, and within poverty I include lack of education.”

In other cities, Labour’s failure would lead to a resurgent Conservative or Liberal Democrat regime but I did not meet anyone on Stoke’s estates who votes Tory or Lib Dem. In this one-party state, the BNP has stepped into the vacuum. Its tactics are typical of those defined by its national leadership. Simon Darby, the deputy leader, is based nearby in the West Midlands and takes a close interest. “They are talking about housing and schools and are very good at opportunistically picking up an issue,” says Wolfe. “They campaign in a way that none of us recognise. People arrive in pubs, lean at the bar, buy a few drinks, say they are doing some contract work in town, become very matey and then tell people these rumours.” Typical tall stories include a Kosovan cashing a £5,000 cheque from the council so he can buy a car and one of Stoke’s historic buildings being renovated by the council to become a mosque.

The BNP’s racist campaigns seem a useful way of getting into communities. Walker talks about care homes, schools and regeneration. He also offers a pungent mix of nostalgia and conspiratorial claims about immigrants and Islam, from the the apocryphal Muslim taxi drivers who “piss in bottles and throw them out of cabs” to the council giving housing priority to immigrants. (This is untrue: lettings are assessed on need – people who are homeless, or in overcrowded accommodation – which is unrelated to ethnicity. Priority is given to new tenants with a local connection – if they have lived in Stoke for three out of the last five years or have family or employment in the city. In 2006/07, of the 81% of council lettings where ethnicity was recorded, 10.9% were made to black and ethnic minority households.)

Asked if he is racist, Walker does not directly deny the charge: “We’re not tied by political correctness, we’ve just got to make sure what we say is within the law,” he says. “Any leaflet we put out is open to legal scrutiny so there’s no racist literature put out while I’ve been involved.” He hands me one. “That was our most effective leaflet,” he says, visibly proud. “Hanley 70 years ago,” it reads above a montage of photos of the church tower, pottery kilns and smiling housewives. “Is this what you want for our city centre?” it says below, next to silhouettes of mosques and a picture of three women in niqab, one of whom is raising two fingers to the camera. BNP tactics in his ward, Abbey Green, were “soft” in comparison, he says, “because we’ve already won the people over”.

Mark Meredith, Stoke’s elected mayor, has excluded the BNP councillors from his cross-party executive. The BNP reckon this is a mistake, but so too do many independent observers. Temple says some disaffected residents see it as “a slight on working-class voters” and a denial of their democratic choices. Wolfe argues that the BNP’s exclusion allows them to snipe from the sidelines and blame everyone else for Stoke’s struggles. “It’s completely playing into their hands. I want to give the BNP the opportunity to expose the vacuousness of their solutions. They haven’t got any answers to how to bring more jobs to Stoke, how to regenerate Stoke, and that will only be exposed when they are included in the council.”

Taken further, this argument implies that only by letting them gain power will people see them for what they are. This, argues Tappin, would be “catastrophic” for Stoke, triggering a brain drain of council officials and an exodus of investment and new businesses. “You’re not going to come to a town run by the BNP,” he says. Meredith maintains he is right to exclude them. “I’ve always recognised that the BNP councillors have been elected by constituents so I’ve never proposed that the BNP are excluded from the committees of council,” he says. The BNP are represented on council committees in proportion to their group size. “With that power comes a real responsiblity to engage in positive politics,” says the mayor. “One of their proposals is cutting funding to the Citizens Advice Bureau – an organisation that helps the most in need across Stoke-on-Trent. To date I haven’t heard one policy from the BNP that will improve the lives of ordinary people.”

He accepts in that self-exculpating New Labour way that the party “needs to listen to what the voters are saying” and it has not “communicated effectively to its core voters across the city”. This may seem to be the usual line – nothing wrong with what we’re doing, we just haven’t got the spin correct. But, he argues: “The whole regeneration of Stoke is moving forward at some pace now. That’s the reality but it’s not always the perception on the ground.”

Others argue that the ineffectiveness of Stoke’s elected mayor has contributed to the rise of the BNP. Today, professor Michael Clarke, vice-principal of Birmingham University, will deliver a report calling for a radical rethink of how the city is governed. “We are dismayed at the extent to which the city’s political system is damaged,” he says. “There is a deep-seated malaise in the city’s politics. As a consequence, the people of Stoke-on-Trent have been short-changed.” The report, commissioned by John Healey, the minister for local government, urges Stoke to reduce the size of its council and to rediscover its civic pride, while telling political parties they need to re-engage at a local level. In recommending a drastic cutting of councillors and a referendum on whether Stoke should keep its mayor, there is a danger Labour will be seen to be changing the rules to stop a future BNP mayor. But Tappin believes that keeping the system will guarantee a BNP triumph. “If we get the structure wrong and there is an elected mayor, this city will become controlled by the BNP,” he says. He fears the BNP could gain power in three years; Walker more modestly forecasts power within five years.

The best hope for stopping the BNP in Stoke appears to lie in reawakening the Labour party, but no one agrees how. “The tactics by a lot of people on the left are out of date,” says Lawrence Shaw, a Stoke trade unionist. “Saying ‘smash the fascists’ doesn’t work any more. If there was a serious, union-based alternative to Labour with roots in the community that would see BNP support fall away quite dramatically.”

Wolfe believes the BNP would disappear if the council could help create real jobs – not call-centre and other low-paid work – in Stoke. Tappin wants the regional Labour party to intervene and begin an urgent grassroots reform of the party. If its council and mayor can’t deliver real improvements for local people, Labour faces electoral oblivion in its former stronghold, warns Tappin: “We are going to go into the darkness and those who will suffer will be the people of Stoke-on-Trent.”

3 Responses to “Labour’s lost ground”

  1. Napier Says:

    What will the IWCA do about Islam?

    Are you aware that Islam is the primary issue that has propelled the BNP to where it is today? Not race or immigration.

    The BNP hardly said anything about Islam prior to 2001, but after 9/11 they made it a central issue. Just read the BNP website and all they do is bang on about Islam, Islam, and more Islam.

    Does the IWCA really think that Muslims will gradually abandon their cultures and identity and integrate into British society? The Muslims are a society of their own and they are taking over Britain through immigration and high birth rates.

    Has anybody from the IWCA ever read the Koran, or possess a solid knowledge of Islamic doctrine?

    Does the IWCA really believe that Islam is compatible with a civilised democratic society?

    Does the IWCA realise the danger presented to the British people from this Islamic menace?

    Will the IWCA do the right thing and outlaw Islam by imposing a policy where all Muslims must renounce their faith or get out of Britain?

    Does the IWCA realise that banning Islam will be a very popular policy with the white working class, which quite frankly, hates Islam and doesn’t want Muslims in Britain?

  2. Paul Says:

    “The BNP hardly said anything about Islam prior to 2001, but after 9/11 they made it a central issue. Just read the BNP website and all they do is bang on about Islam, Islam, and more Islam.”

    Well exactly. Which suggests there isn’t much political principle going on there. To quote Griffin “It’s the thing the newspaper editors sell newspapers with. If we were to attack some other ethnic group — some people say we should attack the Jews … But … we’ve got to get to power. And if that was an issue we chose to bang on about when the press don’t talk about it …the public would just think we were barking mad. ”

    Translation: we still hate the Jews and all the other ‘ethnics’ but we have to dovetail the mainstream media on Islam to get power.

    “Will the IWCA do the right thing and outlaw Islam by imposing a policy where all Muslims must renounce their faith or get out of Britain?”

    Yeah, good luck implementing that one! What if people after this decide they aren’t going to leave? Which will probably be nearly everyone. After all, for most of them born and bred here: it’s home. The BNP say a multiracial society is inherently unstable but yet you put forward policies that would almost certainly lead to less stability. Most working class people, of any race, are actually intelligent enough to understand this. Which is why in the long term you’re pissing in the wind. At best, you’re misguided, as worst you want to provoke some sort of civil war – where you’d be utterly out of your depth and in no position to control the outcome. I think I’ll stick with the IWCA, thanks.

    “Does the IWCA realise that banning Islam will be a very popular policy with the white working class, which quite frankly, hates Islam and doesn’t want Muslims in Britain?”

    LOL! Any evidence for your absurd generalisations on behalf of the entire white working class?

  3. Stoke Chat Says:

    Coming from the Stoke on Trent area i find it very hard to believe that theres any evidence to suggest Stoke will become BNP by 2011

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