Harry Mount watches Nick Griffin try to win round the disgruntled former Labour voters of Dagenham and Barking — if he wasn’t so ridiculous, he might be dangerous
As always, P.G. Wodehouse got it right. Far-right groups are unlikely to take off in Britain because, for all their nastiness, they always come across as just a little too ridiculous. That’s certainly the impression I got after spending last Saturday in Barking, east London, at the BNP campaign launch. In The Code of the Woosters (1938), Wodehouse neatly took care of Sir Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts, by casting him as Sir Roderick Spode in his black shorts; by the time Spode had set up his fascist group, there were no shirts left, according to Gussie Fink-Nottle.
Bertie Wooster gives the brilliant speech that does for Spode. ‘The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?”’
Nick Griffin is not just a perfect perisher — he’s an awkward one, too. He has none of Mosley’s Olympian self-confidence. Younger-looking than his 51 years, he has a fidgety, inexperienced manner. He speaks too quickly, in stuttering machine-gun bursts, nervously playing with the lower right-hand leading edge of his blue suit jacket as he canvassed in Barking, where he is trying to unseat the Labour MP and Culture Minister, Margaret Hodge. Barking has been Labour since the war (it’s Tom Driberg’s old seat), Hodge has a near-9,000 majority, and it would take a massive swing to dislodge her. But that’s not really Griffin’s game. He wants to take Barking and Dagenham Council — the BNP already has 12 out of 13 council seats it contested and it’s likely to get more on 6 May.
Margaret Hodge acknowledges that, if the BNP had proposed more candidates at the last election, it would have many more councillors. This time, 34 BNP candidates are standing for 51 seats. Another watchword of the BNP campaign, alongside ridiculousness, is incompetence. Not only have they not found enough candidates for all the seats, but at least three of them don’t live in the area; and so they have been given Barking ‘front addresses’ to get round the electoral requirement that candidates must live locally.
This amateurish air continued throughout the day. Wherever Griffin went, he stationed a man in army fatigues behind him, to be caught in any camera shot. The strong impression was that this man was a serving soldier — to dovetail with pictures of servicemen fighting in Afghanistan on the BNP advertising lorry (‘The Truth Truck’), with the slogan ‘Bring Our Boys Home’ printed underneath. He wasn’t a soldier; he was Adam Walker, 41, BNP candidate in Bishop Auckland and a former teacher, struck off by the General Teaching Council for posting messages on far-right websites on school premises.
Using a pretend soldier to improve your image is unethical enough. Even dodgier were the shaven-headed security men, with squiggly telephone wires coming out of one ear, dark glasses and, in one case, a black suit with a black tie. I tried to talk to them, but only certain BNP representatives are cleared to talk to the press. The general impression was one of thinly disguised looming danger — part Reservoir Dogs, part imitation presidential security men. Also in Griffin’s raggle-taggle band was Pastor James Gitau, a black man in a straw hat with an ‘I Love Jesus’ badge, originally Kenyan and now a British citizen.
‘I wouldn’t have to leave the UK under a BNP government,’ he says breezily. ‘That is an old policy; this is the new BNP — it cares for the interests of all races and religions, but it doesn’t support perversion and the teaching of sodomy in our schools.’ Nearby was the self-proclaimed ‘Reverend’ Robert West, founder of the Christian Council of Britain and BNP candidate for Lincoln, dressed in dog collar, green moleskin trousers, red waistcoat and watch-chain. ‘There is nothing in the Bible against intermarriage — I’d be happy to marry a mixed-race couple — but it does say that a multicultural society is wrong,’ he says, quoting chapter and verse. ‘You shouldn’t move people from one country to another.’
Difficult to marry them in that case, then, I’d have thought. For all their oddness, the BNP band is well-received in Barking: a 75 per cent white, working-class constituency, based around the 1920s Becontree estate, 3,000 acres containing 24,000 terraced houses, built in classic inter-war style: a mixture of brick and tile, weatherboards, bow windows, pantiles, and a few Fred and Ginger Hollywood art deco touches.
Becontree was originally a beacon ‘Homes for Heroes’ development by the London County Council, aimed at refugees from the East End slum clearances. With more than 100,000 residents, Becontree remains the single biggest public housing development in the world.
Then, in October 1931, the first Ford rolled off the production line at the nearby Dagenham car factory. Nicknamed Fordsville, it was the biggest car manufacturing plant in Europe, with its own coke ovens, gas plant, foundry, power station, dedicated railway and private wharf on the Thames. Eleven million cars were built there, most of them by workers from the Becontree estate. And then came the old story of industrial decline: car production stopped in 2002, leaving Dagenham with a shell business producing gearboxes and diesel engines. A 50,000-strong workforce shrunk to 2,000. The vast Becontree estate alongside the 300-acre Ford Motor Works once made for the ideal combination of well-paid industrial work and decent social housing. With the collapse of Ford, Becontree had the stuffing knocked out of it.
Unemployment is up to 8 per cent, and jobs are hard to come by. Most of the pretty front gardens in Becontree, originally sheltered from the street by neat privet hedges, have been paved over for parking spaces. But the place still has an air of quiet tidiness, with half of the council housing stock sold over the past two decades under the right-to-buy scheme. The houses — council and private — are still much prized. ‘They were beautifully built,’ says Mick Gorman, 63, who worked at Ford for 40 years, and has since renovated the council houses. ‘And solid. Double walls filled with concrete — impossible to knock down.’
‘I used to vote Labour,’ he continues, ‘but now it’s BNP. It’s not to do with keeping Britain white. Go down the supermarket and the place is full of Russians and Poles who are whiter than me. It’s just that parts of Barking have become a no-go area — it’s a dumping ground for immigrants. We’ve been abandoned by local government, and abandoned by national government. I’ve got friends who are desperate for council houses and they don’t stand a chance.’
Throughout the day, Becontree residents echoed him: dejected former Labour voters who are turning to the BNP out of desperation. It’s lucky that Nick Griffin isn’t a little more media-savvy. If he got his campaign team to dump the squiggly earpieces, the combat fatigues and the oddballs, Margaret Hodge might be in real trouble.