Nick Griffin’s decision to stand against Margaret Hodge in Barking at the next general election might, just might, turn out to be another example of the BNP’s legendary capacity for unforced error.
True, in 2005 Barking gave the BNP its best parliamentary result ever – its candidate, Richard Barnbrook, got 16.9 per cent, and was just 27 votes away from coming second. True, nine of the 30 councillors in the wards which make up the seat are BNP – and there would probably be more if they had stood candidates in every ward at the last local elections. This part of London is the heartland of the British far right, something metropolitan liberals often forget when congratulating each other on the capital’s multicultural tolerance.
And true, Hodge has been a weak MP. Until only a few years ago, she didn’t have much of a presence or a proper office in her constituency. She is loathed by many in her own local party. She has said some incredibly stupid things that have played straight into the racists’ hands.
But if the BNP’s secret weapon is the behaviour of some of its opponents, its saving grace is its own incompetence. Griffin may not realise that things have changed in Barking since 2005. Hodge has upped her game organisationally, opening an office, campaigning quite hard on the ground and ruthlessly purging her local party enemies (though this last could still backfire – many of the people she has got rid of are rather good, and justifiably very unhappy with her).
More importantly, Barking is now a good deal more ethnically mixed than it was four years ago. Griffin’s opponents have a larger anti-BNP vote to call on, if they can get it to the polls. BNP support is often strongest in places where the ethnic presence is comparatively small, or comparatively new. That was the case in Barking in 2005; it is less the case now.
If I were Nick Griffin, I would have skipped Barking and gone for next-door Dagenham and Rainham, which is demographically at the stage Barking was when the BNP started to make headway there.
Yes, Dagenham does have an excellent Labour MP, Jon Cruddas – who really gets it about how Labour, particularly London Labour, has stopped talking to the white working class. And yes, Cruddas has been an active ground presence in his seat far longer than Hodge has in hers. But against that has to be set the work of the Boundary Commission. In the new redrawn Dagenham, some of Cruddas’s best wards have been taken out of his seat and some classic Essex Tory country in Rainham has been added in.
The BNP will be hindered in both Barking and in Dagenham by the general expectation that the Tories will win nationally, which usually tends to depress the far Right vote. In Dagenham, the risk, with a big name like Griffin, was still probably not that the far Right would win the seat, but that they might take enough votes off Cruddas to let the Tories through the middle. It could still happen – Labour has a tough fight here – but the man breathing slightly easier today will probably be Jon Cruddas.