Richard Barnbrook, the BNP’s London leader and its representative on the London Assembly, has today resigned the BNP label and will sit on the Assembly as an independent, I understand. This follows his sacking as the BNP’s Barking and Dagenham organiser three weeks ago after the party’s dismal performance in the May local elections.
Not very much noticed, the BNP is going through one of its periods of turmoil after its poor national election results in May, with Nick Griffin, its leader, fending off another leadership challenge this week.
Bob Bailey, the BNP’s London organiser and leader of the opposition on Barking council, was turned away last night from a ceremony conferring the freedom of the borough on the footballer Sir Trevor Brooking and the Royal Anglian Regiment. He had been due to speak at the event.
That much is common ground – but the reasons are heavily contested. The council’s ruling Labour group has issued a press release claiming that at the reception preceding the ceremony, Cllr Bailey was “worse for wear” and “under the influence.”
The deputy leader of the council, Robert Little, who was at the event, claimed Cllr Bailey was “clearly under the influence of alcohol and was in no fit state to deliver any speech. In all my time as a councillor I have never seen anyone behave in such a way,” he said. “It was embarrassing.”
Cllr Bailey himself, contacted today, flatly denied that he had been drinking and said the claims about his behaviour were “total rubbish.” He told me: “You know the BNP are against the war in Afghanistan and I was barred from attending the event because they were worried I would say something against the war.”
Richard Barnbrook, the BNP’s London leader and another Barking councillor, also present for part of the event, said: “Somebody mentioned it to me when [Bob] was leaving, saying he seemed to be a little bit drunk, but in my presence he seemed perfectly fine.”
Whatever the truth of the matter, it’s the first skirmish in what is likely to be a very tough struggle between the BNP and Labour at the forthcoming council elections in May. Though media attention in Barking will focus on the parliamentary battle between BNP leader Nick Griffin and Labour’s Margaret Hodge, the real contest may be for the council. Last time, had the BNP put up candidates in every ward, it would probably have taken control of the council. Labour is fighting back, but it knows that still remains a possibility.
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.