Reni looks into the rise of the far right in Britain. With musician Billy Bragg, journalist and author Daniel Trilling and journalist, author and activist Owen Jones.


Reni narration: Welcome to About Race with Reni Eddo-Lodge.

In the last episode we heard how Britain in the 90s seemed to be on the brink of post-racism. In this episode, we’ll look at the local and national backlash that took place over the next ten years.

2006 was a very interesting time for UK politics. In a shock win, the British National Party won twelve council seats in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. This made them the second biggest political party, behind Labour, on the council. The BBC’s White Season aired two years later.

The musician and political activist, BILLY BRAGG, grew up in the borough.

Reni: I don’t know if you remember but the trailer that they used in which there was an image of a white man whose face is being scribbled out with a black marker pen until it disappeared. Was your song. It was Jerusalem.

Billy:  Oh my version of Jerusalem?

Reni: Yeah

Billy: yeah.

Reni: And I just wondered if you knew about that?

Billy: I do remember it now yeah I know

Reni: and how you felt about that?

Billy: Well the way people use your music you know you don’t always have absolute control how people are going to use that. But again you know Jerusalem is this kind of strange song in that sense very very English song. You know it probably, you know if we were going to have a national anthem for England it probably should be the national anthem because it’s the only song that she mentions England out of all that rule Britannia rubbish you know. So it does have that strong sensibility behind it…..[FADE]

Reni: But that BBC trailer did you object? Did you not mind? Did you know?

Billy: I undoubtedly knew yeah, they wouldn’t have yet been able to use it without me knowing but because I was in my kind of around that time you know I was  on, very much on a sort of reclaiming all the shit tip, I probably gave them permission Yeah.

Reni narration: In 2006, the world was watching Barking and Dagenham, bewildered by it’s swing to the far right. A London borough nine miles to the east of the city, it is currently the 7th most deprived district in the capital.

DANIEL TRILLING is a journalist and author who was reporting for a political magazine at the same time the BNP grew to national prominence. His latest book, Lights in the Distance, is about the refugee crisis. But today we’re talking to him about his 2012 book, Bloody Nasty People: The Rise of Britain’s Far Right.

Daniel:  I mean a funny thing with the BNP is you can look at all of the places in which they did well at local level.

Reni:  What were those places?

Daniel:  so this would be often like smaller former industrial towns in the north west or north east of England or on the edges of London where there had been an industry that had declined. There was a sense among the broader community that they’d kind of been abandoned for various reasons. Perhaps there was also another element of some kind of ethnic tension that was to do with perhaps recent riots or kind of demographic change in the neighbourhoods that often seemed to be there, where there were votes for the BNP. So this is places like Burnley in Lancashire, Barking and Dagenham, you know on the edge of London and so on. I think the important thing to recognise is there were some of these common factors across these towns where the BNP had done well. But then there’s a lot of other towns where those factors are there and the BNP got nowhere.

Reni narration: The key thing we need to understand about Barking and Dagenham is the fact that it is home to a massive car factory owned by Ford.

It opened in 1931 and took 28 months to build. By the 1950s, the factory was employing over 40,000 people to build vehicles. 11 million were produced over the course of 71 years.

Billy Bragg was living in the area during the factory’s heyday.

Billy: I left school in 1974, 40,000 people worked at Fords and when you think in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham at the time, there are 120,000 people. Everyone’s dad either worked at Fords and their mum sometimes as well but predominantly their dads, work either worked for Ford or like my dad worked for one of the ancillary companies that popped up around them, my dad worked for a company that made electric testers for cars.  You know it was the whole borough and with that there was a certain sense of community. There was a certain sense of pride because it was skilled labour but it was also a means by which to attain some form of social mobility within the working class because you could get very very good money on the line, particularly if you’d put in a lot of shifts, you know they were earning…when I was on 25, 30 quid a week when I left school and after that there were people at Ford’s earning a hundred pound a week on the line

Reni narration: In 2002, Ford reduced the factory’s output. It stopped building vehicles and instead focused to constructing engines.

Today, it employs just 4,000 people in the borough.

At the turn of the century, a lot of people’s lives in Barking and Dagenham changed, and not in a good way.

Billy:  So the people who were there no longer had a way to escape. And their house prices were depressed now because there was nowhere to work at the car factory so all the skilled people all left and the unskilled people were kind of financially stuck there.  It was a huge psychological shift for the borough to lose that amount of community and not just in a social sense but in a pride sense that they were making something I really proud of like the Capri, the Ford Capri, They were very proud of that. Barking and Dagenham has suffered incredibly from de-industrialisation.   It’s completely out of place in London and so the huge demographic changes that Britain has been through in the last 30 years are seriously magnified in Barking and Dagenham.

Reni: What was the Labour Party doing at this time when they saw the industry, the entire community relied on gone in a flash?

Billy: To say that perhaps they were a little bit complacent about it is somewhat overstating.  New Labour got in, Tony Blair said we don’t have to worry about the white working class they got no one else to vote for.

Reni: How so?  Can you remember where he said that he didn’t care about the white working class?

Billy: I can’t remember exactly where he said it but he did say that we don’t have to worry about the white working class because they have no one else to vote for. That was the sense that people got from New Labour that we’re all middle class now, we’re all aspirational and if you’re not on the aspirational train then you’re going to be left behind.

Reni narration: So. New Labour. This phrase describes a key moment in the Labour Party, starting in the mid nineties and ending with a general election defeat in 2010. New Labour was a departure from a party that had traditionally been about trade unions, collective justice, socialism, and high taxes on big business.  The phrase was first said publicly by former Prime Minister Tony Blair a political conference in 1994.

The political philosophy? Well, a lot of people will argue with me on this one. I’d say they sat in the centre of the political spectrum, others would call it centre-left. New Labour was for social justice, but no longer openly campaigned about the redistribution of wealth. It was supposed to be ‘beyond capitalism and socialism’, and it was designed to appeal to voters who didn’t necessarily identify with left-wing politics.

This is crucial to understanding the general consensus on inequality at that time. A move away from socialism meant a move away from class politics.

But back to Barking and Dagenham. In the year 2000, the Labour Party certainly did not have to fight for votes. They’ve been in control of the borough since it was founded, in 1964. Between the year 2000, when Ford announced they would stop car production, and 2002, when production stopped, a LOT of people were made redundant.

Billy: People were so pissed off with the way things had gone under New Labour and the sense that nobody listened to them. Nobody cared for them. I think people felt they had no one to stick up for them and the Labour Party had traditionally done that. Now you got Blair that lot sort of looking down their noses at the white working class.

Reni narration: Here’s Daniel Trilling on what happened next.

Daniel: obviously Barking and Dagenham is next to London. So when people are moving out other people are moving in pushed out of more central bits of London by property prices and a lot of those people were of Afro Caribbean or Asian origin or other from other BME communities. And so to some of the more established residents in our area it looked like suddenly all these immigrants are arriving partly because some of those people would have been recent arrivals to the UK but also because black Londoners looked to some of those older residents like immigrants because in some people’s minds black equals not British or foreign. So the BNP were very able to spread rumours about well there is all these quote unquote Africans moving in.

 Reni: So what’s Little Lagos?

Billy: Little Lagos is a phrase that people use to talk about areas where there’s a lot of African shops because as I say because they have had a large number of African immigrants. It’s their way of, you know, looking down their nose. Twenty years ago people were complaining about Kosovans and what they meant by that was anybody from Eastern Europe so it could be the Poles, could be people from the former Yugoslavia but it was always…when I talked to my mum you know, our house backs onto the lake,  Mum said someone, they found a drowned man in there the other day, I’m like oh mum how did that happen? She said I don’t know it was a Kosovan as if that somehow would explain it. She wasn’t being racist [inaudible] my mum didn’t like the BNP at all, it was that kind of like it’s Kosovans and now it’s Africans are now the focus of people’s general ire.

Reni narration: The Council’s website tracks these demographic changes using the 2001 and 2011 census. This is important because the Ford factory reduced its operations in 2002, so you can really get a good look at the implications of what that loss of employment meant for the borough.

We can see that the white British population declined from 80.9% in 2001 to 49.5% in 2011, while the Black African population rose from 4.4% to 15.4%. Far more white people left the area than black people moved in. But paired with the general feeling of economic depression? Seems like any residual anger at the Ford company was directed at people who weren’t white.

But where did all the white people go?

More than one news article puts it down to a phenomenon called ‘white flight’.  

Billy: We used to refer to it as somewhere leafy.  When I was a kid immigrants on our street were all Irish they worked at Fords and then they all moved somewhere leafy; Chingford, Chelmsford, Chigwell all the Chs, you know up the A12 up that way, nice places.  They were replaced by people from the Caribbean they worked there for a while, they moved somewhere leafy, they were replaced by people from the Indian subcontinent and they worked there for a while and then they moved somewhere leafy.

Reni narration: I asked Daniel what he saw while he was reporting for his book on the far right.

Daniel: So the sense of the area was becoming more fluid. There wasn’t a stable community that people recognised from previous years. And that really started to build in the 2000s.  And like I said the BNP grabs that and imposed this narrative that all of this change was happening because of because of Africans, because of asylum seekers because of immigrants they’re undermining your area. They’re making it feel like it is not yours anymore. Also, and this is crucial to the narrative that the the BNP and other far right groups push they’re getting unfair treatment from those in power. So the council is unfairly giving Africans council houses when white people white people whose children have to wait at the back of the queue

Reni narration: Billy Bragg was no longer living in Barking and Dagenham by this time, but he still had still had close links to the area. I asked him if there was a feeling of white people who were working class being treated unfairly.

Billy: There’s always that that’s part of the mythos really isn’t it of the far right. They play heavily on the idea that there’s someone out there less worthy than you who’s getting the resources that you should be getting. But having said that it’s undoubtedly true that it became more difficult to get a hospital appointment more difficult to get into schools more difficult to get employment. Public transport

Reni narration: The resources argument. You this a lot when it comes to immigration– that there is a finite amount of resources: education, employment, housing and healthcare — being distributed unfairly. The author and activist OWEN JONES has written a lot about class and resources.

Owen:  The community I grew up in in Stockport was almost completely homogeneously white. I mean I think 2 percent of people were born outside of Britain. There are legitimate concerns. There’s a lack of affordable housing because it’s not built by government and they sold off the stock. There’s a lack of secure jobs because of de-industrialisation and the failure to replace it with secure jobs that sustain people’s families and comfortably. Public services are under strain because of government cuts. Living standards falling because of government policies because of the hammering of the trade unions. There’s no evidential base to say that’s to do with immigration in Stockport because what immigrants are they talking about.

BILLY: in my sense the complaints in those terms to the people of Barking and Dagenham were justified, what wasn’t justified was the idea that a racist fascist party could resolve those problems because nothing that the BNP said offered really any means by which to change the circumstances of the white working class in Barking and Dagenham. All they really offered was to come down heavy on immigrants.

Reni narration: So what did the BNP actually have to offer voters?

Daniel: In a situation of this kind of decline and people feeling like their town just wasn’t really being respected nationally either by a kind of media institutions or the government a party like the BNP were able to put in an organised operation that came in and at first it was just very attentive to people’s everyday concerns. Things like picking up litter. That was one of their big campaigning techniques. They would go to an area that was a bit neglected by the council and they did it in Stoke. They did it in Barking and Dagenham, there was a particular issue with people dumping old mattresses on the street for example and the BNP would go in tidy up have themselves photographed tidying up put out leaflets and then put it through people’s doors saying like look you know look we’re the only ones who care about your neighbourhood. The council doesn’t listen to you listen to us and they would win people’s trust in that way. But then they would also supplement not with a kind of racist narrative about what was happening in their town.

Reni narration: I asked Billy what he saw the BNP promising voters.

Billy: Well usual stuff you know British jobs for British workers. You know there’s a lot of Islamophobia in there in their articulation of their politics as well so there was a huge amount of that and basically I think they were trying to expose a Labour Party that was no longer connecting with its, Labour council even, that was connecting with its citizens. They went round the pubs signing people up, do you want to stand as a councillor, a key group of them who stood. They managed to sign up a dozen people, that’s all I had on the 2006 election, they had a dozen people every single one of them was elected if they had stood with a full slate they would have swept the council.

Reni narration: Daniel Trilling is adamant that the ‘immigrants hoarding resources myth’ is not a creation of the far right.

Daniel: one of the key moments in the development of the white working class narrative was the BBC did something called The White Season in about 2007 2008. So if you think of the timings that’s also around the time the BNP had started to really become a matter of national concern because it was starting to win all of those council seats. So there’s a kind of back and forwards relationship between the two things and what it does is it I mean it plays on I think the guilt of white liberals who work in positions of power that they don’t represent the people that they’re supposed to be representing. Somebody comes along and uses white working class as this badge of authenticity. So the white liberal in the place of power panics and think oh I must sort of go along with everything that is claimed there because who am I to disagree.

Reni narration: I’m looking at the copy of this press release put out by the BBC in November 2007 announcing it’s White Season. I will quote verbatim: ‘As “white trash” and “chav” become commonplace insults, the films explore the complex mix of feelings that lead some people to feel under siege and that their very sense of self is being brought into question.’

it’s very fair to complain about the slurs ‘White trash’ and ‘chav’. but it definitely wasn’t black British people leading the charge on those slurs.

Owen Jones picked up on this very early on, with his book Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class.

Reni: So you wrote this book that came out, was it in 2010 or 2…

Owen: 2011 ,came out, I remember it was April 2011, feels like a totally different political pot to be honest.  I felt I grew up in a world in the nineties and noughties where class politics had being stripped intentionally out of the political conversation, what Thatcherism did was transform social injustice which the left traditionally would understand of course as be ing systemic problems which could only be collectively solved that society was structured in an unjust way. Therefore you needed collective programmes and solutions like the welfare state to solve them, that Thatcherism turned collective problems into individual failings and personality defects.  

Reni: Can you give me some examples of what that demonisation looked like in the let’s say the late 90s and early 2000s.

Owen: At that point particularly in the early noughties onwards you got this growing stigmatisation of benefit claimants in particular this idea, that was something I think by the mid noughties had become quite pandemic really in the media. This was the idea of feckless stupid lazy people who were taking the mick and you did see that trickle into popular entertainment as well at the time, so you had going back Harry Enfield and Chums, they had Wayne and Waynetta Slob, who were these really feckless filthy people who were lazy and so on and then you got I suppose Little Britain, you know the archetypal so called chav character I suppose was Vicky Pollard and she was this working class white teenager who was so thick in inverted commas she swapped one of her many children for a Westlife CD.

Reni: Weren’t some of her kids mixed race as well?

Owen: Exactly. Yeah it was very much a kind of racist undertone there.  It was this idea of kind of that view of working class communities which you know had this very unpleasant racist edge actually.  

Reni narration:  I remember a lot of conversation Owen’s book at the time. The cover had an image of a Burberry checked baseball cap on it. At the time the cap was an entry level designer item, synonymous with white working class culture. Here’s the BBC’s take in 2005:

Their distinctive beige check, once associated with A-listers, has now become the uniform of a rather different social group: the so-called Chav.’

This was a PR disaster for the fashion house, who actually discontinued production of the cap for a while.

All this to say that back then, I wondered if Owen was really only talking about white people in his analysis of class prejudice.

Owen: So if you look at in terms of for example multiculturalism which is obviously inherently a progressive project it’s this idea that we can all have multiple identities and what happened though was because the working class had been airbrushed out of existence but what began to reemerge was in discourse in the media and amongst New Labour types was the so-called white working class and it was this bizarre kind of sense of Well actually here’s another minority within the multicultural framework who we racialised in the sense we’re defining them by their ethnicity rather than by their class and that the problems and injustices that they have can be explained by race rather than by class.

Now the reason partly that was allowed to happen was because there wasn’t a sense of integrating class and race. Now the White working class in my opinion is a completely false construct because where are the most diverse communities, working class communities.

Reni narration: Daniel Trilling.

Daniel:  I mean it’s really important to recognise that even in areas where far right groups do well they never command a majority of the people that live there.

I mean this is what I found again and again when I was doing reporting on the BNP is that there are always people that are trying to challenge them and sometimes they might have been a bit slow to respond in kind of that there were mistakes that made where people let their guard down. But people do get organised and at the forefront of that is working class people challenging it. If it’s in a working class community I think Barking and Dagenham is a really good example. You know that was local people leading a campaign against the BNP and crucially it was a multi ethnic campaign. You know when they when when the local Labor Party got their act together and responded they made a big thing of re-selecting a lot of their council candidates and making sure that it reflected the new demographic mix of the borough.

Reni narration: We’ve had a look at the politics of Barking and Dagenham, to try and understand why the BNP were such an intoxicating force to the British electorate a decade ago.  In part 2 of this episode, we’ll explore if, given it’s political purpose during that time period, ‘white working class’’ is an identity worth salvaging.