New Statesman & Society, 18 February 1994

With the major parties in turmoil, the neo-Nazi BNP could win a majority on the Isle of Dogs neighbourhood council in May’s local elections. Paul Anderson reports

The atrium of Tower Hamlets’ spanking new town hall in Blackwall, east London, just before an evening council meeting: a dozen or so locals sit waiting for the public gallery to be opened, chatting and gazing around warily at the post-modern glass and chrome that give this £10 million monument to the ruling Liberal Democrats’ eight years in power the air of a tacky provincial shopping mall.

Suddenly, the talking stops and all eyes focus on the automatic revolving doors, from which emerges a small bald middle-aged man with pebble glasses, a moustache and a respectable navy blue raincoat. He is as unremarkable a figure as it is possible to meet – and yet everyone knows who he is. Last September in Millwall, Derek Beackon became the first ever member of the neo-Nazi British National Party to win a council seat. Now he is coming to take part in his second full council meeting.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he is not alone: he is followed through the doors by three large young men, one of them, obviously a plain-clothes skinhead, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Sing up for England”. The minders eye the locals suspiciously; the locals resume their conversation until an usher tells them: “You can go in now.”

In the council chamber, the Liberal Democrats sit opposite Labour, with Beackon at his own table. It is the first time that Labour has attended a council meeting with Beackon present. The Lib Dems’ policy of decentralisation means that most council business is dealt with by councillors in “neighbourhood councils”. There are only four full council meetings a year, and Labour boycotted the last as a symbolic protest against Beackon’s election.

So this is the only real chance that the two main parties have had to argue face-to-face since September – and both sides take the opportunity with relish, mindful that May’s local elections are looming. Four hours of party-political invective follow, culminating in each side accusing the other of responsibility for the BNP victory. Beackon says nothing and votes only once, for a motion giving the Salvation Army the freedom of the borough. His minders look on bored.

It is without a doubt the Lib Dems who have most explaining to do when it comes to last September’s debacle. As their national party’s inquiry into Tower Hamlets, chaired by Lord Lester, QC, made clear just before Christmas, their propaganda in the borough, particularly in the Isle of Dogs, has systematically pandered to racism, especially on housing.

What then styled itself the Liberal Focus Team took control of the council from Labour in 1986 after more than a decade of “community politics” characterised by populist anti-Labour rhetoric and assiduous wooing of tenants’ associations – a major force in a borough in which three-quarters of the population lives in council housing even after years of right-to-buy. Despite having a tiny majority, the Liberals implemented their decentralisation and council house-sales policies with missionary zeal. From the start, they courted controversy over race with their tough line on the council’s legal obligation to house the homeless (mostly Bangladeshi) and their “sons and daughters scheme”, giving priority in housing allocation to the offspring of people born in the borough, most of whom were white.

It was, however, only in the run-up to the 1990 council elections, which Labour expected to win, that the Lib Dems pulled out all the stops. A series of election leaflets – including, notoriously, one purporting to be “anti-racist” Labour propaganda – gave the impression that Labour gave preference to Bangladeshi immigrants while the Lib Dems worked for “local” whites. The Lib Dems increased their majority. Afterwards, the High Court ruled that seven Lib-Dem councillors were guilty of “corrupt and illegal practice” in using the fake leaflet, but they got off on appeal.

In a late-1992 by-election in Millwall ward, caused by the resignation of a Labour councillor, the Lib Dems, standing as “Island Liberal Focus Team”, went further, ar-guing for “Island homes for Island people” and against “Labour’s positive discrimination policies” on the Isle of Dogs. They used much the same message last September – and there are few signs of remorse today. The Lester report tore apart the local Lib Dems, several of whom resigned from the party. Paddy Ashdown responded by threatening the Tower Hamlets party with suspension if it did not accept Lester’s findings by midnight last Sunday. It knuckled under, but only grudgingly.

But at least the Lib Dems had a full inquiry. By contrast, Labour’s post mortem on the by-election was a secretive affair, extraordinarily careful not to put anything on paper that might suggest that something was seriously wrong with Labour in Millwall.

Labour has gone out of its way to claim that what happened was not an inquiry at all but a “debrief” followed by a few interviews, with the only question at stake the allegation, first made openly in the hard-left magazine Briefing by Christine Shawcroft (a Labour councillor in Blackwall, the other ward in the Isle of Dogs neighbourhood) that faked canvass returns had been leaked to the press by Labour to give the impression that only it had a hope of beating the BNP in September.

The initial “debrief was conducted by two London regional party officials and London region chair Jim Fitzpatrick. They interviewed a wide range of people, including candidate James Hunt, agent Steve Moly-neaux and the Millwall branch officers, then produced a three-page report, which concentrated on the minutiae of Labour’s organisational weaknesses in the by-election.

According to the report, the debrief team considered the question of the leaked canvass returns “at great length” but “it was not possible to reach precise conclusions” either about who did it or about whether they were faked. The regional party therefore decided to get the Bow and Poplar consituency party to appoint a panel to look into the matter further. This panel reported to a special CLP executive meeting in December that the canvass figures were inaccurate but that it could not establish the precise chain of events leading up to the leak. Back went the buck to London region, which in turn called in national general secretary Larry Whitty. He decided to interview Molyneaux, Hunt and one other member of the Bow and Poplar party. He was about to interview Hunt last month when the former candidate resigned from the Labour Party, ripping up his party card in front of the television cameras and throwing the pieces in the Thames.

And that, for Labour, was that. The London region put out a statement declaring the matter “concluded except for the selection of a full team of candidates by the local Labour Party”. “Responsibility for the BNP victory in the Millwall by-election rests four-square with the Liberal Democrats,” said Whitty. “There is a world of difference between ‘pandering to racism’, which is what the Liberal Democrats themselves say some of their members did in Tower Hamlets, and the unauthorised issuing of the canvass figures.”

Others are less sanguine – particularly among the local Labour hard left. They say that the party’s investigations into what went wrong in Millwall failed to address the real issue – the extent to which, after the Millwall ward Labour Party was taken over by local Labour right-wingers in the late 1980s, with the full support of Labour headquarters, it adopted the same populism-bordering-on-racism for which the national party has attacked the Lib Dems. According to the hard left, Walworth Road was prepared to tolerate the worst sort of pandering to racism, as long as it meant getting rid of the Trots.

Some of the evidence for these accusations is anecdotal. But the local ward party was undoubtedly hard-left dominated during the 1980s, with key figures belonging to both Militant and Briefing. The hard left was ousted by a combination of the national party’s purge of Militant and the efforts of a group of local party members with a base in the tenants’ associations, two of whom, Sandra Ireland and Kathy McTasney, became chair and secretary of the ward party.

It is also indisputable that, after the demise of the hard left, the ward party shed councillors and adopted a more populist approach. First to go was Ivan Walker, whose resignation in 1992 caused the first by-election in the ward, in which veteran community activist Ted Johns held the seat for Labour and the BNP took 20 per cent. Next, sitting councillor Dave Chapman decided not to stand again in 1994 and hard-left councillor Yve Amor was deselected at a meeting that chose James Hunt and Steve Molyneaux as Labour candidates. Chapman’s resignation last year caused the by-election that Beackon won by 1,480 votes to Hunt’s 1,473.

In both by-election campaigns, Labour made much of the localness of its candidates – and, although the more lurid accusations of racism against it are impossible to prove, there is no doubt that { Labour in Millwall did produce two leaflets that played to racial prejudice.

The first lambasted the Lib Dems for publishing “leaflets saying ‘Island homes for Island people'” when they had instructed the Isle of Dogs neighbourhood “to give 40 per cent of its lettings to homeless families or else” – the clear implication being that Labour really would tell the homeless “outsiders” where to go. In the other, under the heading “James Hunt says: ‘House the hidden homeless'”, Labour declared: “The homeless in your home are your children who have to sleep on the couch, your brothers and sisters who want a place of their own, your grandchildren without space to grow up in … James says: The Liberals tell us which homeless to house – why can’t we decide our own priorities and decide for ourselves?'”

Officially, Labour denies that the leaflets and the accusations of racism were an issue in the party’s investigations into Millwall: “The only people who think that are the Liberals,” said a spokesman. But there is evidence that they were. When Ireland and McTasney resigned from the party last month, Ireland wrote a letter to one of the “debrief officials at the Greater London Labour Party. It suggests that the debrief was fully informed about the leaflets and that bitter argument about the Millwall party’s line on housing had undermined the effectiveness of Labour’s campaign last September.

“We are being victimised for our deep commitment to housing the homeless at home,” she complained. “When Kathy and I seek to press for a better deal for local people, we are immediately accused, without a shred of evidence, of being ‘racists and gangsters’.” She hit out particularly at Yve Amor, the still-sitting but deselected Millwall councillor, and the two hard-left councillors from neighbouring Blackwall, Christine Shawcroft and Dave Lawrence. “We have told you, as we told the debrief committee, that at a meeting when Kathy and I attempted to press for a proper deal for the homeless at home, Christine Shawcroft said that neither she nor Amor nor Lawrence would house the homeless at home ‘because they were predominantly white’. As a result of this Kathy and I, along with James Hunt and many others of the ward have fought them relentlessly ever since, and you know this is the reason why James Hunt wanted none of them to have anything to do with his campaign.”

Last week, Ireland and Hunt announced that they would stand for election in Millwall in May’s local elections as candidates of the East London People’s Alliance, a mysterious outfit formed three weeks ago, which will be fighting on the “hidden homeless” theme that was such a favourite when they were with Labour. Hunt told the local East London Advertiser. “All people living in Tower Hamlets including those over 18 living with their parents are entitled to a home in the borough.” The ELPA claims already to have the support of 25 Labour activists on the Isle of Dogs, and sitting Labour councillor Ted Johns has indicated that he is thinking of joining them.

Labour is sceptical about the strength of the ELPA and says that Beackon’s inactivity as a councillor and the bad publicity that the BNP has had since his election will ensure that neither he nor any other BNP candidate is successful in May. “We’re fighting to win in all three seats in Millwall,” says John Biggs, leader of the Labour group on the council. And indeed the exit of Ireland, Hunt and their friends does seem to have had a cathartic effect on the Millwall party. Last week, it had its biggest ward meeting for ages, and last Sunday it managed to get 80 people out on the streets, despite Arctic weather, for the first of a series of monthly mass canvasses in the run-up to the elections. There is still the small matter of selecting candidates to get out of the way – but campaign organisers say. with reason, that neither the ELPA nor the Lib Dems, who came a close third last September but are now in a shambles, can hope to match Labour’s organisation.

Nevertheless, many of the activists on the canvass admit that Labour has a difficult fight with the BNP on its hands. The neo-Nazis have been out on the knocker on the white council estates in groups of 30 or 40 most weekends for several months, they say, and racism among the white working class on the Island is deep-rooted. With racist former Lib Dem voters likely to vote BNP, some in the Labour camp fear that the intervention of the ELPA could siphon off just enough votes from Labour to allow the BNP to sweep all three Millwall seats.

If that happens, the BNP will have a three-two majority on the Isle of Dogs neighbourhood council. This would be bad enough if all it meant was the BNP’s promised renaming of the neighbourhood building “Oswald Mosley House” (it is currently named after Jack Dash, the communist dockers leader). But it would also mean BNP control over housing allocation and the neighbourhood’s £20 million budget. And that, as everyone who turned out last Sunday agrees, would be a disaster.

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