New Statesman & Society, 22 April 1994

As the BNP threatens to make more gains on Millwall council, Labour is changing tactics; fascists in power are bad for house prices. Paul Anderson reports

Nah, mate,” says the young woman with cropped blond hair, opening the door to the Labour canvasser on the 15th floor of the Isle of Dogs tower block, “I’m voting BNP.” And with that she slams the door.

Her neighbours in this block are less forthright. Of those who bother to answer the door, a few say unenthusiastically that they “suppose” they will vote Labour, others say that they’re not voting or claim to be undecided. Which is not to say that only one inhabitant of 80-odd on the electoral roll in the 20-floor block will actually vote for the neo-Nazi candidates in the Millwall ward in the 5 May local elections. After all the negative publicity the BNP has had since the election of Derek Beackon as a councillor for Millwall in a by-election last September, plenty of people who are thinking of voting forhim and his colleagues this time are keeping their views to themselves, particularly when the Labour Party comes around.

The tower block is one of four built in the 1960s on the otherwise low-rise Barkantine Estate on the west side of the Island, with spectacular views over east and south-east London. Once the dominant features all around were the docks and warehouses that provided work for the people of (he Island and, across the river, Bermondsey. Today, the landscape is a strange mix of dereliction and spanking new office buildings and flats erected under the auspices of the London Docklands Development Corporation, the unaccountable quango set up in the early 1980s to regenerate the local economy after the docks disappeared. Unfortunately, few of the offices employ local labour. As the view has changed and unemployment has increased, so the tower block has become more and more run-down.

“The whole block is filthy,” says a man on the fifth floor, a long-time resident active in the tenants’ association. “The council never does repairs. Nothing is ever given a coat of paint and the windows are falling out. One of my neighbours has waited four months to have his central heating fixed.” He reckons that there are four or five families here who are definite BNP, and maybe ten or 12 other people who might vote BNP because of their disillusionment with the way they have been treated as tenants.

And this, according to the local Labour Party, is by no means a hotbed of BNP support. Canvassers elsewhere on the Barkantine Estate report far more vocal support for the BNP – up to 50 per cent in some streets. “And that’s just the ones who admit it,” says a glum-looking Liverpudlian man who has come down from Bethnal Green to help out with Labour’s Millwall mass canvass.

The Barkantine is where Beackon and his party have expended most effort and time, knocking on doors every weekend. Windswept, tatty and largely white, with unemployment estimated at getting on for 50 per cent, it is the part of the Island most receptive to the BNP message that “immigrants” are getting favoured treatment in housing and jobs. But it is by no means the only place that the BNP can expect a big vote. Even among the attractive semis in Thermopylae Gardens in the south of the Island, once council but long since bought by their former tenants and now proudly displaying the manicured lawns and carefully tended hedges of suburbia, Labour canvassers report a third of voters to be BNP or hostile to Labour, although half declare that they are Labour.

All this is very much in line with an opinion poll conducted at the end of last month by ICM for the Institute of Community Studies, chaired by Lord Young of Dartington. It suggests that 53 per cent of decided Millwall voters plan to vote for Labour, with the BNP on 20 per cent, the Liberal Democrats on 12 and the Tories on 10 per cent. But it also showed that only 21 per cent of those questioned admitted to voting for the BNP last year, while 52 per cent claimed to have voted for Labour: in fact, the BNP took 34 per cent in the by-election, with Labour on 33.7 and the Liberals on 29.4.

Many who voted BNP were obviously ashamed to admit it, and the same almost certainly goes for those planning to vote BNP next month. According to the ICS, if underreporting of planned BNP voting is as high as that of under-reporting of BNP voting in 1993, the contest is too close to call. That means that the BNP has a good chance of taking all three Millwall seats. And, because Liberal-controlled Tower Hamlets decentralised its operations in the late 1980s, that would give it a majority on the Isle of Dogs neighbourhood council (composed of three Millwall councillors and two from neighbouring Blackwall) and control over its £23-million budget.

For all this, Labour is cautiously confident that it will win Millwall. “You’ve got to remember that the level of under-reporting of BNP support is a matter of guesswork,” says one campaign organiser. “Actual voting intentions in the poll show us clearly ahead.”

Some in the Labour camp think that BNP support has peaked, arguing that the neo-Nazis have spread themselves too thinly in the local elections to run the sort of campaign that they organised for the by-election. Altogether, 30 BNP candidates are standing for seats elsewhere in the country, five of them in other Tower Hamlets wards and six in the neighbouring borough of Newham, with the rest scattered in the rest of London and the north-west. That doesn’t sound a lot, but, say Labour optimists, it could just be too much for a party of 600 members to handle.

Even less sanguine Labour campaigners believe that, since the poll was taken, they have clearly established that Labour is the only party that can beat the BNP. Last September, there was a three-way split in the vote among the BNP, Labour and the Liberals, and just six weeks ago it seemed that May’s contest would be four-way, with these three combatants joined by the East London People’s Alliance, a tenants’ association-based outfit created by former Labour Party members who had left Labour in disgust after being accused of racism in the course of its internal inquiry into the conduct of the 1993 by-election campaign.

But the ELPA was persuaded not to stand after all and the Liberals, desperate to hold on to their seats elsewhere in Tower Hamlets and without a strong base on the Island, have been almost invisible since the campaign has started in earnest. Meanwhile, Labour has been able to call on more than 100 activists from outside the Isle of Dogs to turn out to canvass and deliver leaflets. For a party that was almost moribund in Millwall a year ago and that suffered a major defection of key people just two months ago – those who resigned from the party included the ward secretary and chair, the defeated candidate in last year’s by-election, James Hunt, and sitting councillor Ted Johns, a veteran community activist – Labour has put on quite a credible show.

“We’ve shown that we’ve got over the problems we had at the end of last year,” says Steve Molyneaux, the only one of Labour’s three candidates selected before the split over the by-election inquiry (the other two Labour hopefuls next month, Julia Mainwaring and Martin Young, were selected at the very last minute). “We’re finding a lot of Liberals and Tories who’ve decided to vote tactically for us.” Molyneaux also points to Labour’s success in getting its message across to groups who didn’t bother to vote in 1993. Then, notoriously, the party’s campaign, following the Liberals’ lead, focused on the alleged bias against “local” people – in Isle of Dogs politics, a euphemism for “whites” – in council-housing allocation. Apart from causing a massive rumpus within the Labour Party, this theme managed to alienate the 20 per cent of Millwall voters who belong to ethnic minorities, and made little or no impact on the ward’s middle-class white voters, most of whom are owner-occupiers living in newly built flats and houses.

This time around, although Molyneaux says that “the key is still the white working class”, and Labour is promising a giant home-building programme in Tower Hamlets if it wins, the party has dropped the racist overtones that it adopted in the 1993 by-election. It has made a point of canvassing in the new owner-occupied areas – warning waverers that a BNP victory will do damage to local house prices – and has made a serious effort to ensure that ethnic minority voters – mainly Bengali, but also Afro-Caribbean, Vietnamese and Somali – turn out to vote.

So far, this effort seems to be paying off. The Timber Wharves Estate in the middle of the ward was originally built as an LDDC-spon-sored luxury development for yuppies – but few were tempted to buy before the housing market collapsed in the late 1980s, and today the apartments are mostly taken by council and housing-association tenants, many of them Bangladeshi families moved from the St Vincents Estate in Blackwall, which has been demolished to make way for a road. The Labour canvassing team gets a friendly reception from the Bangladeshis. Nearly all are registered, the overwhelming majority firm Labour supporters. But their problem is getting to the polling station, in a nearby school: many are scared to walk there, and want to be given lifts on polling day.

It is hardly surprising that this is how they feel. Timber Wharves has been at the centre of the storm over housing in Millwall. The first people to be housed here were upwardly mobile white working-class families, who, when the Bangladeshis started to arrive from St Vincents, began to complain that they were lowering the tone of the place. Next came petitions and letter-writing campaigns, and the resentment among the whites is still apparent. “I’ve nothing against these people,” says a white woman in her fifties, gesturing towards a Bangladeshi Labour canvasser who is talking to her Bangladeshi neighbour. “But have any of them lived here as long as I have? My daughter had to move off the Island to get a place: I had to give her £9,000 to get her started. I mean, they’re homeless, I’m sorry for them, but it’s not right. I’ve never been more undecided about who to vote for at this election. It’s not just Labour I think is useless. It’s the lot of them.”

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