|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 171 September 2013
Looking back at the BNP’s Isle of Dogs breakthrough
Twenty years ago in September 1993 the British National Party (BNP) won its first-ever elected representative, in a council by-election in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets. CLIVE HEEMSKERK, who was then living in the Millwall ward in which the BNP were victorious, looks back at the events.
The BNP annual conference last November heard much talk of a new ‘back to winning’ electoral strategy for the racist far-right party. Coming just days after the resignation of Andrew Brons, one of the two BNP members of the European parliament (MEP) elected in 2009, an appeal was made for "as many candidates as possible" to stand in the May 2013 local elections, "to prove for good that the BNP is back" (Searchlight, January 2013).
In the event the BNP contested fewer seats than the 120 fought by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), "the first time in recent history", as the New Statesman wrote, that a left-wing party "will be better represented than Griffin’s mob" (12 April 2013). The BNP lost the one county council seat it was defending, leaving it with just two borough councillors and the MEP Nick Griffin – until next year’s elections – down from its peak of 57 councillors in 2009.
Why hasn’t the BNP been able to consolidate the electoral gains it has sporadically made since its first breakthrough, in the Tower Hamlets council Millwall ward by-election in September 1993? How the BNP was able to win then – and why it subsequently lost the seat eight months later in the May 1994 full council elections – still has important lessons 20 years on.
The Millwall ward, the electoral district covering the Isle of Dogs in the heart of London’s docklands, had been a solid Labour seat for decades. From not having stood in local elections there before, and with no active base, the BNP polled 657 votes in a council by-election in October 1992 (a 20% share of the vote), which they then more than doubled to 1,480 (33.8%) to win the September 1993 contest.
But the victory didn’t come from nowhere – it was rooted in the social conditions and recent history of the area. While the Isle of Dogs shared many characteristics with other deprived inner-city areas there were also distinctive factors that gave it an added volatility.
The geography of the peninsula, with ‘the Island’ surrounded by water on three sides, isolated it from the rest of Tower Hamlets borough. In the 1970s the Island was an unpopular choice for council tenants – many high-rise flats could only be filled under a London-wide ‘hard-to-let’ scheme. This led to a greater population stability compared to many inner-city areas – in 1980, 78% of residents had lived there for more than ten years – which then, however, was dramatically shaken up by the changes in the area in the years between the closure of the last docks in 1980 and the BNP’s 1993 triumph.
Thatcher’s government had designated the now ex-docklands an ‘Enterprise Zone’, controlled by the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) set up in 1981. Yet unemployment rose – from 16.7% in 1981 to 18.3% in 1993 in Millwall ward, and from 20.7% to 24.6% in neighbouring Blackwall ward – as local firms closed. Companies moving into new offices in the Canary Wharf development to the north of the Island relocated mainly to take advantage of the business rate concessions, retaining their existing staff and employing only a handful of local workers.
Transport developments crudely showed the priorities of the enterprise zone administrators. The then newly-
built Docklands Light Railway did not run in the evenings or weekends. Bus services for residential areas had stayed the same as in pre-LDDC days, while six new services were introduced for the commercial areas.
The LDDC, controlling the bulk of potential housing development land on the Island, was consciously ‘socially engineering’, with luxury housing projects beyond the reach of local people. The last council housing built was the small Empire Wharf estate in the late 1970s. By 1993, in contrast, 3,055 private homes had been built on the Island, of which 918 were empty – while there were 2,400 people on the local housing waiting list.
The Liberals’ racist divide-and-rule tactics
The Isle of Dogs had a turbulent history of working class struggle. One of the Poplar rebel councillors jailed in 1921 was Island representative Nellie Cressall, who served on Poplar council until 1965 when it was absorbed into the new Tower Hamlets borough. The 1960s saw mass rent strikes and, in March 1970, the two roads leading onto the Island were blockaded, a ‘Unilateral Declaration of Independence’ issued, and a rebel Labour councillor Ted Johns elected as ‘president’.
Struggles continued throughout the 1980s, even as the character of the area changed with the closure of the docks. From 1989 to 1991 the Isle of Dogs Anti-Poll Tax Union had 420 fee-paying members (out of an adult population of 9,800), including Ted Johns, and the Island recorded the highest level of non-payment in Tower Hamlets.
So how was it that, just 18 months after the poll tax was abolished, the BNP was able to win 20% in the council by-election in October 1992? Critical factors were the role of the Liberal Democrats, and the shift to the right that was underway in the Labour Party, both locally and nationally.
Tower Hamlets borough was a Labour council from its inception until the Liberals won a majority in 1986 (having won their first councillors only in 1978). Under right-wing Labour control it had become a ‘rotten borough’, presiding over steadily worsening social conditions. The 1991 census showed it with the joint highest male unemployment in London and the greatest overcrowding, with more than one person per room in 11% of households.
Having won control the Liberals set up seven ‘Neighbourhood Committees’ which nominally ‘ran’ their area. In reality, however, with budgets and other policies set centrally, they were a means to divert blame from the Liberals for passing on the Tory government’s cuts by playing-off one ‘Neighbourhood’ against another. The Liberals also used this structure to deliberately exacerbate racial divisions over the allocation of council resources, particularly in ‘Neighbourhoods’ such as the Isle of Dogs which still had a majority of Labour councillors.
On housing, for example, ‘Neighbourhoods’ were instructed by the Liberal council to offer 40% of homes that became available to people from the Tower Hamlets-wide Homeless Persons Division. At this time Tower Hamlets’ population was 67% white, 27% Asian and 7% black, with the Bangladeshi community more concentrated then in the west of the borough – Millwall was 81% white, 13% Asian and 6% black. Housing homeless families from the borough-wide list inevitably meant that the small Asian community in the Isle of Dogs ‘Neighbourhood’ grew (although still only a minority of new housing lets went to Asian families).
On the Island, however, the Liberals demagogically attacked the Isle of Dogs Neighbourhood Committee, calling for ‘Island Homes for Island People’. In February 1992, as the first social housing on the Island since the LDDC arrived was nearing completion, the 180-unit Mast House Terrace development, local Liberals were instrumental in setting up the so-called ‘Island Action Group for Equality’. This campaigned for ‘no discrimination against locals’ and specifically "a total ban on all homeless and decanted families that are not Islanders getting allocated any more properties on the Island". Later that year, in the 1992 by-election, a Liberal leaflet openly stated that "Labour are deliberately giving a better deal to ethnic minorities".
The 1992 by-election showed how poisonous the Liberal propaganda was – but also who the beneficiary would be. The Liberals lost over 300 votes from their score in the 1990 full council elections while the BNP polled 657 votes. This was the background to its success eleven months later.
Right-wing Labour also responsible
It was not just the Liberals, however, who used racism to try and maintain an electoral base. In the 1990 full council elections they used every dirty trick possible, including distributing fake leaflets designed to look like Labour leaflets, promising to ‘put homeless Bangladeshis first’. On the Isle of Dogs, however, the Millwall Labour Party held off the Liberal challenge with pledges for a rent freeze, 1,000 extra homes on the Island, and a commitment not to prosecute poll tax non-payers. The local Labour Party had actually initiated the Isle of Dogs Anti-Poll Tax Union, organising estate meetings attended by over 200 people – the Militant Labour MP, Dave Nellist, the ‘parliamentary spokesperson’ of the anti-poll tax movement, had spoken on the Island alongside Ted Johns and local councillor Yve Amor. The Liberals’ racism could not win them the seat.
But the swing to the right in the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock, which was to culminate as the 1990s progressed in Labour’s qualitative transformation into New Labour, began to impact on Tower Hamlets. Just before the 1990 local elections the national party stepped in to block the borough-wide local election manifesto including a poll tax non-prosecution pledge – an intervention gleefully seized on by the Liberals – and at the end of 1990 the expulsion of 13 Militant supporters was set in motion, with a knock-on demoralising effect on other activists. The result was revealed in a confidential post-mortem report on the Millwall by-election by the right-wing leader of the council Labour group, John Biggs, who admitted that by 1993 the borough party had become "semi-moribund", with half of the wards in Bow and Poplar constituency, which had suffered the brunt of the purge, "chronically inquorate".
On the Isle of Dogs the right wing exerted its grip, deselecting Yve Amor and adapting itself to the Liberals’ racist propaganda. In early 1993, for example, the ‘Action Group for Equality’ launched a petition ‘to stop all immigration’, covered on the front page of The Islander, a local freesheet, under the heading, ‘Should all immigration be brought to an end?’ This provoked letters of protest, including from the chair of the Isle of Dogs Bengali Action Committee, Jalil Karim. Labour’s 1993 by-election candidate, James Hunt, a self-described ‘anti-loony left moderate’ who had only joined the Labour Party in 1990, intervened to attack Jalil Karim, telling him to "open his mind as well as his mouth" (The Islander, August 1993). After the by-election a BNP letter in the local East London Advertiser praised Hunt for being "even-handed on the race issue" and "having the decency to meet with Cllr Derek Beackon and hear what Derek has to say" (30 December 1993).
The 1992 by-election had been a serious warning of what would develop eleven months later. Militant wrote that the BNP had "tapped an underlying mood of anger and disillusionment. Their main election leaflet, headed ‘Protest’, urged a vote against ‘the tired old has-beens’, to ‘make them sit up and listen’, and make ‘the Island the most well-known place in Britain’… Only fighting socialist policies", we argued, "can ensure that this mood is directed against the real enemies, the Tories and their system" (9 October 1992). But this warning was dismissed by our opponents, with the soft-left Tribune newspaper calling it "cretinism" (16 October 1992). Incredibly, when the 1993 by-election came, the Labour Party leaflets did not even mention the BNP.
Mobilising against the BNP
The Isle of Dogs was unique in that, in some respects, it represented a concentrated microcosm of the results of Thatcher’s 1980s ‘boom’, based on the destruction of manufacturing in favour of finance capital. With billions of pounds of public and private investment in the LDDC ‘Enterprise Zone’ there had to be some economic ‘development’. But its results were to accentuate class divisions. At root Millwall was a symptom of the despair that was accumulating, particularly in the inner-city areas, while no alternative was offered by the Labour Party.
But it did not signify a dramatic growth in support for fascism. Coming only months after the brutal murder of Stephen Lawrence, just down the road from the BNP’s national HQ in Welling, south east London, it was a serious warning for the future to the working class, and particularly the black and Asian community. But the response, above all the 50,000-strong 16 October Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE) and Anti-Nazi League Unity march in Welling, followed by the 40,000-strong demonstration in Tower Hamlets that the TUC was pushed into organising in March 1994, showed the social forces that exist which, if organised, limit the potential for a neo-fascist party to develop, then and now.
In Tower Hamlets there was a borough-wide reaction from the Bengali community, especially the youth. The Sunday after the by-election saw the BNP driven from their intimidatory weekly ‘paper sale’ in Brick Lane, with a big turnout of local Asian youth. Two weeks later 3,000 marched under the banner of ‘Youth Connection’, set up following a truce between different Bengali youth gangs. This demonstration was co-stewarded by the YRE which then, after a campaign in the borough’s schools, organised a school students’ strike against racist attacks in March. Such activities were, no doubt, the reason why the Metropolitan Police deployed undercover officers to spy on the YRE at this time. (A fuller account of the YRE’s activity in Tower Hamlets in this period can be found on the YRE webstie)
The Isle of Dogs, however, had been polarised by the BNP’s success. On the council estates the BNP was still vying with Labour in the run-up to the full council elections in May 1994, as revealed in an ICM poll of 524 adults on the Isle of Dogs conducted between 19-27 March. Showing where the BNP’s support was coming from, when asked who they would back if the BNP was not standing, a majority said Labour. Moreover, 60% of BNP voters had lived on the Island for 21 years or more, before the LDDC (compared to 25% of Labour supporters). This poll if anything underestimated the BNP’s vote, accurately predicting Labour’s eventual share in May 1994 (52%) and the Liberal Democrats (12%), but putting the BNP at 20% compared to their final score of 28%.
The most important task on the Island then was to try and undermine the BNP politically by fighting to recreate, where possible, the working-class unity of previous campaigns. One issue soon emerged with the announcement that, as part of the planned winding down of the LDDC (completed in 1997), £100,000 was to be cut from ‘community development’ grants to the Isle of Dogs in March 1994.
The first identified casualty was the Alpha Grove Community Centre on the Island’s Barkantine estate, which announced in November that it faced closure by spring 1994 unless it could meet the funding gap. A public meeting was organised – the first on the Island since Beackon’s victory – which agreed to approach all other Island community groups for a joint campaign.
A petition to save the Alpha Grove was soon signed by over 1,000 residents and a lobby organised of the LDDC. Then, in January, a conference of delegates from 21 Island community groups met to agree a proposal from the Alpha Grove campaign for a ‘People's Budget’ for community services, not to pick and choose between bids but to demand that Tower Hamlets council plug an identified £260,000 funding gap to meet them all. The ‘Island Community Needs Campaign’, as it became, presented this proposal to the Tower Hamlets council meeting on 2 March. The Labour group agreed – which was then used on the Island in the run up to the May elections – while the Liberals voted it down. Beackon, having had to listen to a delegation of Islanders demanding more resources for all community groups, left the council chamber before the vote was taken.
It was this combination of national and local campaigning that defeated the BNP in the May elections. Labour’s vote rose borough-wide by 27%, compared to the 1990 elections, its biggest increase nationally in the 1994 local elections. This was, above all, a vote to defeat the menace of the BNP.
The problem for neo-fascists
"When the crunch comes, power is the product of force and will, not of rational debate", wrote Nick Griffin in 1995, in a BNP magazine called The Rune. "The electors of Millwall did not back a post-modernist rightist party but what they perceived to be a strong, disciplined organisation with the ability to back up its slogan, ‘Defend Rights for Whites’, with well-directed boots and fists". In fact this was precisely not what the majority of ‘the electors of Millwall’ backed, not even the bulk of BNP voters.
The turnout for the May 1994 elections on the Isle of Dogs was an unprecedented 67%. The average vote for the three victorious Labour candidates (3,480) was more than the total number of votes cast for all the parties in previous council elections on the Island (2,847 in 1986, 3,417 in 1990)!
This included many voters from the new private housing developments, including the luxury apartments, who this time voted Labour. (They eventually reverted to the Tories – the demography of the area has changed in the last 20 years so that now the two, boundary reorganised, wards that cover the Isle of Dogs have Tory councillors.) There was also a phenomenal turnout of black and Asian voters, in 1994 20% of the Island’s electorate.
This aspect has sometimes been glossed over in accounts of what happened in Tower Hamlets. In fact the massive mobilisation by the Bengali community in particular in 1993-94 – on the streets and at the ballot box – was another indication of the latent social power of the working class as a whole, black and white. This was why the ruling class was wary of encouraging the BNP – and without that, their prospects will always be constrained – even to a limited extent, as an ‘auxiliary’ destabilising force against the labour movement. They feared the radicalising effect on workers and youth, particularly black and Asian youth, into a counter-movement they could not control. That is the fundamental problem that still faces the BNP today and is the reason why the ruling class would prefer even to build up the right-wing populists of UKIP as a safer alternative to the BNP.
Griffin was a new member of the BNP in 1995, albeit with a 20-year history in the neo-Nazi movement, and he attempted, after unseating John Tyndall as leader in 1999, to at least publically distance the BNP from the model of ‘classical fascism’ of Mussolini and Hitler that he had earlier espoused. But while the BNP could still achieve sporadic electoral victories as it did in Millwall in 1993 – as capitalism experienced its most prolonged stagnation since the 1930s and the crisis of working-class political representation remained unresolved – it has been too tainted by its neo-fascist origins to be able to consolidate them into a mass force, either electorally or as ‘boots and fists’.