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The Battle for Barking

Reviewed by David Kerr

LAURA FAIRIE filmed, produced and directed this astonishing fly-on-the-wall documentary over the twelve months leading up to the general election on May 6th 2010. Somehow she managed to gain the trust of two hostile factions in Barking; the British National Party and New Labour as personified by party leader Nick Griffin and the local sitting MP, Margaret Hodge.The Barking and Dagenham constituency is largely white working class and has almost always sent Labour members to parliament. It is not a natural environment for the Tories, so Labour rarely had to do much to retain the loyalty of its traditional supporters. However, the demographics of the area began to change in the last decade or so to the consternation of the indigenous population who perceived that they and their wishes no longer mattered. Many claim that council housing and other facilities going to recent settlers, asylum seekers and other incomers while they and members of their families remained sidelined on lengthy waiting lists.

At the previous local government election, the BNP gained twelve council seats from Labour as large swathes of the white working class took their revenge on the party they believed had taken them for granted, patronised them and abandoned them. Labour decided that they would not allow this challenge to their authority to stand and poured in huge amounts of resources to send the BNP packing.

Fairie’s film showed the human side of each of the protagonists, despite their propensity to demonise one-another. To Hodge, Nick Griffin was a bastard who ‘hates women, he hates Jews and the hates immigrants and I’m all of them.’ Yet that’s not the picture of him that came across in this film. Rather, he appeared to be a genuine critic of the multicultural society, a man who inspired tremendous loyalty in his supporters and great hatred from his detractors. At one point during the long election night count, he is seen exchanging an affectionate kiss with his wife, Jacqui.

The vehemence of some of the young people who confronted him in the street was truly frightening. Some of this may have been played up for the camera but the violent young man who shouted, ‘Fuck off you fucking white cunt’ and threatened to blow Griffin away looked as if he meant it and looked as if he was quite capable of carrying out his threat. Despite the threats, Griffin kept his cool, but it seems clear that his beefy bodyguards are not an affectation. He really needs them.

Hodge showed her human side too. At the start of the film she told of her husband’s illness and was heard talking to him after a vital operation, full of hope for his recovery. A short time later we see her at a packed funeral service and hear her genuine grief that she now comes home to an empty house.

Despite this, she is a ruthless political animal and she mobilises to reconnect her party to the constituency. She’s overheard talking on the phone to an unknown party, taking full advantage of her newly-widowed status. Talking of Griffin, she saw, ‘What a bastard. He gets me when life is [inaudible]. I need money in a way I didn’t before and big donors. A lot each. A hundred and fifty.’ It would be fascinating to learn who she was soliciting these donations from and whether or not she got them.

It was interesting how the BNP’s supporters opened up to Fairie as the year went on. At first they were suspicious, barking out their disapproval when they thought she was filming without asking. However, they soon opened up a bit and showed that they were not Nazi monsters but local people who felt that they had been forgotten by the Labour establishment and had found a political outlet, camaraderie and mutual support in the British National Party

One such activist was Andy Kingget, an amiable man who expressed this sense of alienation with quiet eloquence. He went on to speak of his son, a soldier serving in Afghanistan who has no idea what he’s doing out there or what he’s fighting for. Three months later, the poignant news came through that Andy’s son had been killed. The stricken activist was devastated as the horse-drawn cortege passed by bearing his son’s remains under floral tributes spelling out, SON, BROTHER and OUR HERO.

The British National Party had already made opposition to the Afghan war a platform in the election, with Griffin arguing that it was counter-productive in that it radicalised Muslims against Britain and that the men and women out there were often conscripts of poverty. One might speculate if Griffin was being a bit opportunistic and exploitative when he wondered aloud if anyone who had lost someone in Afghanistan might come forward and be part of an election broadcast on the issue and Andy came forward agreeing to do so in a large meeting. Perhaps they had already agreed on this beforehand when the camera was not running but this bit made uncomfortable viewing.

For blatant unbridled cynicism though, Margaret Hodge takes the biscuit. She didn’t get where she is today by playing fair. Her gurus surveyed the constituency on a ward-by-ward basis and are seen reported back to her. ‘Immigration’s the big issue and has got worse on your watch.’ The voters want Hodge to get rid of immigrants. 79.6% in one ward could vote BNP. ‘I’m never going to beat him on immigration’, she admits, so she goes for a different strategy, attending meetings in the local mosque, black evangelical churches and other minority ethnic groups to feed them scare stories of the mayhem that will ensue should Nick Griffin ever manage to win the parliamentary seat. Some of it was outrageously over-the-top in its brazen effrontery. The prize example was when she told a black evangelical congregation that ‘They want everyone here dropped from an aeroplane, dropped from a helicopter and left in the sea’. Talk about bearing false witness against thy neighbour!

Other images were hilarious; Hodge taking off her monstrously expensive Jimmy Choo shoes in exchange for a pair of boots to cut the sod on a new social housing development that will bring a total of three new social houses in an area with 670 on the waiting list; Hodge receiving heavy weight support from John Prescott and feeding him bacon butties. Priceless stuff.

The contrast between the two party machines was striking. Despite the leaps and bounds the BNP has made in gaining political support over the past decades or so, it was obvious that these were the well-meaning amateurs taking on the hard-core professionals. Labour poured in enormous resources and manpower to stuff envelopes, canvass ethnic minority groups and wavering white voters in person and by phone in order to see off the BNP interlopers. In retrospect, it’s astonishing that the BNP believed that they could win this seat. This may be the downside of the power of positive thinking, only moving in one’s own political circles with the consequent mutual support and reinforcement allowing the party’s activists to convince themselves that it could be done and to devote less attention to defending their existing council seats.

Labour were rattled and determined to take the battle back to the BNP insurgents. Hodge went all out to maximise Labour’s support base, planning late leaflet drops on Election Day and calls on declared supporters to make sure they turned out. Hodge even minded a woman’s baby for a few minutes to make sure that she went in to vote for her. It was impressive stuff.

This documentary ought to be required viewing for all political dissenters seeking to take on an establishment party. Before May 6th 2010 the BNP were the official opposition on Barking council. Since May 6th there is no opposition. Labour now holds all the seats on the council, The establishment parties may talk the talk of democracy, freedom and choice but they believe that they have a divine right to rule and to smash anyone who doesn’t sign up to their own narrowly defined consensus..
Watch and learn.

The Battle for Barking can be seen here: http://tinyurl.com/637utj2


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