I had a long and enlightening conversation with a BNP voter in Birmingham today. He is a roofer by trade but had recently lost his job and was currently claiming Jobseekers Allowance. However, he has been voting BNP for the last five years. It seems that his job has become ever more pressured as overtime was decreasingly available and he was under pressure, nonetheless, to do evening and weekend work. He asked, why should he have to sacrifice his family life for no extra benefit?
Unfortunately, with conditions as they are in the construction industry, his firm laid him off recently. He said that he had been experiencing increasing competition from easternEuropean and east African workers. They were willing to work more, be flexible, without demanding the type of income that he required. He had applied for mortgage relief to no avail though he does have another four months of mortgage holiday left.
I asked him whether any of his colleagues were black or Asian and didn't they face similar challenges to him. He said they did and that a lot of them felt the same way. He wouldn't turn on them as working men facing the same challenges as him, so why did he begin voting BNP?
One of his colleagues was a BNP activist and had been explaining to him about the reality of the party- not racist as The Mirror and Sun claim at all. It was just concerned about a fair deal for British people. He worked hard, paid his taxes and national insurance, and for what? Immigrants were coming in getting housing, pushing him back in the queue for health services, and now they had a job and he was on the dole. It just wasn't right. What's more, with the rights culture as it is, all the wrong people were protected while honest people like himself suffered.
I explained that the BNP was racist. We talked about his black and Asian colleagues and did he feel it was right that they be denied citizenship and told that they weren't really British? He thought about it and then acknowledged that, no, he didn't think that was right. Though he did think that whenever Nick Griffin says something 'out of order, people come down on him like a tonne of bricks.' I explained that he is always saying things that are 'out of order.' These are tough times and surely the last thing we want is people turning on each other. Besides, isn't picking on people just because of the colour of their skin actually extremely anti-British?
What was the upshot? There was nothing I could say to lessen the feeling of grievance at his situation. Listening and understanding was the only sensible response. We shook hands at the end of the conversation, smiled, and he promised that he would give it some more thought. Will he still vote BNP? I would be surprised if he didn't to be honest. He displayed a toxic mix of genuine grievance and an articulated position as a result of having been got to by the BNP in a one-on-one situation with one of his former colleagues.
A number of common features emerge: this familiar wage competition and stagnation, amplified through difficult economic times, and the community/ workplace activity of the BNP, albeit highly misleading; hiding their true racist nature. It can be turned round. Once the blanket racism of the BNP is understood it makes people who are inclined to vote for them think twice and persuades others to do what it takes to stop them.
Their view of the world does not accord with the vast majority of the nation. However, they use issues and image in a manipulative way. The lesson is actually a big one. One person can make the case against the BNP but it takes some minutes. It needs thousands more in local communities making the case in similar ways if this poison is to be beaten back. But that sort of community/ workplace presence needs organisation (though it should be noted that Searchlight are doing a valiant job.) It will have other major political benefits on top of defeating the BNP. The next politics has to conduct this deep engagement if voters are to be reconnected to the political system that is there to serve them.