Twenty years ago this month, the BNP won its first ever seat, in an East London by-election. In an exclusive extract from his book Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain's Far Right, Daniel Trilling speaks to the people who were there at the time
The Island is a funny place. People fall out with people, some groups fall out with one another. But if someone’s back is against the wall, they’ll all stand together. Because otherwise, they’ll pick you off one by one. - Rita Bensley, Association of Island Communities
The night of 16 September 1993 provided an unpleasant moment of farce to punctuate a slow, grinding tragedy. As protestors from the Anti-Nazi League gathered outside the Isle of Dogs neighbourhood centre, officials from Tower Hamlets Council were sifting through ballots cast in a local by-election. At 10.30 p.m., a murmur of surprise ran through the room as the Labour candidate, James Hunt, asked for a recount. He should have walked this election. Now, visibly shaken, Hunt wasn’t so sure of himself. Just before eleven, an eighty-strong mob of skinheads emerged from nearby pubs and headed for the crowd outside the centre, chorusing ‘Rule Britannia’. One threw a milk bottle, which smashed among his opponents. As police broke up the ensuing scuffles, inside the building the election result was quietly confirmed. Derek Beackon, an unemployed van driver and candidate for the British National Party, had won the Millwall by-election by just seven votes.
It may have only been one local council seat out of thousands – and two fewer than were held at the time by the Monster Raving Loony Party – but the election of a BNP candidate sent ripples far beyond the Isle of Dogs. Over the days that followed, news crews and reporters descended on this little spit of land that sticks out into the Thames from London’s East End. They wanted to know why 1,480 of its residents had voted for a man with a twenty-year history of involvement in racist street politics, whose campaign leaflets complained that ‘our children are being forced to learn the languages and religions and cultures of Asia, forced to eat their food’, demanded ‘Rights for Whites’ and promised to ‘put the British people first’
Was this an aberration, ‘a nasty little local difficulty’, as the Daily Mail put it? Academics were wheeled out to explain the East End’s association with far-right movements, stretching back almost a century, via the National Front and Sir Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts, to the British Brothers’ League of 1902. This part of London had for centuries been a stopping-off point for immigrants, something that had long made it a target for demagogues seeking to whip up hatred. Now, just as newspapers were reporting preparations for the fiftieth anniversary of Hitler’s defeat in 1945, voters in one of the areas hit hardest by the Blitz had delivered a stinging rebuke to the establishment by electing a fascist.
And perhaps there was more to come. ‘The people of East London have always been known for their tolerance and easygoing temperament. Recently some of them, and there are many more, have got fed up with being undermined,’ warned one letter-writer to the local paper. ‘They voted for the one who had the guts to speak on their behalf.’
What, though, was being undermined?
‘I was the last registered stevedore in Millwall Dock,’ George Pye told me, as we sat in his office at St John’s Community Centre, a small room dominated by a painting in which a square-jawed docker thrust a piece of paper under the nose of his cowering boss. ‘When they closed the dock – or murdered it, I should say – I was on holiday. All the other dockers went to Tilbury but when I came back, I refused.’
Pye, a fifth generation ‘Islander’, as many locals here refer to themselves, was describing the devastation visited upon his neighbourhood when the docks that had sustained it closed in 1980. ‘When we opened this place [in the early 1980s], it was packed. You used to get lots of families down here because you could bring your kids. Now the only ones left are pockets of older people.’ It was a Friday night, but the streets outside were almost deserted, and the centre’s function room was nearly empty, with only a handful of elderly white men and women drinking and playing darts. Were it not for the towers of Canary Wharf that loomed nearby, you might never have guessed that this place had been at the crossroads of an empire for more than two centuries – or that Pye’s story was proof of the destruction it could leave in its wake.
Lying just a couple of miles from the City, the Isle of Dogs, a marshy peninsula surrounded by water on three sides, was transformed into a hub of international trade with the opening of the West India Dock in 1802. As Britain’s empire grew, so did the docks, and migrants from Britain, Ireland and Europe were drawn to work there, their fortunes tied to the booms and slumps of the global economy. Slum conditions and precarious employment led to the formation of the modern trade union movement at the end of the nineteenth century – and a tradition of protest that is still celebrated in East End legend. The ‘Island’ was severely damaged by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War, but those inhabitants who stayed were rewarded with a huge programme of council house building.
When the London docks began a slow but steady decline after the Second World War, hit by a fall in manufacturing exports and the rise of containerization, the East End was bereft. In 1955, they had given work to 31,000 people – by 1975, this had fallen to 9,800. And the industries that supported shipping were cut adrift, too: 75,000 jobs were lost in East London between 1971 and 1981. Islanders, cut off from the rest of the East End (literally so, when the swing bridges at the north end of the peninsula were raised to let ships pass) were particularly hard hit, voicing their discontent in 1970 when a group of local campaigners issued a ‘Unilateral Declaration of Independence’.
The final blow was delivered by the Thatcher Government in 1980 – a move that Pye, like many of his colleagues, saw as political. ‘It was like with the miners, Maggie took the unions on in stages.’ Pye was no militant – he told me, proudly, that his union branch had only ever gone on strike twice in three decades – but even today, he is adamant that the docks could have been saved. ‘What makes me so bitter is that all this time, they were saying, ‘We need to move into the twenty-first century.’ Well we had containerization here, we had a bigger berth for the bigger ships, we had cruise ships docking here. The apple and pear trade from New Zealand and Australia was guaranteed for another three years. Everything they was talking about we were doing.’
Instead, the government’s solution was a combination of top-down diktat and economic laissez-faire – the essence, perhaps, of what became Thatcherism. In 1981, the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was established as a private company; the following year, a huge swathe of London’s riverside, stretching east along the Thames estuary was designated an Enterprise Zone, offering low tax rates and lax planning regulations to property developers. The idea was to transform Docklands, as it was rebranded, into a world financial centre, focused on Canary Wharf. Former dock land was sold off for development, prompting land values to soar; a new gold rush from which the Islanders were excluded. Despite £6 billion of public money being spent on ‘regeneration’, unemployment remained 20 per cent on the Isle of Dogs. ‘There was a missed opportunity here,’ said Pye, who today works as a pierman, unloading boatloads of tourists and City workers at Canary Wharf. ‘The finance stuff is fine, but they put all their eggs in one basket. It’s crazy not to use water when you’ve got the Thames on your doorstep.’
Islanders were furious: they were watching steel and glass palaces rise in front of them, yet their children couldn’t find jobs or, increasingly, a place to live. The Right to Buy scheme – a Thatcher Government policy introduced in 1980 that gave council tenants the right to buy their homes at subsidised rates – was eating away at the number of council homes available, and the LDDC was actively hostile to building more social housing, preferring to encourage developments aimed at affluent professionals. In July 1986, protesters from the Association of Island Communities released thousands of bees and a flock of sheep into a tent where the cream of the world’s finance industry had gathered to watch the Governor of the Bank of England turn the first sod of earth to mark the beginning of construction work at Canary Wharf. Beyond a few colourful headlines, their protest was ignored.
One year later, a new dimension would be added to this already fractious situation. My conversation with Pye took a pause, as he attended to two Asian women in hijabs who had come to book the function room for a wedding. ‘I’ll give you a discount, as you won’t be needing the bar, I take it?’
In 1987, sixteen-year-old Syeda Choudhury, along with her parents, brother and sister, became one of the first Bengali families to move on to the Isle of Dogs. ‘It was scary,’ Choudhury told me, her accent a mix of Cockney and Bengali, when we met in 2011. ‘We lived up by Commercial Road [in Whitechapel, north-west of the Isle of Dogs], where lots of other Bengalis lived. A lot of people had told us that the Isle of Dogs was not a nice area, but at that time the council made only one offer for housing, so you had to take what you could get.’ The Choudhurys took up residence on the Barkantine estate, whose pointy-roofed tower blocks still stand today, like a rude objection to the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf. ‘We were the only Bengali people in our block – and in the two or three other blocks, there was like one or two families.’ The ‘Islanders’ were never a homogenous community; estates like Barkantine had long been used to house tenants from elsewhere in London. But in the past they had been white. The Choudhurys soon found they were not welcome.
Their lives marked by the same empire that had sustained the docks, East London’s Bengalis were no strangers to hostility: the thousands of families like the Choudhurys who had arrived from Bangladesh during the 1960s and 1970s had faced abuse and systematic discrimination since their arrival. Asian families were far more likely to experience homelessness or overcrowded living conditions, and had been a target for violence inspired by the BNP’s forerunner, the National Front, during the 1970s and 80s.
Choudhury remembers her shock the first time she saw a gang of Union Jack-toting racists: ‘I was nine when we came over from Bangladesh and we used to love this Union Jack, everyone loves the British Queen. But when I saw it here, in their hands, and the way they were abusing it, you don’t like it any more.’
By the mid-80s, Bengalis had resisted the worst of the NF, but in 1987, the Choudhurys were dropped into the middle of an acute housing crisis. As the Island’s waterfront properties had been sold off for private development, the Right to Buy scheme was severely diminishing the available housing stock: in 1985 there were 5,537 council homes on the Isle of Dogs; by 1993 this had fallen to 4,000. Community life on the Isle of Dogs had already been torn asunder when many dockers moved downriver to work at the Tilbury container port; now the remaining working-class residents found it increasingly difficult to ensure that their friends and relatives were housed nearby.
This problem was by no means confined to the Island – across Tower Hamlets, one of the country’s poorest boroughs, housing was in short supply. A shortage of homes, combined with rising unemployment, had bred discontent at the borough’s long-reigning Labour administration, and in 1986 Tower Hamlets elected a Liberal-run council. The Liberals (who became the Liberal Democrats in 1988) had won power with a populist campaign that sought to play up fears of crime and social breakdown and promised a ‘Sons and Daughters’ housing scheme, which would ensure ‘local’ people were at the front of the queue for homes.
This was an empty promise, since councils were obliged by law to house homeless families first. What’s more, as the Liberals were well aware, to many East Londoners ‘local’ meant ‘white’. Once in power, councillors sought to shore up their position by playing on white resentment. In 1987, Liberal councillors claimed that Bengali families living in bed and breakfast accommodation had made themselves intentionally homeless by coming to Britain; a year later, the mayor of Tower Hamlets, Jeremy Shaw, staged a publicity stunt, willingly relayed by the East London Advertiser, when he travelled to Bangladesh to tell the government there that Tower Hamlets had no more room for migrants.
And while the Liberals raised the hopes of white Tower Hamlets residents, their commitment to localism had created a further problem: power in the borough was devolved into ‘neighbourhoods’, each with their own budget and spending powers. The Isle of Dogs neighbourhood was represented by three Labour councillors and when Asian families began arriving in 1987, many white residents blamed Labour for giving away homes they believed should have been theirs. As Pye, who stood as a Lib Dem council candidate in 1990, put it to me: ‘Everybody felt that Labour was fine on the Bengalis or West Indians or whatever, but if you were white you got nothing. The feeling was, we’ve got to get houses, same as anybody else.’
Pye is no bigot, and he has worked hard to make people of the different colours and creeds who inhabit the Isle of Dogs today feel welcome: St John’s provides space for Muslim prayer sessions, plus West Indian, African and Anglican church congregations. But during the late 80s, other Islanders let their resentment spill over into something much nastier. Choudhury recalled being chased off a bus by white youths shortly after moving to the Isle of Dogs (‘I ran home and just shut the curtains’), and described a steadily worsening atmosphere as more Asian families moved onto the Island. ‘You couldn’t go to the park, never. If I went to the park, to play, on the swings and stuff, there would be white boys and girls chasing me. They used to bring dogs to chase you. We had to come home before dark, much earlier than other people. In winter you had to get home as soon as it turned four o’clock.’
Between 1987 and 1988, 104 racist attacks were reported to the Isle of Dogs housing office, despite only 260 Bangladeshi families living on the Island at the time. The next year, the number of incidents doubled, leaving families terrified. On one estate, some Bengali women had not been out of their home for more than six months. ‘If you’re not Bengali, Asian, you’d think “oh, come on”; you wouldn’t believe it,’ Choudhury insists. ‘But that was the reality. It happened.’
A photo of Eddy Butler from the early 1990s reveals a gaunt young man in a black bomber jacket, leading members of the BNP’s feared ‘security’ team Combat 18 through the streets of London’s East End. Butler’s determined stare suggests that he relishes what he described to me, in retrospect, as the ‘high adrenaline’ pursuits of the BNP Formed in 1983, after a split in the National Front, the BNP was led by John Tyndall, a neo-Nazi with a long pedigree in the most extreme and violent quarters of Britain’s far right. Its political programme demanded the forcible ‘repatriation’ of non-white Britons, and proposed the restoration of the British Empire along with a series of authoritarian measures derived from Hitler. The BNP followed a familiar pattern of holding provocative marches and rallies; its members attacked left-wing meetings and sought to create ethnic divisions by encouraging – or even perpetrating – racist assaults.
Butler, a former National Front member, had joined the party in 1986 and before long was given the position of East London organizer. By the early 90s, the BNP was gaining notoriety thanks to a string of racist murders near its south-east London headquarters in Welling – which culminated in the killing of a black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, in 1993 – and by launching a ‘Rights for Whites’ campaign in Tower Hamlets, overseen by Butler. ‘Rights for Whites’ was a slogan coined in 1990 after the stabbing of a white teenager by his Asian classmates. The boy’s parents had complained that police were not taking the crime seriously and the BNP hijacked their campaign, holding rallies and public meetings in the Bethnal Green area.
Not since the days of the National Front had there been such a concerted effort by the far right to spark conflict in the East End. But the Rights for Whites marches marked a departure for the BNP, who had been inspired by the success of the Lib Dems’ ‘community politics’ strategy. As Butler put it, ‘Instead of focusing on national issues and complex aspects of party policy, we simply appealed to ordinary whites … by discussing the local issues that concerned and worried them.’ For the far right, local and national elections had long been used as a way to gain publicity, mainly by holding election ‘meetings’ that would inevitably turn violent. But the Rights for Whites strategy also began to pay dividends in local elections, enticing ‘patriotically inclined’ voters away from the Lib Dems, who in the eyes of the BNP ‘had been perceived as a party that at local level defended white interests’. At a 1990 by-election in Bethnal Green, the BNP candidate helped overturn a Lib Dem majority of 800, handing the seat to Labour.
After 1992, the BNP began to abandon the public meetings and take electioneering more seriously. Partly this was a result of necessity: Squads of militant anti-fascists had literally beaten BNP activists off the streets, but activists like Butler also thought the party had a real chance of winning seats. The tactics, as he explained, were primitive to begin with: ‘We had a series of by-elections where we were improving our tactics, copying what the Liberal Democrats did, doing very simple leaflets on local issues. Each time we were improving our canvassing techniques, doing multiple sweeps. We didn’t use canvass sheets at first, we’d just use the electoral register and draw lines down. It’s a mathematical thing; if you identify people then you’ve got people to get out on polling day. The more you knock, the more people you find. For a party like us, explaining to people on the door why they should vote for us is more important than for other parties.’
These efforts focused largely on Bethnal Green and Bow, districts at the north end of Tower Hamlets, but the 1992 general election delivered a surprise: With hardly any canvassing, there had been a surge of support for the BNP to the south, on the Isle of Dogs.
Since the Choudhurys had moved on to the Island in 1987 hostility towards Bengalis had continued to rise, as demand for housing grew ever tighter. Things came to a head in early 1992, over the first social housing scheme in a decade to be built on the Isle of Dogs. In January, a group of Island residents proposed that all properties on Masthouse Terrace, a riverside development of homes ranging from one-bedroom flats to eight-bedroom houses, be allocated to ‘Islanders’ only, and that a ban be imposed on housing homeless people from outside the area. Then a local newspaper article claimed, erroneously, that twenty-one out of the development’s twenty-five homes had been allocated to Bengali families, with some receiving £5,000 to buy furniture. Finally, some new housing was being built – and it all appeared to be going to Asians. The Labour-run neighbourhood was powerless to intervene – housing was being allocated on the basis of need, in line with the law – and the Lib Dem council had broken its promise to provide homes for ‘Sons and Daughters’.
At a by-election in October 1992, the BNP came third in Millwall, with 20 per cent of the vote. Immediately after, the BNP distributed a ‘well done’ leaflet to homes on the Isle of Dogs that described the 20 per cent vote as ‘a well-deserved kick in the pants for the old complacent parties. But we’d have done even better if some of you had not lost your bottle or stayed at home.’ Activists began to visit Millwall on a regular basis, selling the party paper and following up membership enquiries. Several months later, another by-election was announced, to be held in October 1993. Derek Beackon, the BNP’s chief steward, offered to stand. As Butler explained, the BNP was well-placed to pick up on local resentment: ‘We had our ear to the ground, so we knew what was going on. I used to live on the Isle of Dogs at one point and I knew the area. Derek Beackon’s sister lived on the Isle of Dogs. My partner’s brother lived on the Isle of Dogs. People knew people who would know what was going on in the estates. So you could do leaflets in tune with what people were talking about.’
As campaigning intensified, the Lib Dems redoubled their own efforts, distributing an ‘Island Homes for Island People’ newsletter, which demanded that Labour councillors ‘listen to Islanders and not the Commission for Racial Equality’. The Lib Dems also toured the constituency in cars flying Union Jacks and tried to paint their Labour rivals as unfairly favoring Bengali residents, distributing a leaflet that claimed Millwall councillors had given £30,000 to Bangladesh for flood relief rather than spending it on local repairs.
All the while, the luxury apartments and office blocks continued to rise, on land that had once provided working-class jobs. The connection seems so obvious in retrospect – but the inhabitants of ‘yuppie’ flats, in gated developments and driving on and off the Island by way of the Limehouse Link, were in another world. As Sheila, a white resident of the Barkantine estate (where the Choudhurys also lived) told me, ‘None of the yuppies ever bothered us. At least you knew they were paying their way. That’s what you wanted.’
Then, one week before the 1993 by-election, Labour made a disastrous error. On 9 September, in an effort to squeeze the Lib Dems out of the race, Labour leaked a canvass report that claimed it was neck and neck with the BNP, on 34 per cent each. The idea was to scare voters into supporting Labour – but it also worked in reverse. As John Biggs, a former Tower Hamlets Labour councillor (and now London Assembly member), explains, while Tower Hamlets at the time was run by Liberal Democrats, many ordinary residents would still have perceived Labour, which had dominated local politics for decades, as the ‘establishment’: ‘People don’t sit at home going through the last opinion polls and the last election results and say “ah, it’s the Liberal council”. They blamed Labour for the state of housing on the Isle of Dogs and they wanted to work out who best to vote for to give Labour a kicking.’
It may only have been on a small scale, but this was a total breakdown of mainstream politics: the Isle of Dogs was a Labour-run neighbourhood, in a Lib Dem-run borough, under a Tory Government – and nobody seemed able to provide the basic necessities. As one Island resident, Maureen Lowther, 49, told the East London Advertiser several days after Beackon’s election: ‘It’s not a racial thing, it’s resentment. You are getting Bangladeshis getting eight-bedroom houses. Of course we’re going to be resentful. I’m not in full agreement with all the BNP stands for, but Rights for Whites, yes. All them councillors have created this situation, they are fighting against racism but why aren’t they fighting for all? All we want is equality.’
On the Sunday after Derek Beackon’s election, the Reverend Nicholas Holtam gave a sheet of paper to his congregation at Christ Church on the Isle of Dogs and asked them to write down how they felt. The page was soon filled with words like ‘angry’, ‘tearful’, ‘ashamed’, ‘frightened’ and ‘pissed off’. One elderly man, a member of the British Legion, left the church in tears. ‘I spent four years of my life fighting Nazis, and now we’ve voted them in,’ he told Holtam as he walked out.
With 33.8 per cent of the vote, the BNP never represented the majority of Islanders, and many whites had bitterly opposed the party. The day after the election, unionised council workers on the Isle of Dogs went on strike in protest at Beackon’s election (the first of a series of walk-outs), and groups including the Anti-Nazi League, the Anti-Racist Alliance and Youth Against Racism in Europe continued to organize protests across Tower Hamlets. Large anti-racism demos were also held in Trafalgar Square and at the BNP’s headquarters in Welling.
As Holtam – who is now the Bishop of Salisbury – told me when we met in 2011, the country’s media now seemed to regard the BNP as an expression of white working class East Enders’ inherent stupidness and bigotry, seemingly encapsulated by the ‘Cockney Wanker’ character in the satirical magazine Viz shortly after Beackon’s victory. ‘There were jokes on TV about Millwall and the Isle of Dogs,’ Holtam continued. ‘The rest of the country looked at us and laughed. It was a hideous time.’
But the problems thrown into sharp relief by Beackon’s victory were national as much as they were local. Britain in 1993 was in the grip of an economic recession and John Major, derided by the Telegraph as ‘the least popular leader since polls began’, had taken to peddling sentimental nostalgia in speeches evoking a bygone England of warm beer and village greens. One of his backbench MPs, Winston Churchill (a grandson of the former prime minister), went further, warning that summer that the ‘British way of life’ itself was under threat from immigration. On 20 September, Churchill prophesied more fascist victories in British cities unless the government cracked down on immigration.
On 26 September, the News of the World risked further inflaming the situation in Tower Hamlets by sending one white and one Asian journalist to the council’s housing office. The two did not present identical stories – one claimed to be homeless, the other a ‘refugee’ – and the Asian man was offered housing because his story fit the legal criteria better. For the right, the BNP’s emergence seemed to confirm their contention that immigration had been a disaster, and that local government was in the grip of politically-correct lunacy.
Worse still, all the negative attention generated by the BNP made it even less likely that the Isle of Dogs would receive the investment it sorely needed. Holtam, who had made representations to government on behalf of Islanders, said that some of the least creditable conversations he had ‘were with a government minister and executives at the LDDC. All of them owned up to the problem [i.e., that underinvestment in social housing was at the root of BNP support], but they all said, “We can’t be seen to be giving in to this sort of political pressure.”’ The LDDC executives in particular were terrified that an association with the BNP would jeopardise the whole Docklands project: ‘I had a conversation with a senior executive on the board of the LDDC who said, “You’ve got to understand it from our point of view that if this ward votes BNP at the next election, this development is down the tube and all of the money that’s been invested in here will simply go. The property will be left empty and nobody will want to work here.”’
While LDDC executives worried about property deals, the people of Tower Hamlets were facing a more pressing problem as the borough experienced a resurgence of racist violence. On 8 September, an Asian teenager named Quddus Ali had been beaten into a coma in Whitechapel. On the afternoon of 19 September, a group of BNP activists, newly emboldened by their election victory, were drinking outside the Ship pub in Bethnal Green, when a black man, Stephen Browne, and his white girlfriend, Jenny Bone, tried to pass through the crowd on their way to the supermarket. The couple were spat at and showered with beer by BNP members, who shouted ‘nigger lover’ and ‘monkey’ at them. When the couple replied by telling the group to shut up and calling them cowards, the BNP’s national organizer Richard Edmonds threw a glass. Others then ‘glassed’ Browne in the face and punched and kicked him as he lay on the ground. Browne was left scarred for life; Edmonds was later sentenced to three months in prison for his part in the assault.
On the Isle of Dogs, police statistics showed a spike in ‘recorded racial incidents’, breaking the 100 barrier for the first time in 1993 and peaking at 180 in 1994. Many Bengali families remained in their houses, scared to go out – and one man left altogether after a scaffolding pole was thrown through the glass of his front door. ‘After he [Beackon] was elected, we got really scared,’ recalled Syeda Choudhury. ‘I used to know white neighbours who would say hello to me in the street,’ Choudhury said. ‘They stopped. That’s how bad it got.’
By 1993, Choudhury was married and had a one-year-old son, although the young family continued to live in her parents’ council flat. Her husband was a student and used to work evening shifts at a restaurant, often returning home after midnight. So scared were the Choudhurys for his safety at night that they would escort him, en masse, from his car to the entrance of their tower block: ‘He would phone us when he was leaving the restaurant, so me, my brother, my mum and my dad, all four of us, would have to go downstairs to where he’d park his car. We used to carry big sticks and a baseball bat. You could not have peace of mind all through the day and night. You were anxious, worried what’s going to happen next.’
While the presence of the BNP sowed fear among the Island’s Bengalis, it had also bred mutual suspicion among white residents. A white member of Holtam’s congregation made a point of telling him that she hadn’t voted for the party: ‘I feel I’ve got to say that because I keep looking at people and wondering if they voted BNP.’
Who else might vote BNP, given the chance? Full council elections in Tower Hamlets were scheduled for May 1994, just eight months after the Millwall by-election. In the past, fascists had been driven off the streets of East London by diverse, grassroots campaigns. In 1936 the Battle of Cable Street had blocked Oswald Mosley from leading his British Union of Fascists through Stepney – an area that then had a substantial Jewish population – thanks to a popular movement which embraced Jew and gentile, socialist and Communist. Four decades later, in the 1970s, white and black anti-racists fought street battles with the National Front. But this time, there was a difference: Derek Beackon had been elected. How on earth could the BNP’s opponents influence what went on in the privacy of the polling booth?
At the end of September 1993, the East London Advertiser published an alarming statistic: ‘More than 81 per cent support the BNP’, claimed its front-page headline, trailing the result of a telephone poll in which readers had been asked, ‘Do you think it is right or wrong that a BNP councillor has been elected to Tower Hamlets council?’ The question was somewhat leading – in one sense, of course it was ‘right’; Beackon had won a democratic election, and if you ignored the violence and intimidating behaviour of his party’s supporters, then he had every right to take up his seat.
The Advertiser, a popular read among older white East Londoners, appeared to agree. On 5 October, after attending his first council meeting, Beackon told the paper it was ‘full of figures and petty bickering. I’m an ordinary working-class bloke and most of the councillors are middle-class blokes, and for me it will take a little bit of understanding.’ On 7 October, under a headline that read ‘BNP’s Beackon steps into family eviction storm’, the Advertiser carried a report that claimed Beackon had helped ‘fight off’ bailiffs who wanted to evict ‘asthmatic Geraldine Johnson’ from her Isle of Dogs home. According to Nicholas Holtam, the paper’s editor Richard Tidiman (who died in 2006), initially gave Beackon qualified support. ‘Talking to the editor, he was worried about losing his readership. And of course the Bengalis don’t read the East London Advertiser. His readership was declining and so the stories played to that perception of, “We white East Enders have got to stand up for what’s right.”’
While Beackon attempted to position himself as a people’s champion, the borough’s two main parties had fallen into bitter recriminations. In December, an inquiry ordered by the Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown recommended the expulsion of Jeremy Shaw – the former mayor who had told Bangladesh that his borough was ‘full’. Its study of leaflets dating back to 1990 found that the party had ‘pandered to racism’, a conclusion that was disputed by local activists. Several prominent members tore up their party cards, while others branded Simon Hughes, the Bermondsey MP who had led the inquiry, as a ‘back-stabber’ and declared him ‘persona non grata in the borough’. A month later, a similar row erupted among Labour members, as the party debated whether to adopt a Lib Dem-style ‘Sons and Daughters’ housing policy in Millwall. After moves were made to expel its former candidate James Hunt for leaking the canvass return, a number of members resigned, Hunt included. He then announced he would stand as an independent.
In the absence of major parties, it was left to grassroots activists to build support for an anti-BNP campaign. Over the winter months, the Anti-Nazi League encouraged local firefighters, civil servants and health workers to leaflet against the BNP. Church volunteers, overseen by Holtam, worked with the Association of Island Communities to make sure that accurate information about housing and where council funds were being spent was distributed among Isle of Dogs residents.
But they had competition: Every Saturday morning, BNP canvassers would work the Island’s estates, knocking on doors and telling white residents that Derek Beackon was available to fight their corner. Anti-fascist protesters had continued to picket council meetings that Beackon attended, and BNP canvassers would tell residents that he had been ‘banned’ from official buildings, but that he could make personal calls if they so desired. Among voters who had already hit out once at the political establishment by electing Beackon, this merely reinforced the perception that they were being ignored. As Chuck, an Isle of Dogs resident, told me, it felt ‘exactly the same as the Palestinian situation. You know, they all want democracy, they allow a democratic vote, then the wrong party gets in and nobody wants to work with them.’
It wasn’t until the spring of 1994 that the mainstream political parties began to campaign in earnest. The Lib Dems once more promoted a populist platform. The Tower Hamlets mayor, John Snooks, drew criticism from trade union leaders for ostentatiously displaying the Union Jack on his town hall desk. ‘When it becomes a crime to love your country, I’ll be the first to give myself up,’ he said in reply. ‘The only problem this borough faces is the cancer of the loony right and the loony left.’ In April, the Lib Dem-controlled council announced a ‘carnival’ parade through Tower Hamlets, intended to restore a sense of pride among inhabitants of the East End. Held on a hail-strewn, bitterly cold day, the parade was a nostalgic vision of pearly kings and queens, wooden-wheeled market stalls and horse-drawn traps – evoking a time, it might be noted, when London sat at the heart of a vast empire, and its colonial subjects remained for the most part overseas. Trailing behind the rest of the thirty-five carnival floats, at the very back of the parade, came the Bangladesh Welfare Association.
The same month, Labour unveiled a ‘manifesto’ for the Isle of Dogs. In the autumn of 1993, Frank Dobson, then shadow local government secretary, had been drafted in by the Labour leader John Smith to oversee the party’s campaign. Dobson was convinced that the BNP could be beaten by a rejuvenated Labour campaign. ‘The thing to remember about the BNP,’ he told me, ‘is that they’re not eagles, they’re vultures. If there’s dead meat – useless councillors, people not pulling their weight, then that’s where they succeed.’ Dobson and another Labour MP, Nick Raynsford, held meetings throughout the autumn of 1993 with Island residents to find out what their concerns were; the manifesto promised more investment in housing if Labour were to win back control of the council. As an ambitious young shadow minister named Tony Blair had told an anti-racist rally in East London just a few weeks previously, ‘We understand the problems are housing and jobs.’
As polling day drew closer, a wide range of community groups emerged to boost turnout and to make sure people felt they were not alone in opposing the BNP. Holtam’s church group distributed rainbow-coloured ribbons for people to wear. It was a small gesture, but as Holtam described it, the ribbons were ‘symbolic, a positive statement that said we want to be part of a multiracial community. It gave the sense that they [the BNP] were not necessarily going to win it.’ Syeda Choudhury’s mother joined a group named Women Against Racism and set about convincing her Bengali friends on the Isle of Dogs to register to vote. Formed in 1993 as a response to the BNP, Women Against Racism brought female campaigners together from many ethnicities – white, Somali, Chinese and Asian. But as Julie Begum, one of the group’s founders, explained, it drew on a strong tradition of anti-racist activism among East London’s Bengalis: ‘When our fathers and uncles and mothers arrived in the 60s, after the floods and the liberation war in Bangladesh, a lot of them were grateful for the refuge. Then in the 70s, there was an anger from young men who had grown up here, thinking, you know, we don’t have to be killed, just because we’re black. Since the 70s there’s been much more of a resistance to racism and in the 90s I think that was revisited. A lot of people felt that they needed to come together again to respond to that racism.’
Finally, under pressure from campaigners, the East London Advertiser revised its position on the BNP. In a front-page story the week of the local elections, Richard Tidiman urged his readers to ‘think about the consequences’ of voting for the party. If they were unsure, then he suggested ‘take a few hours off, go and see Schindler’s List’ before deciding.
On 5 May, Derek Beackon’s short reign was brought abruptly to an end. Labour swept the borough, wresting control of the council from the Lib Dems and winning all three seats in Millwall. But as Begum recalled it, this was less a party political victory than proof of what people could do by themselves: ‘What I remember the most is our solidarity, the meetings – the sisterhood, if you like – of all these different women. We used to meet in our front rooms, making banners, producing posters and leaflets. There was lots of activity, we lived that time with each other constantly, in each others’ houses, on the phone at demonstrations. It was exhausting, actually. And when we got the result, it was euphoric.’
Yet an uncomfortable truth remained. The BNP’s vote had actually increased; spreading out across Tower Hamlets and into the neighbouring borough of Newham. What sort of legacy would this dark period leave – for the Island; for Britain.
Summer 2011; I am sitting in on a pensioners’ lunch club at a community hall on the Barkantine estate. Outside is bright sunshine, but as the diners finish their meal of savoury mince with dumplings, I am struck by the fact that the room’s lights are on full. The housing association that now manages the estate has been selling off land to property speculators, who have erected a block of flats on what used to be the hall’s back garden, blocking out any natural light. Now, they want to knock down the adjoining church. ‘They said we could use a room on the second floor as a church,’ Rita Bensley, lunch club organizer and a veteran Isle of Dogs community activist, tells me. ‘I said, have you even checked to see if a coffin will fit in the lift? They hadn’t.’ Space, as ever, is at a premium on the Island.
After the plates are cleared, two of the group, Mary and Donna, settle down in a corner of the room with mugs of tea. I ask Mary how long she’s lived here. ‘I was born on the Island,’ she says, ‘and it got such a pounding in the war that my mum moved out to Stepney. But I moved back when I got married. In them days the Island was an “in” place to live – they were building all these new flats. I live on the twentieth floor and I’ve got a beautiful view. But now people can’t get homes for their kids. It’s not fair. I don’t want to be called racist.’
‘I think they should abolish that word, racist,’ Donna interjects, fiercely. ‘It’s spot the white when you go down there –,’ she gestures towards the other end of Barkantine. ‘My grandson, his mum sent him to a lovely private school, but then they ran out of money and they sent him to the state primary here. Very mixed. His whole nature has changed. The way he talks, his attitude. He’d never have dreamed of that before.’ Mary nods. ‘It might be a good school but it’s not for our children.’ She gives me a conspiratorial grin. ‘It’s like we’ve been invaded, only not with guns.’ After all this time, I ask, haven’t people learned to mix? ‘Well,’ she replies. ‘They never talk to us.’