One thing it did show up is a problem that I've been concerned about for a while.
We all know that the BNP attracts support from the far-right fascists who have had nowhere else to go to raise their objections to non-white residents in the UK and have secret yearnings to wear armbands and salute their Fuhrer. One of the main aims of Nick Griffin has been to try and hide this side of the party and create a more voter friendly image in the hope of pursuing more middle-class voters.
The party's key and overriding aim is to establish deep and strong roots within our local communities... We must create a widely spread support base from which we can act as the true leaders of the communities in which we live and operate.Nasty Nick believes that the BNP's time will come, that a national emergency will arise and the British people will speak as one, declaring that the BNP is the answer to the immediate crisis. Although I fail to understand to what crisis this little lot could possibly provide any kind of coherent response. To be honest, that fantasy from Griffin isn't what concerns me - they are making genuine inroads into a handful of what should be solid Labour strongholds.
A matter of persistent debate is how to tackle the BNP - do we ignore them or engage them? The danger is that we give the BNP credibility - you don't do that for any other political opponent, so why do it with the BNP? Margaret Hodge was right in what she said, but politically naive to say it in so public a forum
The Labour Party hasn't talked to these people. This is a traditional Labour area but they are not used to engaging with us because all we do is put leaflets through doors. Part of the reason they switch to the BNP is they feel no one else is listening to them.In many of the outer ring of white, working-class wards in Birmingham, the BNP and their like are getting reasonable returns. Looking at a like-for-like comparison of the 2004 local elections and 2006 shows that where the BNP ran candidates in 2004, they increased their vote by around 4% across all wards, with particularly strong growth in Kingstanding (34%) and Shard End (35%), although they also experienced some setbacks in places like Hodge Hill (-21%), Kings Norton (-15%), Sheldon (-13%) and Stechford (-17%). Given that they have apparently reorganised their Birmingham operations into North, East and South branches, it will be interesting to see whether they can improve their position further and pose a genuine threat to the established parties. They are closest in numerical terms to Labour in Tyburn (746 vote difference), Shard End (696), Oscott (470) and Kingstanding (565), while they are 973 votes behind the Tories in Longbridge.
My belief is that we don't give the BNP the oxygen of publicity by attacking them on a broad front and talking them up, but deal with them on a ward-by-ward basis. While some people vote BNP because they don't like people who happen to have different coloured skin, more people are heading that way for precisely the reasons that Margaret Hodge identified.
Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham, tells a story about three tower blocks where data collected over several elections showed that no one ever voted. As a consequence, the Westminster parties never sent anyone there. BNP activists knocked on every single door and the residents, long neglected by the mainstream politicians, turned out in force for the party.We urgently need to stem the outflow of Labour members, because those are vital parts of the organisation needed in every ward to put a proper campaign into place. That's one of the major challenges facing the next Labour leadership team. Dealing with it requires strong local involvement and people prepared to do the work involved in supporting communities that feel disadvantaged and provide fertile ground for the lies spread by the BNP. There's no rocket science involved - just good, honest casework, visibility and dealing in facts. Even in wards where we aren't going to win, we need to provide opposition, because if we don't, the BNP will, no matter how incompetent their councillors prove to be.
Don't panic, the BNP aren't close to breaking through in Birmingham - they don't have the resources and seem to spend more time fighting amongst themselves than campaigning on genuine local issues. Like them, we need to be prepared to deal with the direct threat in a few target wards, but we also need to bear those lessons in mind in other wards. Just because there isn't an active presence today doesn't mean that there won't be tomorrow.