Page last updated at 15:21 GMT, Thursday, 14 January 2010

Labour battles the BNP on class and race

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

They can't say they weren't warned.

BNP rosette
Labour is concerned about the rise of the BNP in its heartlands

When Labour came to power in 1997, there was no shortage of voices - including the then leader of the British National Party John Tyndall - saying that if they neglected the concerns of their traditional supporters, the far right would benefit.

At the time the BNP, which had only recently abandoned marches and street confrontations and begun trying to project a more respectable image, had dwindled to around 1,000 members and was struggling to gain enough Parliamentary candidates to qualify for a party election broadcast.

Twelve years later, the whites-only party has dozens of local councillors, two seats in the European Parliament and claims to have about 13,500 members.

The growth of the BNP presents a challenge to all of the mainstream parties in Britain - but it is a particular problem for Labour, who fear so much of its support is drawn from former Labour voters.

The government has responded by attempting to re-open lines of communication with a group of people that would once have been seen as its core constituency - the "white working class".

In a radical change of tone for a Labour minister, Communities Secretary John Denham has said that being black or Asian in the UK no longer means you will be automatically disadvantaged - and that the needs of white working class communities must also be addressed.

Equality Bill

Summing up the new approach, which is set out in a 50 page "statement on race", Mr Denham says: "If the cause of disadvantage is social class, we will promote opportunity. And if the cause is a combination of racism and social class we will tackle both together."

John Denham
We would be doing what I am doing today if the BNP didn't exist
John Denham, communities secretary

By stressing the "working class" in "white working class", Mr Denham is clearly hoping to focus on the factors that can bind communities together rather than those that might be used to divide them.

The new Equality Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, which will force local authorities and government departments to make narrowing the gap between rich and poor a policy objective, in addition to ensuring racial and gender equality, is seen by him as being key to this.

But it is hard to escape from the thought that the government's attempts to rediscover its working class roots are nothing more than a hastily assembled response to the BNP's recent electoral successes.

"We would be doing what I am doing today if the BNP didn't exist," says Mr Denham.

"But... the rise of the BNP - propagating the idea that minorities get special treatment, that white working class people are being neglected - is something we have to respond to."

At the end of last year, Mr Denham launched a £12m fund to fight "far right extremism" in 130 deprived areas around the country.

'Buying votes'

With a general election looming, he was careful to stress that it was not "about government combating the BNP. That is for political parties, not the state".

But the BNP, predictably, smelled a rat.

Are Labour acknowledging that after years of being in power they have so smashed communities that they are having to start all over again?
BNP spokesman

"They are bribing the electorate into voting Labour instead of us - it is buying votes," a spokesman told the BBC.

Many of the 27 local authority wards receiving cash in the first wave of Connecting Communities are ones where the BNP either has councillors or has done well in recent elections.

But Mr Denham's office says this is "hardly surprising" given the socio-economic criteria used in selecting them - and that the BNP's electoral performance had nothing to do with allocating funds.

The Department of Communities Local Government has also told local authorities they "must be careful to guard against training being used for political or divisive ends," although it seems unlikely that any of the £2m earmarked to train local councillors to have the "confidence to address local issues head on" will be spent on BNP representatives.

'Racist extremism'

In some Connecting Communities areas, groups of between five and eight local people are being selected to be trained as "community champions" to "challenge services and hold them to account" and "help lead wider local engagement activity".

The DCLG denies that they will be trained up to take on the BNP specifically.

A spokeswoman said: "What Connecting Communities is about is addressing the concerns of traditional working class communities - which if left neglected can prove fertile territory for far right or racist extremism."

It has become increasingly difficult to talk about class in debate about policy
DCLG report

But the BNP has been quick to exploit the government's apparent discomfort on this issue.

A spokesman said: "We already have community champions in the form of elected BNP officials.

"Are Labour acknowledging that after years of being in power they have so smashed communities that they are having to start all over again?"

In fact, Labour believes it has a strong story to tell on tackling poverty and social exclusion. It is proud of programmes such as Sure Start and the Future Jobs Fund, which it believes have transformed many deprived areas.

But for a party that was founded to fight for working class rights, there is also a sense that Labour has forgotten how to talk about class.

A January 2009 report for the DCLG, which helped lay the foundations for Connecting Communities, acknowledged that the word "class" had virtually disappeared from British politics: "It has become increasingly difficult to talk about class in debate about policy, as the language of 'social exclusion' and 'disadvantage' have come to occupy the space that it held a generation ago."

And yet "people in this research seemed happy to refer, unprompted, to themselves and communities as 'working class' and the concerns they focused on are seen through a set of experiences that are clearly marked by class".

Dramatic shift

Mr Denham, who since becoming communities secretary last summer is doing his best to reclaim class for Labour, warned in a speech last October that "class still matters in Britain and the politics of identity ignores it at its peril".

In Thursday's Statement on Race document, he makes it clear that there will be no let up in the government's efforts to combat discrimination against members of ethnic minorities.

But the document also stresses that "focusing solely on someone's race or ethnic background to explain their achievements or opportunities is far too simple".

It says "there has been a renewed recognition of the importance of class", arguing that in schools, for example, "there are greater similarities between black and white children from working class families than between working class and middle class children from the same ethnic group".

This new reality means the government must adopt a "much broader approach" to tackling inequality than it has in the past, with all arms of government making it a priority, the document argues - but at the same time it must not be seen to be favouring one ethnic group over another.

It is, as Mr Denham says, a complex challenge - it is also one which marks a dramatic shift of emphasis from Labour's 'classless' politics of recent years.

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