The Battle for Barking: good television – bad politics

by Dan Hodges

The Battle for Barking, broadcast on More4 earlier this week, made for compelling viewing. Award-winning documentary maker, Laura Fairrie, spent a year “embedded” with the Margaret Hodge and BNP campaigns as they fought house by house, street by street, for control of the constituency and the council.

I was in Barking for part of that campaign as well. My job was to manage the press on behalf of Hope not Hate. I spent some of that time dealing with Laura Fairrie.

She’s a talented documentary maker. And a brave one. At best, the BNP are instinctively suspicious and hostile towards the media. At their worst, they turn violent.

Laura Fairrie didn’t infiltrate them as such. She wasn’t filming under cover. What she did was much harder. She got them to accept her. Then trust her. By then end, they had come to like her. There’s a telling moment at Griffin’s campaign launch when the BNP’s Bob Bailey asks for questions, and says, “Let’s start with Laura”. It’s said with undisguised affection. “They’ve had such terrible experiences with the media and film makers”, Laura told the Guardian.

Her relationship with our campaign was more tricky. She approached us relatively late in the election. By then her primary relationships had been established. She was wary of compromising her standing with the BNP.

One day we took her out to do some leafleting with Billy Bragg near to the home of BNP councilor Richard Barnbrook. Barnbrook appeared. There was a confrontation. It actually made for great television. But I could sense at the time that Laura was nervous.

She phoned me afterwards. “I’m going to have to be careful. Richard Barnbrook’s been on to me. They think I set them up. They think I deliberately brought you round”.

We didn’t see much of Laura Fairrie after that. Until the day of the count at Barking and Dagenham council. The BNP were defeated in every seat they stood. Laura was there recording the moment. I saw her approach one of their activists. He appeared too upset to speak. Inconsolable. Laura spoke softly to him. He recovered his composure. Talked to her camera.

Last week I got a call from Laura. She was inviting me to her premier. She also wanted to warn me that Hope not Hate had been edited out of the programme. “I wanted to emphasise the local nature of the campaign. You did a lot of work. But most of your guys weren’t local”.

True enough. Over the course of the election over 1,200 activists from around the country came to Barking and Dagenham. 500 on one campaign day alone. More than 320,000 leaflets were delivered. But they didn’t make Laura’s cut.

The documentary was a great success. Laura appeared on the Today programme on Monday with Margaret Hodge. She had, she said, wanted to make a balanced programme. Give both sides of the argument.

I’m all for balance. Especially in a documentary. I like to make up my own mind. I resent being steered, however elegantly, to a conclusion.

But when it comes to the BNP, what I have got a problem with is moral equivalence. I wouldn’t claim to share Margaret Hodge’s politics. I’m uncomfortable with some of the positions she’s adopted over the years as she’s come to appreciate, and tried to counter, the growing BNP threat. Her comment that 8 out 10 white residents were considering voting BNP before the 2006 local elections was foolish, and boosted them at a vital time.

But she is a life long campaigner for, and representative of, a democratic, mainstream, progressive political party. Nick Griffin is a racist, a Holocaust denier, an admirer of Hitler’s SS and leader of a political party that seeks to select its membership on the basis of their skin colour. It may inconvenience the dramatic narrative, but Margaret Hodge and Nick Griffin are not opposite sides of the same coin. “It was quite strange to be with both sides when they both hated each other so much”, said Laura, “Both sides had such terrible things to say about one another”.

Another key part of the documentary was the humanising of the BNP. Sponge cake seemed to have a key role in this process. “Griffin himself, the BNP’s candidate in Barking, comes across as something of a loner. Perhaps unintentionally, Fairrie is constantly filming him eating. Usually he is eating alone, his plate piled high with comfort food. The image is more Billy Bunter than Oswald Mosley” as Jackie Ashley wrote in the Guardian.

Billy Bunter? I don’t remember the comic public school anti-hero ever advocating the defence of white Britain with “well-directed boots and fists”. Or recall that memorable episode “Billy and chums are sentenced to nine months for distributing material likely to incite racial hatred”.

“You can learn a lot more about people if you don’t just go in and dismiss them as evil nazi monsters”, Laura explained in her pre-publicity. I’m sure you can. But he is an evil Nazi monster. Any documentary that loses sight of that fact, or allows others to lose sight of it behind the Battenburg, isn’t doing its job.

Do not mistake me. Laura Fairrie did not set out to promote the BNP. The Battle for Barking is not a PR puff . It exposes their racism and, at times, their cruelty. The moment one of Griffin’s henchman shouts at Margaret Hodge to “go back to Germany” is surprisingly shocking even to those of us who have experienced the BNP first hand.

But there are some things the documentary didn’t show. It didn’t show where the politics of the BNP ultimately lead.

Laura Fairrie’s camera wasn’t there the night Stephen Lawrence had a knife rammed into his rib cage. She wasn’t outside the Admiral Duncan pub when BNP activist David Copeland’s nail bomb exploded, killing Andrea Dykes, four months pregnant, Nick Moore and John Light.

The reality of the world of the BNP is not one of cream cakes and lonely, harmless patriots. It’s shit through letterboxes, intimidating graffiti daubed on walls, raw brutality in dark alleyways. All, of course, when the documentary maker’s camera is turned off.

Yes, the rise of the BNP is politically complex and challenging. Yes, we have to understand as well as condemn. But condemn we must. Vigorously and clearly. We don’t all have Laura’s luxury of neutral observation. Not if we want to keep the fascists and their fellow travelers at bay.

And that is actually the greatest failing of The Battle for Barking. “I wanted to show why people were turning to the BNP”, Laura said when outlining the context for her programme. She may have succeeded in highlighting the motivation of the minority who did vote for Griffin.

What she failed to explain was why the vast majority of people turned their back on him.

And they did. In the general election; in the local elections. The BNP were crushed. Utterly, comprehensively destroyed. Black, white, young, old, in Barking, in Stoke, in Burnley, in Birmingham. They rejected Nick Griffin. And Laura Fairrie’s film can’t explain why.

There’s another film. It’s on YouTube. You may have to hunt for it. It won’t win awards. It won’t ever appear on Channel 4. It shows the moment at the Barking and Dagenham council count when Nick Griffin and Nick Lowles, director of Hope not Hate, came face to face for the first time. “We drove you out”, taunts Lowles, in a wonderful moment of catharsis.

He did. But in the modern media age, history is not always written by the victor.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut, and still works as a consultant to Hope not Hate.

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15 Responses to “The Battle for Barking: good television – bad politics”

  1. Mike Homfray says:

    So, so wrong, as ever.

    It was because of the lack of hyperbole and the fact that the BNP were allowed to hang themselves in the documentary that it was so powerful.

    As for Margaret Hodge, she is a first class MP who recognised that it was actually the policies of the last Labour government, particularly in terms of housing, which had failed, and she also managed to successfully mobilise a huge number of people.

    What you are really miffed about is that Hope not hate wasn’t given the credit. Oh, and David Miliband lost the party leadership. Bitter, bitter….

  2. Dan Hodges says:


    I’ve been writing for Uncut for about 5 months now and yours is the most moronic response to one of my articles I’ve seen to date.


  3. William Campbell says:

    Of course it didn’t seek to explain where the BNP’s policies went. It wasn’t a party political broadcast against the BNP. It would never have been screened if it had been. It was, as Mike says above, a documentary which was even more powerful because it allowed the BNP to hang themselves.

    It also put the case of some people who were not ‘evil Nazis’ but who felt let down by ‘normal’ politicians. What the film left me with was a sense that, while the BNP might have been ‘utterly destroyed’, as you say, the symptoms which led them to have 12 councillors, remain.

    The BNP have not been running London and Barking for the past few years – Labour have been, broadly speaking, at a city, council and national level. Labour has real questions to ask itself – and while ‘smash the BNP’ makes people feel good, unless the root causes are removed – poverty, dislocation of the local party from the community, and remote elite politicians – we will be going through this all again in 5 or 10 years time.

  4. Jared Gaites says:

    New Labour needed a good kick up the arse Dan, and you don’t put your slippers on when you want to do it. The fact that nearly everyone deserted the BNP when it came to the crunch only restores my faith in my own idea that nobody really wanted Nick as their PM. Emotive language being used here though suggests that lessons have not been learnt. Its very simple to bring the very worse out in people and New Labour seemed to be adept.

    I have just joined the Labour Party now it looks as though it is going to start listening, which is all that will be required to put the BNP back in it’s box. Give the people something to hope for and the hatred will melt away. Continue to ignore them and turn up with name-calling placards, chanting and frothing at the mouth, and expect much of the same.

  5. Jane says:

    I watched the documentary having read the review in the Guardian. I thought it was excellent and although it tried to humanise the BNP – it did not succeed. Too often loose language from their activists showed up their ghastliness. The documentary did succeed in showing me why people in the area were turning to the BNP. Housing seemed to be of great concern and I felt sorry for those housed in tower blocks with young children. It also seemed to be a pressing concern with constituents who lived in hope that their MP could help them with housing issues.

    I was left with the view that Margaret Hodge is a decent woman. I was struck by how kind she was to those around her and I shed a tear when she described the loneliness she was experiencing on the loss of her husband. I compared this to the last documentary I watched on Peter Mandelson (I admire him tremendously) but not his demeaning treatment of staff in expecting his yoghurt pot to be taken from him!

    What came over besides the odious characters of the BNP members was the excellent local campaign which was focussed and delivered the desired result. The energy and commitment of those around Margaret Hodge was inspiring and they most certainly deserved the reward of demolishing the BNP.

  6. Dan Hodges says:


    “Of course it didn’t seek to explain where the BNP’s policies went. It wasn’t a party political broadcast against the BNP”.

    It doesn’t require a party politcial broadcast to expose the human and social consequences of the BNPs agenda of division and hate. A year long documentary on Nick Griffin and his acolytes should at least have illustrated where the BNP’s agenda leads, as well as focussing on what it is that attracts people to the BNP.

    Party political broadcasts are politically partisan. I don’t believe it’s partisan to say the BNP are a racist, violent, divisive organisation. That’s a statement of fact.

    Smashing the BNP does make me feel good. It should make you feel good to.


  7. I really have to agree with the other commentators here – it was precisely by giving the BNP every fair chance to humanise themselves that their position was demolished so thoroughly. By the end of the film, I knew exactly why they’d lost – the more people saw of them, and heard from them, the less they liked them.

    In regards to your specific criticisms about violence, actually one of the pivotal moments of the documentary for me (alongside the ‘go back to Germany’ taunt you highlighted already) was the moment when one on Griffens campaign managers transforms before our eyes from 3rd rate political operator to street thug, clearly returning to his comfort zone in the face of a world he does not understand and cannot control.

    Your point that the absence of hope not hate from the film means that the doc is necessarily an incomplete picture is, of course correct, and a legitimate grievance – I would have been fascinated to see what the inside of that campaign loos like, and it would have been a fascinating counterbalance to the BNP campaign. It’s a shame it wasn’t covered, but I have to say I understand the film-makers logic: If she can’t cover both groups, given the BNP’s legendary secrecy and paranoia, any red blooded journo has to take that assignment. I also think it’s more in the public interest to cover a failed fascist election campaign than a successful anti fascist one, though I accept she could not have known that would be the outcome when she started filming.

    I think more should have been done within the film to acknowledge the incompleteness of the story, and the reason for that, but I still think it remains a valuable piece of filmmaking, and a salutatory reminder that we demonise the BNP at our peril – their terrible, horrible failings are all too human, and we must never forget that. It is, ultimately, how we will beat them, after all.

  8. Dan Hodges says:


    You don’t put your slippers on when you’re fighting the BNP either.


  9. Dan Hodges says:


    As I said, I don’t share Margaret’s politics, but she won my respect in that campaign.

    The documentary only scratched the surface of the abuse she had to endure at the hands of Griffin and his followers.


  10. Dagenham Dave says:

    Although insightful on a number of levels and compelling on many others, Laura Fairrie’s effort ultimately fails to grasp that there was in fact a campaign that defeated the BNP.

    Indeed, it fails to grasp that there were a number of campaigns, and that these took part in sweaty meetings, late at night and on Saturday and Sunday mornings when the rest of the world was counting down to when David Cameron would become Prime Minister.

    But it’s important to recognise that some campaigns were more effective than others. This is not of course the subject of an entertaining documentary, but it might hold us in better stead against an intransigent and continuing threat from extremists and their ilk.

    For starters.

    The failure of the anti-facist league to unite rather than divide in the face of the BNP is one of the great untold stories of the documentary. A comparison with the same movement in 1930s would be interesting.

    And if the lid was taken off, Hope Not Hate’s glaring error was in targeting its efforts in wards in Dagenham that did not fall into the Barking constituency where 11 BNP councillors had been elected in 2006 (only 1 in Dagenham) at the same time as writing off wards in Barking.

    And not to change this strategy – or hardly at all – after Nick Griffin announced he was standing in Barking last November told another tale the film could have included.

    Fortunately the wards at the centre of the Becontree Estate were not given up so easily by others.

    To its credit, some time between 2006 and 2009, Hope Not Hate did recognise that by inference labelling voters racist for supporting the BNP was a road to nowhere. Many people who will have seen the film now will implicitly recognise the wisdom of this. Five years ago, the point had to be argued.

    If Hope Not Hate’s literature did become more effective I doubt it was delivered in the quantities suggested. 100 promised activists tended to translate into 20 on a day of action one Saturday afternoon that had been put aside for Barking.

    There were however other applaudable levels of campaigning such as targetting residents more directly and effectively. Hope Not Hate’s intelligence on the BNP, its rantings and crazy ravings completely alien to most decent people, were valuable too.

    And Hope not Hate’s continued interest in helping the area, which predated both the 2006 and 2010 elections is something to note.

    Clearly, the defeat of the BNP in Barking & Dagenham was no one person or one organisation’s single success. It certainly wasn’t Hope Not Hate’s.

    Ultimately, it came down to Labour’s ability to re-engage, have something to offer, respond not ignore or take for granted the area and its people purposefully led by Margaret Hodge and her new and diverse team that led to the BNP’s demise.

    On the day, the BNP were completely wiped out in Barking & Dagenham and did badly elsewhere because Gordon Brown called a General Election on the same day as the local elections and more Labour voters went to the polls as a result.

    The film does not offer any explanation of this or the BNP’s enduring appeal in the area which is an unfortunate and glaring omission only now being addressed by the film maker in post-screen interviews.

    The war was won but winning the peace will be a less glamorous and conspicuous task, especially in the wasteland that will be created by the Coalition Government’s policies.

  11. Dan Hodges says:


    “I think more should have been done within the film to acknowledge the incompleteness of the story, and the reason for that, but I still think it remains a valuable piece of filmmaking”

    I agree with that. I think the documentary is valuable, but flawed, and it’s important those flaws are recognised.

    “and a salutatory reminder that we demonise the BNP at our peril”

    I don’t agree with that. I believe we stop demonising racist, violent, extremists at our peril.


  12. Dan Hodges says:


    I agree with a lot of this. The defeat of the BNP was a collective effort, and that simply wasn’t captured in the film.

    I’m not sure what day of action you’re referring to, but I was on hand when over 500 people went out on a single Saturday. Sadly, the evidence for that is laying on Channel 4’s cutting room floor.

    Who did or didn’t get featured though is secondary. My main issue, as I said, is that by focussing on the ‘human’ side of the BNP, the documentary failed to adequately reflect their collective impact on communities and individuals.

    I agree with you about the counter-productive nature of simply labelling BNP voters racist. But that doesn’t extend to the party, or its officers, themselves. They are racists. They are extremists. They do practice violence and intimidation.

    We need to remind people of that. Constantly.


  13. Bill says:

    Ultimately quite a poor piece of filmmaking I thought and a really wasted opportunity given the length of the piece. I understand the theory behind this kind of documentary format but to give such a partial account with no analaysis or historical perspective made for boring and actually quite misleading watching.

    If you are of the opinion (as I am) that the BNP are (or maybe ‘were’ is the better tense) a dangerous bunch of fascists to be stopped in any way possible then you would find much to back up your feelings, albeit nothing new. But BNP supporters found much to support their viewpoint too and have not been unsympathetic to the film! ANY objective background information about the BNP’s history, policies, aims and objectives would have put their on-screen antics in a much different light – one that might have encouraged soft-core BNP support to question their allegiance.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the point above that the film failed to depict any campaigning beyond Hodge’s inner circle and in doing so created the impression that the BNP were defeated almost by some natural process whereby good will ultimately triumph over evil. This is patently not the case – organisation and campaigning is always vital in overturning fascist threat and the film and its audience ignore that at their peril. Come on Laura – not a single mention of Hope Not Hate!!!!! Apart from when Prescott stole the slogan!!!! And I would say to Dagenham Dave that my involvement in the effort to oust the Nazis was entirely sparked and facilitated by Hope Not Hate – I never heard a word from the Labour party about it, as I never do on any issues that really matter.

    Sorry, poor show – must do better next time.

  14. Sam says:

    1) Hope Not Hate were and are irrelevant; UAF too. Nobody in the history of the world has ever taken seriously groups who only want to tell you who NOT to vote for. Stop going on about it.

    2) The BNP were routed because nobody really wants to vote for bigoted lunatics, who as many have pointed out already “hung” themselves in the documentary, precisely because the filmmaker was intelligent enough to simply stick a camera in their face and let them show you how crazy they really are. What makes for a more revealing documentary: a filmmaker telling you the BNP are horrible or Nick Griffin stuffing his fat face and demonstrating exactly what a filthy human being he is?

    3) The BEST thing about this documentary was that it didn’t just show the BNP for what they are. It showed exactly why they are able to pick up the odd vote in Barking, and why people there are so angry. How? Because it showed the repugnant, morally bankrupt and out of touch methods of Margaret Hodge, MP. I was SICKENED to hear a Labour MP say the following:

    “When people talk about housing, that’s code for immigration.”

    Great. I suppose when people talk about healthcare, that’s code for eugenics is it? Dagenham Dave, I really don’t see this as evidence of Labour connecting with the grass roots. Especially not when the candidate is wandering around a building site for a photo op in £500 Jimmy Choo shoes. Keir Hardie would be spinning in his grave.

    In conclusion, I thought the documentary was one of the best in years. Laura Fairrie deserves credit for allowing both parties to reveal their own nature; the BNP as violent, rascist and frankly damaged individuals, and Hodge as an out of touch opportunist.

  15. Bill says:

    Response to Sam:

    Point 1 – is simply stupid.

    Point 2 – is self-evidently inaccurate – voters do not operate in some kind of vacuum and are obviously influenced by the activity going on around them – if this were not so then why did so many more vote for the bigotted lunatics in previous elections? And, equally, why have we got the current gov too I guess…

    Point 3 – Hmmm, well, you do have a point, still a crap film though…

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