According to two out of the three versions I’ve seen so far of yesterday’s by-election result in Moston, the votes went like this:
It’s a strong result for Labour, reflecting a strong, enthusiastic and very well-organised campaign; and the extent of the Tories’ humiliation is entertaining. (Cllr Lindley says he knows where they went wrong, but he didn’t want to share.) However, it is deeply disturbing that the British National Party polled around 23% of the vote despite a campaign by Unite Against Fascism to remind people what a nasty organisation they are.
It’s important not to exaggerate what the BNP vote means. They didn’t come near to winning this seat, and in a regular election they wouldn’t be able to dedicate anywhere near the time and resources they did in this by-election. Plus they seem to have taken a lot of votes away from the Tories, so maybe some of their votes were protests against local and national Conservative uselessness. But how can we stop the BNP vote from creeping up?
It has been suggested that UAF and Labour may inadvertently have contributed to the problem by drawing attention to the BNP. But the idea of going into an election against a fascist organisation without fighting them all the way, and exposing them for who they are, would be unthinkable for any active campaigning organisation. While the BNP are doing their best impersonation of a legitimate political party it is essential that voters are reminded of this party’s racism and their homophobia, not to mention their incompetence.
At the same time, however, it’s vital to address the issues that drive voters to consider voting BNP in the first place. The BNP leaflets focused primarily on the housing shortage in many parts of the ward, and this was something I heard a lot about on the doorstep.
I only managed to get involved in Moston in the last six days of the campaign, but in that time I was fortunate enough to observe the enthusiasm and dedication of Manchester Labour’s councillors and activists. On Sunday I knocked doors with Cllr Mary Murphy and Labour’s Gorton South candidate Julie Reid – possibly the best campaign team to face vocal residents over the garden fences of Moston. When a concerned grandmother complained to us about the young men on who race up and down her street on quad-bikes, endangering young children, Mary and Julie took down her details and promised to get the local councillors onto it – ‘we’ll pass this on to Rita, but she can only do something about it if you vote for her’. But the opportunity to get tough on crime came sooner than expected, when two of the famous bikes roared up behind us, scattering children before them, as we carried on up the street. Cllr Murphy snapped the bikes on her camera-phone, Julie took down their registration numbers, and then they called the police (I, meanwhile, was hiding in a hedge).
Said grandmother also raised concerns about her daughter’s inability to get a council house, insisting that all the houses in the area were going to ‘the blacks’. Mary and Julie refused to engage with the casual racism but took down the daughter’s details as well; and as we walked away we discussed the housing issue.
Whatever the BNP will try to tell voters, you obviously don’t get to the top of the housing list by being an immigrant, an asylum seeker or a member of an ethnic minority. You do, however, get to the top of the list if you’re homeless – whatever your colour, and however long you’ve been in the country – which leaves a lot of young families on the list for years on end while their parents continue to put them up, often in overcrowded conditions.
In fact, the very next voter we spoke to was another grandmother-to-be, whose 21-year-old daughter was expecting a baby any minute but was still sharing a bedroom with her younger brother. “I’m not racist,” she insisted, “and when the BNP put a leaflet through I put it straight in the bin.” (I’m sure she meant the recycling bin.) “But when you see houses going straight to people who’ve only just come into the country it does make you frustrated.”
It’s obvious that the BNP’s scapegoating is not the answer. Moston’s election result – a clear win for Labour – surely shows that voters realise this too. The answer, of course, is partly in raising young people’s aspirations beyond wanting a council house on the same estate as their parents and their grandparents; but with the current threat of repossession hanging over so many homeowners and private tenants, I believe the answer also lies in building more council homes.
The way to deal with the housing shortage isn’t obvious. But some things are. One is that voters need to reject the BNP’s lies. Another is that we have a lot of work ahead, as ever, to help them do so. But a third – and still the strongest message coming from the Moston result – is that Labour is still the party trusted by the vast majority of Manchester voters to get things done; and I am very pleased to have had a tiny part in an election that has demonstrated this once again.