In February 2009, I was given the heave-ho from Barclays Wealth. It was very hard to take indeed. I was given 3 months gardening leave and in that time I did three things:
- I interned for a couple of weeks at Rushanara Ali’s campaign office (who went on to become MP for Bethnal Green and Bow in the 2010 elections). (To this day, I have no idea what possessed me to do this but it definitely led on to the next thing which was one of the most fruitful decisions of my life to date…)
- I joined a programme called UpRising, a project of The Young Foundation and;
- I found a job as a Policy Officer at Redbridge Council
It was through the UpRising programme that I wrote my first article for The Guardian. We went for a visit to their offices and I followed up with a conversation with the Editor of Comment is Free. She was fantastic and agreed to read my article. Luckily for me, she liked it enough to want to publish it and sure enough, 553 comments later, my first proper foray into writing was a definite success and gave me the writing bug.
I’ve posted it below for your reading pleasure – let me know what you think!
You can find the original article by clicking here
I’m normally quite quick-witted. It’s the only way I can deal with the trials and tribulations of being overweight and overenthusiastic about the most mundane things (like writing with a mechanical pencil, because it’s cool). But last year, I was disappointed with my response of “Good observation!” to a group of white youths who took it upon themselves to identify me with their middle finger and wails of “Paki!” At first, I looked round to see who they were talking to. Realising it was me (because the only other person on the road was another young white lad who seemed as shocked as I was surprised), I retorted with the aforementioned comment, and later found myself wondering why people complain about the burka being detrimental to integration when these boys had their heads wrapped in hoodies so tight it’s a wonder their brains ever get any oxygen. Then I parked the incident in the “not so fun” part of my brain.
A few months later, I received a call from my mother that would change my perspective on that particular event. After dropping my brother off to school in Dagenham, four boys confronted her, informed her that she was a “Paki” and advised her to leave the country. Mum had some advice of her own: “Go to school or get a job and leave me alone.” Cue pushing (“I felt like a pinball”), until two strapping black men stepped out of a car and chased the boys away.
It was the first time in over 30 years that my mum was racially abused and, for me, the first time ever.
I moved to Chadwell Heath in Barking and Dagenham – where 12 of the 51 councillors are from the BNP – 10 years ago, only a mile away from the West Ham Utd training ground, and my brother attends one of the most improved schools in the country. My local amenities include a newsagent owned by a Sri Lankan, a Bangladeshi restaurant, a cafe and “chippy” owned by a Turkish family, Pakistani dry cleaners and a closed-down Woolworths. Despite this, Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, will be standing for election in a ward in the south of the borough at the general election.
Incidents such as those above are few and far between where I live, but they are reportedly steadily increasing across BNP strongholds. And it is this steady increase that is worrying me.
I don’t think it’s a case of people’s eyesight improving and suddenly realising that there are people in this country who are “different” to them. Nor do I think that the BNP are gaining more power among the people (they earned fewer votes in June 2009 than last time round). In fact, speaking to local government colleagues, BNP councillors seem to have very little influence in the committee rooms of local authorities.
Rather, the BNP have been tactically astute in striking when the iron is hot and have invented a new game – politics by immigrant numbers. Your odds of getting a job, that council house, hospital treatment or your children getting a fair amount of attention from their teachers are better if there are fewer people going for that job or council house and fewer children for the teachers to contend with. It’s a simple argument, but an effective one, playing on the concerns of some residents. So long as these key issues – around employment, social housing, and education – remain unaddressed by those in power who can effect change, particularly at the local level, the BNP will have a bouncy castle of a platform. Unplug the castle and the whole thing just deflates.
That’s not to say there are no racist people out there. Of course there are – but in modern Britain where everyone has a voice, there is little space for overt racism. I would argue that it is their political apathy, rather than their racism, that should be the focus of our concerns. For these youths, however racist, are voters of the future. Their political apathy is of no use to anyone – the few discontented who do vote will only push the share of the BNP vote up, as was the case last year.
Local councils have an important role to play in working with local partners and central government to identify ways in which to encourage disaffected communities to engage with society. But its most important role is transparency and communication. Central government has stepped into the domain of transparency with their recent launch ofdata.gov.uk, but at the local level this means very little, especially in a borough where residents are unlikely to use the internet to interrogate government data. Residents want simple questions answered: Will I get a house? Will I have a job? Will my child do alright in school? Is my situation the fault of immigrants? What separates the BNP from other parties is that they seem happy to do the groundwork to answer those questions – no matter how fabricated their answers may be – and, in the absence of an alternative, residents accept what they are presented with.
Fascism has its roots in movements where members feel like they and “their people” are victims. Right now, in Barking and Dagenham, there are a lot of people who are being told they are victims.
After the article was published, I received a call from someone purporting to be a member of staff from The Guardian wanting my bank account details to arrange payment. I’d watched enough Fonejacker to know that this was clearly illegal. So I called the Editor reporting the incident who patiently advised me that I was in fact getting paid. Cue embarrassment but also joy – I’d been paid to write some words!!! I suppose, by definition, this made me a writer…