Election: the BNP, their supporters and their opposition

Some scattered circumstances, events and situations which seem to have something to do with each other.

I read an academic paper on the BNP (Bowyer, 2008) which addressed the question of support. I hope to read more – good academic papers offer a questioning and dispassionate analysis which I massively value.

Just one of many attacks on Muslim property – Eccles Mosque, April 16th.

My trade union, the University and College Union or UCU, opts to commemorate the Holocaust with a “wall chart” which limits its ambition to a blow-by-blow account of the Holocaust, providing no tools or prompts through which readers are encouraged and enabled to investigate our current circumstances today. The wall chart is a kind of badge, a reaffirmation of credentials, a posturing. It explains nothing.

I live in a short road of English, Africans, Jews, Indians. Not far away is the Hainault estate, where the BNP is particularly active. The paper I read notes that BNP support tends to come from white neighbourhoods within ethnically diverse cities; that kind of thing adds nothing to an election campaign. But it is also well-understood that support for the BNP is associated with socio-economic deprivation and low educational achievement – traditional Labour concerns. Some studies indicate that local housing market conditions and the state of housing stock may be more important than labour market conditions. And yet my Labour candidate, Sonia Klein, does not attend to such matters in her election literature. Sonia Klein mentions Trident, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan on her letterbox literature, and yet omits housing, health, jobs or education. I think darkly about the Stop the War Coalition when she literally cuddles her invited speaker Tony Benn and out of the blue flourishes a middle name, Nabila. Seems she’s looking to mop up the gone-astray left and candidateless Greens. Seems she thinks these voters will be impressed by this kind of talk, and unmoved by plans to address disadvantage. My constituency (Ilford North) is marginal, requiring 1,500 swing to Labour. Since I want to remove our current Conservative MP, my hands are somewhat tied this election – I need to vote for the closest challenger to the left of him and that’s Sonia Klein.

The Staffordshire constituency of Stoke Central is a very possible-looking parliamentary gain for the BNP’s Simon Darby. Labour’s NEC shortlisted celebrity historian and aristocrat Tristram Hunt as a parliamentary candidate without consultation, splitting the local party (and I don’t want to comment on that here, though I sympathise with the sense of disempowerment). Tristram Hunt has local links – his doctoral thesis was on the area. When, in advance of the local party’s vote on the shortlist, Newsnight’s Michael Crick button-holed him and asked (something like) “What can a privately educated boy like you do to stop the BNP?”, Hunt answered (something like) “What you have to say to people who are thinking about voting BNP is this. What teacher will want to come and teach here, what lawyer will want to come and work, what company will want to come and invest?”. What I found revealing about this fragment was that Hunt was thinking about his constituents’ needs rather than badging himself.

The other striking thing is his indirectness about the BNP – from what I can gather, he is not damning their racism, nor seeking to lace his campaign with multi-cultural role models. I don’t know why this is, but it is distinctively indirect.

Indirectness is a very current idea at the moment. I caught a member of my work-place’s senior management reading Thaler’s and Sunstein’s important book Nudge on the train platform. Sometimes called ‘libertarian paternalism’, this ‘nudging’ is an alternative to ordering or forcing people to do this or do that. Nudging entails organising systems in such a way as it makes it easier for people who exist within that system to do the right thing by default – i.e. if they don’t give it any thought – while maintaining the possibility to opt for the wrong thing, which is also the more inconvenient option. Examples include systems around paying your TV licence. Opting out, rather than into, a savings scheme or organ donation. Designing new housing complexes to promote neighbourliness. Creepy problems arise with this when the nature ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are left unexplained and the populace is subject to manipulation. Designing privacy out of Soviet public spaces, for example. I often use the principles of nudge. Nudge is not a huge threat when it comes to painting a little fly onto the bowl of a urinal in the knowledge that men will aim at it – but for more principled decisions you might convincingly argue that true liberty and a truly ethical society entails consciousness. Another book on indirectness (by another economist – this is a mushrooming discipline) is John Kay’s Obliquity. Its thesis is that our goals are best achieved indirectly, rather than narrowing down to stated objectives and approaching them in a straight line with a literal mindset. I’d say: sometimes. I haven’t finished that one yet. Again though it challenges reflectiveness, which in my professional circles is always assumed to be social good, and I’ve enjoyed reading that.

There’s certainly consensus that creating a stable and prosperous society will undermine most support for the extreme right. But could it be that Tristram Hunt thinks positive imagery of the kinds of social groups the BNP want to see the back of is futile? Explaining why racism is wrong – futile? What earns a parliamentary their opportunity to talk to their BNP-leaning electorate about racism – or does the significant presence of a BNP-leaning electorate forestall this conversation? This is a critical question to which I don’t have the answer. But my hunch is that the racism of BNP supporters is indirect – a consequence of certain needs in the presence of certain beliefs about a national pie.

It’s not good for BNP supporters to feel goaded, because – based on what I know of many of them, and in the absence of prospects for easing their competition for scarce material resources – any shame will backfire into contempt and defiance. I get the impression that the authors of a lot of the pieces I have read on the BNP don’t have any friends or associates who would vote BNP, and have never had to fight for the soul of anybody they care about. High-minded ridicule of candidates can cement support if the ridiculed qualities are part of the identity of the supporter – observers of Sarah Palin’s detractors noted this when Newsnight Review took a look at her autobiography. Seeking to marginalise or exclude the BNP, as Unite Against Fascism are currently doing, is liable to simply be understood by many BNP supporters as a continuation of the marginalisation and exclusion that they already perceive as their experience. Similarly, the “just turn out and vote for anybody except the BNP” approach talks past the BNP voters, rather than to them. I don’t think it is wrong to talk past the BNP supporters – to improve turn-out for example – as long as you also talk to them. Given that the extreme right is more successful than it has ever been before, surpassing Mosley’s and Powell’s times, I think we had better have plans ready to dampen the resonance of its messages.

Plans about what used to be Labour’s concern: equitability.

Bowyer, B, 2008. Local context and extreme right support in England: The British National Party in the 2002 and 2003 local elections. Electoral Studies (27) 611-620.

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Veena’s makes Barkingside even tastier

This post is for My Favourite Shop. (Yes, me again – Barkingside’s most famous shopper and consumer of high street services.)

Food shops tend to change my life more than I expect. When I moved to Barkingside with no particular enthusiasm in 2004, the kosher food I found on sale here allowed me to finally commit to a vegan diet. Strictly observant Jews isolate dairy from meat, so Jewish food manufacturers put a lot of creativity into the so-called ‘parev’ foods which are neither, and therefore can be eaten with either. The kosher shops and supermarket sections of Barkingside brought about this positive change for me.

So it has been with Veena’s. Some time ago I attracted the attention of Barkingside 21 by complaining that the entire High Street would soon be edible. Veena’s is exempt from this complaint; it is simply excellent and I’m delighted it’s here.

Veena’s opened on July 2nd 2009 in our former Woolworths. Its large glossy sign is  burgundy with a yellow ‘Veena’s’ in a stylish font. When I first saw it, I thought to myself “Barkingside is getting an enormous Sri Lankan supermarket. Now I can eat”.

But although owner Brahmma Raj is Sri Lankan, it wouldn’t be accurate to call Veena’s just a Sri Lankan supermarket, or even just a South Asian supermarket. Turkish, British, Italian, Thai, Chinese, African and other regions are represented on the shelves – there’s even a dinky Jewish section. As one of the assistants on checkout (perhaps Brahmma Raj himself – he had a certain proprietorial air) told me, they aim to have everything under one roof. This is pretty much the actuality – at least with the things I want to buy – and Veenas has taken a big share of my food money from Sainsbury’s and Somerfield. The simple fact is, I tend to shop on foot at the end of my working day, and Veena’s sells food and ingredients I want but haven’t been able to get elsewhere in Barkingside.

As soon as I saw Veena’s I decided to get out my New Internationalist ‘Vegetarian Main Dishes From Around the World‘ cookbook which had been lying dormant on the shelf because I couldn’t get the ingredients. Now Veena’s is here I can finally use it, so I’m going through taking every tenth recipe in turn. The first meal was maharagwe, an East African dish requiring rosecoco beans. I found them at Veena’s along with every other bean I have ever heard of, tinned and dried.

There was a choice of 5 or 6 coconut milks (although none were low fat – coconut fat is saturated so you have to watch out). Today I decided to skip aprapansa, the Ghanaian palm nut stew, in favour of yemesirkik, an Ethiopian lentil stew, but I feel confident I could have found palm butter. Veena’s didn’t have berbere paste for the yemesirkik, but there was a choice of 4 other chilli pastes. We ate it tonight with chapatis I made out of Veena’s own-brand chapati flour and it was good.

I have a few days before labra (spicy mixed vegetables from Bangladesh) on page 40 but I had it in mind when I last shopped there. Yes, they had panch phoron (5 mixed spices – fennel, fenugreek, onion seed, cumin and bayleaf) and all of its individual ingredients, separately.

On page 70, we have tamarind dal. Well, you can get dry tamarind, wet tamarind, sweet tamarind, salt tamarind, black tamarind. Cadju (cashew) curry, a dish from Sri Lanka, is on page 90. Veena’s sells lemon grass in jars and cashew nuts in volumes from the packet to the sack.

On special, resisted with difficulty, a platter of small sweet pastries made with vegetable ghee.

From a well-being point of view and from an excitement point of view, I feel extremely fortunate to live close to Veena’s. There’s so much there. For example, I put black sesame seeds and white poppy seeds in my bread these days. I’d prefer to see a better mix of shops here than we currently have, but what with the marvellous Ushan’s (Sri Lankan fruit and vegetable shop), Yossi’s (kosher baker), La Boucherie (kosher butchers and grocers), Rossi’s (the ice cream, coffee and chocolate institution), not one but two beautifully-kept Polish delicatessens, the eel and pie shop, the couple of unpretentious, high quality coffee, cake and brunch places, BK’s which is distinctively Turkish, Onur’s kebabs, the excellent North London Chinese take-away chain Oriental Chef, and the (“More than a”) farm shop selling local horseradish and Havering honey, we should now think of Barkingside as a cosmopolitan food-lover’s mecca.

Yes, there is meat, fish, dairy and other animal products here, and these things should never be eaten. Whenever I give money to vendors who trade in these things, I compromise something. And certainly, Sainsbury’s is far superior to anywhere else here for good booze, vegan dairy alternatives (although still poor), fair trade produce, organic produce, and environmentally-conscious produce – this is why they’ll continue to get my custom. But Barkingside has become a modern cosmopolitan food-lover’s mecca and Veena’s is central to this happy development.

(And not for the first time I ask myself, who wouldn’t live here?)