This article first appeared in the LGC on 17 April 2018
The news that the British National Party no longer has any representation in local government following the resignation of its last remaining councillor has been welcomed across the political spectrum. It is probably the last nail for a Party that a decade ago could boast of 55 councillors and seemed destined to keep growing.
Unfortunately, however, the BNP’s demise owes more to the incompetence of their elected members and internal faction fighting than any shift in political context. If anything, division over issues of race and identity are far more prevalent now than they were in 2008 when the BNP was at its peak.
In this month alone we have seen the Labour Party embroiled in a deeply troubling dispute over antisemitism and a furore over the revelation that the Home Office has been seeking to deport the children of Caribbean parents who settled here in the 1950s and 1960s. We have also been treated to the private opinions of the former communications director of the Leave.EU campaign who spoke admiringly of Nazi propaganda techniques and admitted that it was his organisation’s overwhelming emphasis on an anti-immigrant message that helped it win the referendum. The BBC even saw fit to resurrect the views of Enoch Powell by having his odious 1968 Rivers of Blood speech read in full on Radio Four.
We should not overstate the problem: Britain remains far less prone to racial tension and conflict than many other countries. Nevertheless, this feels like a less comfortable and secure place to be an immigrant, a Muslim, a Jew or member of any other BAME group than was the case just a couple of years ago. There is no raging fire, or anything like it, but the tinder is considerably drier today and more susceptible to an unforeseen spark: wider conflict in the Middle East possibly, a major terrorist attack on UK soil, or a severe worsening of the economy.
In this context, local government must stay ever vigilant. We cannot forget that major violent conflict between different ethnic groups broke out in Oldham, Bradford, Burnley and Leeds in 2001 – a period when economic uncertainty, housing pressures and the discourse around ethnicity and immigration were less significant than today. Councils, more than any other bodies, have the power to ensure community cohesion and to forestall any breakdown before it happens. Senior officers would do well to review their plans and make sure their council has the connections in communities necessary to spot problems early and respond speedily.
Ultimately, however, the biggest burden of responsibility rests not with officers but with elected members. The way they campaign, what they say in the local press and the priority they place on cohesion when setting agendas and budgets is key. Party leaderships at local and national level need to do their job and act like leaderships should. Campaign literature that seeks to play on bigotry (however coded) and councillors and council candidates that spread racist tropes and conspiracies must face the full force of disciplinary measures. But leaders also need to set a positive agenda highlighting the huge benefits of cohesion and expecting their councillors to be exemplars of tolerance and bridge-building.
To evade or ignore this burden will mean not just betraying the rights and well-being of minority communities but also the responsibilities of elected office.