Nick Griffin has racialised housing issues but the area's problems aren't unique and BNP success can be rolled back.
A key contest in this election is in Barking, between the BNP's Nick Griffin and Labour's Margaret Hodge.
On the face of it, all the ingredients for an electoral breakthrough by the BNP appear to be here: rising unemployment, housing problems, deep poverty, a growing proportion of immigrants and asylum seekers, and a local Labour party that has presided over decades of impoverishment.
The decline of industry in Barking and Dagenham, accelerated by Ford Dagenham's decision to cease car production in 2002, means the proportion of local people employed in manufacturing has fallen from 40% in the early 1990s to less than half that figure today. Unemployment in the borough now stands at close to 10% and average incomes are the lowest in London. The borough has some of the lowest literacy and numeracy levels in the country and more than a third of its children are born into poverty.
Is it increasing social deprivation, then, that has led to the rise of the BNP?
While it is undoubtedly a factor, eight of London's 33 boroughs are worse off than Barking, and 20 nationally, so this alone cannot account for the BNP's emergence as a political force locally.
Barking is also affected by demographic change. Although around 80% of residents are classed as white, 50% of school pupils are from ethnic minorities, as young upwardly mobile black and Asian families move into the borough. Has an influx of immigrants produced votes for the far right? The picture is not so simple. First, most of these new arrivals are not immigrants but "internal migrants" from other parts of London. Second, the proportion of non-white residents in Barking remains below the London average.
What is specific to Barking is the pace of change. Its overall population, not just its proportion of ethnic minorities, is one of the fastest growing in the country. This population competes for scarce resources. Council housing stock has fallen from 40,000 to 18,000 as a consequence of Margaret Thatcher's right-to-buy initiative in the 1980s, and the failure of Barking and Dagenham council to build any public housing for the past quarter of a century. There are now more than 28,000 people on the local social housing waiting list.
The BNP's achievement has been to racialise this issue and turn ethnic minorities into scapegoats for a complex process of political and social disintegration in the area. Its repeated claims about Labour's alleged "Africans for Essex" scheme, whereby ethnic minority families are supposed to have been given £50,000 relocation grants to shore up electoral support for the government in areas like Barking, are a typical example. The fact that these claims are completely untrue only makes them more effective, because that's how scapegoating works.
The BNP does not care about housing – the amount of casework taken up by its Barking councillors on the issue is derisory. But scapegoating works where there is little to counter it. The BNP has been able to insinuate its way into a community in crisis. Rapid social transformation and chronic social decay have left the area with fewer resources to resist the development of a fascist current. According to government reports, Barking's social cohesiveness is weak, with less participation in the local community (sports, recreation, museums, libraries, voluntary associations) than elsewhere – although the situation is beginning to improve.
The economic and social roots of the BNP's emergence in Barking are not unique to the area. This means that there is nothing inevitable about its success here. Whatever the havoc wreaked on Barking by the vagaries of the market, the party's ability to feed off the despair produced by social inequality and deprivation remains dependent on the outcome of political decisions and battles that are yet to be resolved. Neither, then, is its success irreversible.