LONDON, U.K. — The London borough of Barking and Dagenham demonstrates why Gandhi is "a big role model" for the British National Party (BNP) : "India was an occupied country, wasn't it? And he was able to liberate it from foreigners," said the party's leader, Bob Bailey.
Bailey is not the only person to project an ideological struggle onto the dockside community of 170,000, where populist disenchantment with immigration, Islam and established political parties combined to give the all-white BNP its first major electoral breakthrough.
In 2006, the party seized 12 of 51 council seats, making the government body the only one in Great Britain where the BNP is the formal opposition. One of the borough's two parliamentary representatives, Labour MP John Cruddas, calls Barking and Dagenham "the frontline of the battle against the far-right." It served as base for the BNP's successful bid for its first seat on the London assembly last year. The party, which is debating this weekend whether to allow non-Caucasion members, hopes also to have a British Parliament seat based on its popularity here.
The area used to be a Labour stronghold, its identity tied to the state providing the working man a decent perch. Around 1930, the government built 25,000 cottages east of the city for veterans, which started the borough. Soon after, Ford moved in, turning what was then the world's largest municipal housing estate into its company town for a half century. The white, skilled working-class predominated.
It still does. The borough is 80 percent white. But mannequins in the shops model major transformations in the last decade: They wear headscarves and headwraps from West Africa. In addition to the Muslim and African arrivals, white residents include refugees from the Yugoslav wars and economic migrants from Eastern Europe. On a main road, Albanians play chess at a pool club and the nearby minaret of the Barking Mosque overlooks the borough's 85-year-old housing stock.
During the 2006 election, the BNP accused boroughs near 2012 Olympics venues of giving African residents 50,000 pounds ($83,000) to relocate to those iconic homes — a rumor that several residents said they still believe. The party also wildly inflated the rise in crimes and ethnic minorities in the borough, suggesting a cause and effect. "The BNP tend to rely on fears and in some cases downright lies," said Barry Kirke, editor of The Barking & Dagenham Post, which debunked the statistics. "It was just total complete rubbish."
Why did residents believe the tales? Jobs and subsidized housing seemed to disappear as immigrants arrived, creating both a sense of dispossession and a scapegoat. During the 1980s, Ford pulled its factories out of the borough and half the council-owned houses were bought by their occupants under a Thatcher administration initiative, removing them from the government pool. Many long-term residents fled with Ford, leaving a void that immigrants seeking cheap rents and first homes filled, said realtor Gary Pridmore. Then, a decade later, the Kosovo crisis injected many refugees, almost overnight.
"That encouraged racist views that I haven't heard publicly since I was a boy," Pridmore said, remembering when local pubs were hubs for the neo-Nazi National Front.
Tensions are high in the borough, which accounts for a disproportionate share of London's race-motivated crimes. The Barking Mosque has been firebombed, a pig's head left at its door and "Paki scum" spray-painted across it, said its secretary, London police officer Ashfaq Siddique. Still, he said, the council has let the mosque expand, and most neighbors are friendly.
Several observers say disaffection with Labour, more than racism, elected the BNP.
"It's not Labour. It's New Labour," said John Collins, a third-generation skilled laborer and a BNP candidate for council.
Cruddas acknowledged the BNP takes advantage of nostalgia for a time when the state took care of the working man. "It's (partly) about the identity of Labour," he said. "The strategies of all political parties under our current system ... are devised for what they call Middle England, and arguably that creates vacuums."
Fewer people voted in Barking and Dagenham, and many who did vote cast protest ballots — venting their fury over being ignored.
"The BNP come where politicians don't anymore, round these doors where Labour just took it for granted that they would get elected no matter what," anti-BNP organizer Elane Heffernan said. During the council contest, the Butterys, a retired couple from Dagenham, encountered the BNP on their doorstep and at their supermarket. They didn't see Labour.
"What they don't want is their dignitaries mugged on these streets," Barbara Buttery said.
Her husband Barry, who described with horror witnessing Serbs and Croatians fighting with sledgehammers and baseball bats near his home recently, said the BNP lured him to a party meeting by daring to criticize immigration for creating social discord and dragging down wages.
"The whole ambiance of this country has changed beyond recognition," he said, "and that's quite a frightening thing when you find you're surrounded by people from all different countries."
Barry Buttery left the BNP meeting believing it racist under the surface, which bothers him, but still sees his vote for the party in 2006, his last for it, as "a kick up the backside to the government which refuses to listen to the people."
Read more on the BNP's effort to reform its image and debate over allowing non-whites to join.
Gaiutra Bahadur is a journalist based in the New York metropolitan area. She has written extensively about the culture and politics of international migration. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Nation and Ms. Magazine, among other publications.