Darren Rodwell: Labour can learn a lot from its Barking & Dagenham fight back

Darren Rodwell: Labour can learn a lot from its Barking & Dagenham fight back

This Thursday, 7 May 2020, will mark 10 years since a Conservative Prime Minister entered Number 10 and austerity became the new show in town. But many of us in the Labour Party in Barking & Dagenham remember it for a different reason – as the night we broke the far right British National Party’s hopes and dreams into a thousand pieces.

They had secured 12 seats on the council at the previous local election in 2006, and if they had stood a full slate of candidates that year they would have won control of it. The 2010 election night was my very first. You could say I was somewhat spoilt: as well as unseating the 12 BNP councillors, Margaret Hodge saw off their party leader Nick Griffin in the Barking parliamentary seat on the same day. She made the best speech I have ever heard from her. “Get out and stay out, you’re not wanted here, and your vile politics have no place in British democracy.”

It had been a long road to victory and there were times when we felt lost. We had our knock backs on the doorstep, in the streets and in draughty church halls, and there were personal attacks. But we never lost our resolve and over four long years, we reconnected.

At the heart of our journey was the relentless wearing down of shoe leather, but it was about so much more than that. We stopped telling people what we thought was best for them and instead, we listened. They said they wanted more opportunities for better jobs, better housing and a better place to live. We turned the tide on years of complacency and a reliance on safe majorities by tackling the things that mattered to them.

We can take heart from the lessons we learned 10 years ago. They showed that if we listen to our communities and show them that we are responding to their concerns, they will meet us halfway and give us their confidence. That is the only way we can ever gain enough support to deliver a Labour government in the future.

It is also clear to me, and to others who were part of that fight against the BNP, that we must earn the right to govern, not take it for granted. Barking & Dagenham is the last bastion of the blue collar, working-class in London. We may be half an hour away from Fenchurch Street station, but we have more in common with the northern towns and the Welsh Valleys that turned away from Labour last year. The difference is that in Barking & Dagenham, Labour has kept on winning. If we can do it here, then the movement can do it anywhere.

Today’s Barking & Dagenham is a world away from where it was 10 years ago. It has become a beacon of hope for modern Labour values – the same working-class values in which our community has always believed. We have won national and international recognition for our re-engagement with voters. Our social cohesion has never been stronger, even with 130 cultures from around the world.

We celebrate with festivals and flag-raising. We talk about moving forwards, not backwards, with London’s first Youth Zone, a brand-new university and plans for a new film studio. London’s three food wholesale markets, Smithfield, Billingsgate and New Spitalfields, will be relocating to the borough. The council has reorganised from top to bottom (we have been council of the year not once, but twice).

And at the outbreak of Covid 19, we pulled together our own Citizen’s Alliance Network of local voluntary, community and faith groups, which between them have contacted and supported over 25,000 people, delivering food parcels, medicines and messages of hope.

On Friday 7 May, 2010 we thought we had won the fight. Of course, it was just the beginning. The message from Barking & Dagenham is clear: the road to recovery may be long and hard but there is much that Labour can learn from it. The past 10 years have been a lost decade for us. As we edge slowly away from the peak of the pandemic, we need a Labour movement and government to shine a beacon of optimism across the country.

Above all we need a new deal for Britain. We need investment into infrastructure to create more jobs, not more zero-hour contracts. We need more truly affordable “homes for heroes” for all workers. We need investment in transport. If people are to work in the socially distanced new reality, we also need investment in new technologies and low carbon alternatives.

We need all of this and more, because we cannot stand by and leave people to fend for themselves through another lost decade or allow the dark spectre of hatred back on our streets.

Darren Rodwell is the leader of Barking & Dagenham Council.

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