Kevin Best grew up in the Kent town of Swanley. He went back there to find out why a former Labour ward had returned a Nazi BNP councillor
The town of Swanley is sandwiched between the end of London and the start of Kent.
It has a population of about 25,000 and has been described as a “dormitory town” – a place for people who commute to work elsewhere, mainly London.
I grew up there in the relatively poor and solidly Labour voting St Mary’s ward.
Two weeks ago, completely out of the blue, the fascist British National Party (BNP) took a council seat there in a by-election.
I went back to Swanley last weekend to speak to local people and find out what had happened.
Many told me that they were shocked that there was a BNP councillor in the ward. But they were not surprised that the underlying bitterness in the town has found an expression.
People feel that nobody is listening when they complain that their income is being squeezed, that good jobs are hard to come by, and that they are humiliated when forced to seek benefits.
In the last few months Glaxo Smith Kline closed its factory in neighbouring Dartford. Some 650 jobs were lost. The Dartford Paper Mill is also set to close, threatening over 100 jobs.
One resident told me that people feel afraid that they are on the frontline in Kent, that their jobs would be the first to go.
His despairing conclusion was that we need “British jobs for British workers”. The Nazis have been feeding on this climate of anger and resentment.
A common complaint in Swanley – and one I remember all too well – is the unrelenting boredom of living there.
Entertainment is something you have commute to, assuming that you can afford the fares, tolerate the interchanges and be back before public transport ends.
The lack of transport or amenities is one reason why everyone wants a car. But predicably that leads to the main road regularly getting blocked with traffic jams.
As a kid, the chances of travelling outside the town were remote. We had to choose between playing football or hanging around the shopping centre.
Yet despite all the difficulties, the Swanley residents I spoke to are determined to build a community there and not be divided by the BNP.
Local resident Linda explained to me how the BNP had recently shifted their focus and election team to Swanley. “We’re shocked,” she said. “They were well organised with lots of them cabbed in.
“It was a high profile campaign that at least appeared to be dealing with real national issues. The two main parties were only concerned with slagging each other off.”
Swanley St Mary’s ward has a heavy density of former council houses. Many tenants were tempted by the “right to buy” scheme introduced by the Tories in the 1980s.
Some of these people are now struggling with negative equity and the threat of repossession.
“The BNP have been playing on people’s fears, telling them lies, saying that because of immigrants their kids wouldn’t get a council house,” said Louise, a local education worker.
“They’ve been telling people that immigrants are taking over. But there are no immigrants in Swanley.
“There’s a shortage of council houses – but that’s because none are being built. It has nothing to do with immigrants.”
Swanley residents formed the core of a 50-strong demonstration last Saturday against the BNP. They have set up a Facebook group called “Kick the BNP out of Swanley” and plan to form a Unite Against Fascism group.
Lousie was on the demonstration. “We’re here today to let people know that the BNP does not reflect the views of everybody from Swanley,” she said.
Some of the demonstrators wore stickers saying “Swanley Resident” to counter some cynicism in the local media that only people from outside the town would turn up.
Tom, another anti-BNP demonstrator from Swanley, said he blamed Labour’s pandering to nationalism for fuelling the fascist vote.
“In the current economic climate the far left and the far right will have opportunities,” he added. “Here it was the BNP that got to people first. But people need to have other alternatives.”
Back in January the BNP narrowly missed grabbing a seat in Welling, south east London, just a few miles away from Swanley.
The fascists polled 790 votes in Bexley council’s East Wickham ward on 22 January, just eight votes short of the Conservatives, who won the seat.
This isn’t the first time that Nazis have been active in the area. The BNP had its headquarters in Welling during the early 1990s.
Soon the area was plagued with racist thuggery, culminating in the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993.