He started off with an explanation of what he means by the term 'neighbourhood polity'. This political space is heavily localised and has completely different dynamics to 'big' politics. The kinds of people involved in neighbourhood polities are what you might call 'stakeholders' in New Labour speak. These are residents, local councillors, council officers, and representatives from the police, fire service, housing associations, church groups, and other community bodies - sometimes from outside the area. This polity is formally enacted via the range of meetings that take place in Stoke's communities, which Gavin divided into those dealing with regeneration and 'other' meetings dealing with all the other matters that affect the community.
The powers of these bodies are strictly limited to a set of ward-level responsibilities, such as special events, regeneration micro-management, policing, communications with residents and some housing issues. Furthermore each ward is granted £150,000, which is controlled by the councillors.
What is unique about neighbourhood polities is the absence of party politics. Everyone Gavin spoke to in his study emphasised the importance of checking their party hats at the door. The clear inference is these decision making bodies that proceed on the basis of deliberation and consensus building are an inappropriate arena for making political statements.
But what happens when some of the participants are BNP activists, acting in their capacity as councillors? Does it filter out their extremism? Surprisingly, it appears they have also accepted the unwritten rule on party politics. But, as Gavin noted, you can take off your hat but your head remains. Their values and preferences does make itself felt and has affected the kinds of things neighbourhood polities do, but again, not as you might expect. For example, despite the ludicrous claims made by Lee Barnes, the BNP locally and nationally has put great store on a Christian identity. What it translates into in Stoke are innocuous council-sponsored Xmas festivities and Easter egg hunts - not something that's really going to disrupt neighbourhood consensus politics. In this case, local structures have successfully diverted their nationalism down safe channels. And there might be some evidence it is blunting BNP councillors' world views. One councillor reported how much they enjoyed a multi-cultural event, and Stoke BNP itself did not oppose the (gay) pride festival early last month.
Does this mean we should stop worrying about the BNP? Of course not. The BNP remains a particularly unpleasant and potentially dangerous enemy of the labour movement. But what Gavin's presentation does is teach us two things. By assenting to the informal rules of neighbourhood polities the BNP can accrue political capital as "reasonable" and "serious" community politicians. Anti-fascists have to up their game by paying more attention to the records they build, in and out of the council chamber. It's no use pretending that the election of a BNP councillor automatically means the sky has fallen on everyone's heads. Secondly, and we need to be careful not to overestimate it, as the BNP colonises local government, local government is also colonising them. This opens it to a number of pressures its not used to, similar to those the socialist movement experienced between revisionists and revolutionaries, and in the greens between realists and fundamentalists. Wherever possible anti-fascists need to help widen the fissures the responsibility of office brings.