BBC Four's The Year the Town Hall Shrank is hard-hitting, powerful stuff. As a profile of Stoke-on-Trent, it is unflinching and uncomfortable. The fate befalling those on the end of austerity is deeply upsetting. As a critique of the ideologically-motivated cuts imposed on councils by central government, it's damning. Yet for all that, there is something unsettling about The Year beyond the tough subject matter. And last Thursday night's episode, which prominently featured the BNP, exemplifies it.
"We have proven people will vote BNP in large numbers when the conditions are right" Michael Coleman, the "brains" behind Stoke BNP intones as we catch up with them in the lead up to last year's local elections. And, for once, Coleman was right. A few snatched words shared by Dave, a refuse collector, sums up the attitudes of that pissed off section of Stoke's working class who, at one point, had returned nine fascists to the Council chamber. He and his family were traditionally Labour voters and always supported the party at general election time. But he had started voting BNP locally because they considered themselves patriotic (but not racist), didn't like the idea of immigrants getting housing when his son couldn't get onto the Council's waiting list, and were frustrated with the local authority.
Stoke BNP's 'Activist of the Year 2010' Mickey White hailed from a similar constituency. As Coleman observed of him, Mickey was "typical of new BNP members - disaffected, betrayed, can't get work, struggling to get anywhere with his family, sees no future for mainstream politics, and is looking for something new". While Mickey certainly has "issues", he talked about the appeal of the BNP and how they made sense of his everyday lived experience. At home, surrounded by his family, he observed how at his dad's workplace it was "the foreigners" who were getting all the overtime as the expense of "British blokes". I imagine spending 18 months on the dole has reinforced his perception that local working people were losing out. Mickey then holds up a couple of anti-immigrant tirades from The Sun and The Mail that "prove" what's going on (so much for their disavowal of the political consequences of their poisonous "journalism"). And at the same time, Micky looks up to Coleman, an admiration that borders on hero worship: "I respect everything he says and does. He speaks the truth".
The Year tries to get at Coleman's motivations too. Parked near a Mosque as worshippers file in for prayers, he is asked "what do you see?" His answer is revealing: "I see the future of our country. I see a group of people who are well-organised, have money, and the support of the regime under which we live ... this was an English working class community. I don't like it. I fear it." Coleman voices similar sentiments about the new Mosque planned for Normacot, a sign, he says, of "an occupation by a body of foreign people".
Unlike Mickey's path to nationalism, or the soft support evidenced by Dave, Coleman's commitment to the BNP is inseparable from a paranoid, racist loathing of anyone who does not pass his white British litmus test. As we have seen of late, his bigoted commentary on the summer 2011 riots got him in hot water with the law. Unsurprising considering that, by his own admission, the BNP want to "stir up and agitate".
Unfortunately for the BNP, for all their campaigning (do they always go out leafleting dressed in trousers and matching blue shirts?), for all their grand standing and claiming to be Stoke-on-Trent's authentic voice, the people of Stoke spoke and returned Labour with a decisive majority. Not one BNP councillor retained their seat. And for Mickey, who appeared to believe he was going to get a seat in the multi-member Baddeley, Milton and Norton ward, he limped home with a feeble 3.4%.
While I am a firm believer in giving fascists enough rope to hang themselves, there is much to criticise in their portrayal. Unlike The Year's treatment of Council Leader Mohammed Pervez (pictured), who is often depicted as bewildered and on the receiving end of Blast Film's sharp questions, neither Coleman nor Mickey were challenged on their beliefs. They were offered the opportunity to explain where they're coming from without criticism or contradiction, whereas Pervez was not afforded the same privilege. As we Big Brother fans used to say back in the day, the BNP got a 'good edit' while the producers had it in for the Council Leader.
The biggest problem is the perspective adopted by the documentary itself, which reminded me of the Allegra Stratton affair. Stoke is treated as 'the other' to the burgeoning dynamism of the South East. There is constant talk of derelict factories, joblessness, public sector-dependency, immigration, and economic uncertainty. You are left with the impression the city is one giant council estate full of dilapidated buildings and benefit claimants. There is nothing about new schools, the new hospital, new housing, and the stream of ongoing regeneration projects. It is a place of irrepressible misery and irreversible decline.
But in contrast to the South East, at the same time Stoke is an earthy place full of honest folk. Via the focus on the BNP (who, at the time of filming, only held five out of 60 seats), the film panders to the fascination sections of the metropolitan elite have with our homegrown fascists. They are to be poked at, laughed at, be appalled at. Yet, the BNP here serve as a marker of working class authenticity. They are a sign working class people are thick and mired in bigotry. By confirming themselves as the liberal intelligentsia's exotic opposite, their privileged position as opinion formers and decision makers is assured to their satisfaction - they know best. As American activists are fond of saying, Blast Films really should have checked their privilege.
Nevertheless, this is compulsive viewing for all and not just the handful of Stokies who follow local politics in The Potteries. But just remember whose eyes you are seeing this through.