The Battle For Barking

The Battle For Barking


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

With the sudden possibility of a seismic shift in British politics, the 2010 general election generated a lot of headlines. Labour were clearly struggling to cling to power, yet the Conservatives didn't seem strong enough to sweep them aside, and the Liberal Democrats were coming out of nowhere to make a serious dent in the polls. Underscoring this was a thread that worried many - the rise of the extreme right - yet with so much going on, it received little in the way of serious analysis. It's interesting, then, to return to those heady days with documentary The Battle For Barking. Setting aside the bigger issues, this concentrates on the struggle for just one seat, where BNP leader Nick Griffin hoped to oust Labour stalwart Margaret Hodge.

There is ongoing controversy among journalists when it comes to how we represent the BNP. Should they, in the interests of democracy, be treated just like any other party? Should they, in the interests of community cohesion and public safety, be denied any media opportunity that could serve to normalise their extremist views? Or is it the case that giving them more publicity just means giving them more rope - enough for them to hang themselves? The Battle For Barking charts its own course, focusing just as closely on the BNP campaign as on Hodge's, yet looking far more at personalities than at policies. So we see the BNP campaigners as ordinary guys, dealing with day to day stresses and strains that anyone who has worked in politics can relate to. We can sympathise with them - especially during the film's standout moment, when one of them faces up to a tragic personal loss - and we can understand the outrage of the black BNP member when his white colleague is chided for exploiting him as if he were incapable of deciding or speaking for himself. Yet a BNP churchman ranting about schools teaching sodomy to six year olds still sounds like a lunatic, and the us and them language employed in relation to Barking's different ethnic groups speaks for itself.

The documentary team here are to be congratulated on getting so close to their subjects, on inspiring so much trust, even if there are moments when they agree to turn the cameras off. It turns this into a human story. Hodge gets room to show her human side too, especially in relation to the recent loss of her husband, and the more sinister side of her opponents is starkly revealed by their personal attacks on her. Her campaigners seem to struggle to to take the BNP seriously on any level even when acknowledging them as a threat. Curiously, we see very little of Griffin himself, and when we do he comes across as a very different kind of character. There's a sense that he has imposed himself on people with far less radical political views than his own, and that he is all too ready to use them for his own ends. This doesn't need to be shouted by outsiders; it's there in his own voice and manner, the ease with which he manipulates conversations and pushes people into situations way beyond their level of expertise.

What is really missing from all this is a picture of what else was going on in the area. There are rumours that Liberal Democrat campaigners quietly advised their supporters to vote for Hodge; we see their candidate hug and kiss her at the end, but nothing more. The Conservatives scarcely feature at all, though Conservative voters repulsed by the BNP must have found themselves in a difficult and interesting position. There's also sense that, much of the time, Hodge's political experience and familiarity with the media enables her to manage her image so we see only what she wants us to see. Where Griffin seems simply to be minimising contact, she is confidently handling it on her terms, evading difficult issues, assured of sympathy simply because of the nature of her opponents.

All in all, The Battle For Barking provides an interesting opportunity to revisit an unusual political landscape. It's particularly interesting in its presentation of a situation where all involved briefly thought Griffin might actually win, though the disparity between this belief and reality - and how that came about - is underexplored. There's a lot of great footage here and the team's willingness to explore ambiguities means it's never presented as a black and white political issue.

Reviewed on: 14 Oct 2010
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A documentary following Margaret Hodge's campaign against the BNP in Barking at the 2010 general election.
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Director: Laura Fairrie

Starring: Margaret Hodge, Nick Griffin

Year: 2010

Runtime: 83 minutes

Country: UK


Doc/Fest 2010

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