I have to confess that I was not exactly thrilled when a big, middle-aged, shaven-headed bloke came up to me in a pub in Burnley after I’d been out campaigning for the Labour Party at a recent council by-election and asked me what I thought Labour ought to be doing about “the biggest problem facing Burnley”. I prepared myself to hear a rant about asylum-seekers and asked him what he thought the biggest problem in Burnley was. I was somewhat surprised when he replied that the problem was the Nazis/BNP and the way that Labour was pandering to racism. We had a very amicable discussion in which I managed to persuade him that the thing to do was to join the Labour Party to try to help reinvigorate the local party, because, as I told him, the biggest problem was that the BNP had more local activists putting out their message across Burnley than the Labour Party did.
I used to be of the opinion that the key above all else to defeating the BNP in towns like Burnley was better organisation—things like knocking on more doors, delivering more leaflets, contacting more people and paying attention to local issues.
The recent by-election in Hapton-with-Park ward (a suburb just outside Burnley) offered the perfect opportunity to test out this theory. Last year, Labour beat the BNP there by 300 votes, and in the May local elections the BNP won by 77.
The organisation of the campaign was about as good as it could possibly have been. Every voter received several leaflets, Labour canvassers spoke to a majority of the people who lived in the area and the candidate had a strong personal following. On election day, everyone who had said that they might vote Labour got reminded about the election by one of Labour’s activists.
The result was that Labour finished third, behind not only the BNP, but also the Liberal Democrats (who won the ward by 11 votes). Given that the Lib Dems had not even stood a candidate in the elections a month before, and had finished fifth the year before, this was rather a shock. With hindsight, though, the flaws in the campaign were obvious. They were the same flaws which go right to the heart of the problem with New Labour.
Throughout the campaign, I met Labour voters who were very upset because the Labour Party leaflet was printed in red, white and blue and had big pictures of the Union Jack on it, with the tag “a flag for all”. The policies mentioned on the leaflet were good ones (tackling crime, tackling anti-social behaviour, making sure planning applications didn’t ruin the area, being a good local representative), but none of them were distinctively Labour—the other political parties could and did promise to do very similar things. I passed on these concerns, but was told that the people who had supported Labour would continue to do so, and that it was important to appeal to people who identified the BNP as the patriotic party, and to try to reclaim the Union Jack as a flag for everyone, not just the far right.
This theory that Labour voters would vote Labour because they “had nowhere else to go” was decisively proven wrong yet again. They could vote for the Lib Dems or not at all, and in large numbers that’s exactly what they did.
The Lib Dem leaflets weren’t much better than the Labour one—they slagged off Labour and hardly mentioned the BNP at all, but at least they didn’t seem to be so desperate to attract BNP supporters. It goes without saying that people who were minded to vote BNP did not suddenly think “well, I was going to vote BNP, but I got a leaflet from the Labour Party and it had a picture of the Union Jack on so now I won’t”.
This tied in to the other big mistake that was made. There is a widespread assumption that the people who vote for the BNP are fed-up Labour voters. A very few are, but most are not. Most BNP voters used to be Tories, and of the rest a majority have never voted for any political party. They are deeply unpleasant people (having met quite a few of them) and not people who can easily be won over this side of the revolution.
Fed-up Labour voters are, by and large, nice, decent people who when they don’t feel able to support Labour either vote Lib Dem or don’t vote at all. It is they, not the majority of the BNP supporters, whom the Labour Party needs to try to win back the support of.
This is about more than just campaigning in elections (though any of you who think elections don’t matter should try living in an area where your local representative is a member of the BNP), it is about making the Labour Party the organisation which involves and mobilises all the nice, kind, decent people who are horrified by the rise of the BNP and want to do something about it. For all its faults, the Labour Party is still unquestionably the best organisation to do this—in spite of everything, I encountered an enormous amount of respect and affection for Labour which has been built up over 100 years and which no other organisation could reasonably hope to acquire any time soon.
The tactics which New Labour have adopted to combat the BNP can’t and don’t work. Instead of red, white and blue leaflets and refusing to tackle racism head-on, what is needed is people prepared to do the legwork, to go round and find out what people’s problems are and how we can help them and to explain why it is that we believe in a multicultural society, what we propose to do to improve the lives of working-class people and why they should get involved in helping to sort out the things that they are bothered about.
This kind of work should be at least as important for socialists as demonstrations, conferences, supporting strikes or getting motions passed in union branches. A local Labour Party branch filled with people who got involved because they wanted the party to stop pandering to racism and because they were persuaded to get involved by socialists would be a massive advance on the current situation. A Labour Party where every branch was like that would produce a very different kind of government from the one we have now. And if you want to make new friends and comrades, showing them that they are not alone in being fed up with what has been happening recently, offering a better alternative, and helping get rid of the BNP in the process, is far from the worst way to go about it.
Dan Paskins, Labour councillor, Oxford