On 26 May in Oldham there was bitter fighting between Asian youth and the police.
The riot followed weeks of racist provocation from fascist groups and decades of poverty — affecting both Asian and white workers — and a deep sense of alienation from mainstream politics.
On 24 June rioting began in Burnley. In mid-July, Bradford erupted. In both towns the fascists had been active.
In the General Election the BNP’s vote averaged 3.9 per cent over 33 constituencies. They scored over 16% in Oldham and over 11% in Burnley.
Workers’ Liberty discussed the issues with Nick Lowles, joint-editor of the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight.
The underlying issues — segregation, deprivation, alienation and racism — were similar in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford. Local issues made each riot slightly different.
In Oldham there had been a great deal of media coverage about an attack on a 76-year-old white man, Walter Chamberlain, who had been assaulted on his way back from a rugby match. The attack followed a report on the Radio 4 Today programme which suggested that young Asians had tried to create “no-go” areas in Oldham. To some observers the attack on Mr Chamberlain seemed to reinforce the radio programme’s findings.
A week after the attack, 450 Stoke football hooligans, in town for a match, joined up with local Oldham thugs to run through Asian areas, attacking people and smashing cars. The police intervened — but only to push back the young Asians. Over the next few weeks fascist groups such as the National Front and Combat 18 came into Oldham to stir up trouble.
On the night of the major fighting the Nazis were met by a massive backlash from young Asian people.
Inter-community tensions have been steadily on the increase for the last few years — racist violence has been increasing. But a racist tradition stretches right back to the 1960s and 70s, when Asian men came to Britain to do the jobs that white workers didn't want — the dirty work, and the night shifts which became known to the racists as “the Paki shift".
In Oldham the housing is very segregated. This physical separation has helped the stereotyping of communities.
The method of dividing Regeneration Budgets provides an area of conflict as poor white areas compete in “beauty contests” with poor Asian areas for money. The Asian areas tend to be more deprived, and money will sometimes be directed there — which helps to sustain the myth of “preferential treatment for Asians” — a basic racist lie which sustains the anger and resentment of local whites.
The British National Party (BNP) has targeted Oldham, holding their rally in the local Conservative Club a few months before the rioting. Their agitation is a factor, too. In the General Election they got 12,000 votes across two Oldham seats.
Burnley was a bit different. There was a fight over loud music, a small incident that blew up. There was an element of “copycat” in Burnley.
But here too there had been BNP-fascist agitation for the previous two years. In Burnley the BNP took 11.25% of the vote in the General Election.
In Oldham and Burnley the sense of identity and stability created by the mills and the old factories has gone, as a result of the decline of the textile industry. What's left is part-time, low-paid work, perhaps many miles away.
Both white and black people are unhappy and uncertain.
Bradford was a bit different again. In July, Asian people battled with riot police after a planned National Front rally. The following two nights saw white teenagers take to the streets.
Bradford has low wages and low spending, falling house prices and a degree of dereliction in the city centre. Six wards have long-term unemployment rates of over 25%.
Where is the BNP growing and why?
In the 1970s the fascists had a strong base in the Lancashire mill towns. The BNP are targeting areas where they have had success in the past — deprived white working class areas in the north west, the Midlands and in east London. They are concentrating their resources, often all-white wards.
They fix on all-white estates. In Eccleshill, in Bradford, where the BNP held a meeting of over 100 people the day before the riot, the ward is 98.8% white.
The BNP are presenting themselves as the voice of the white working class, while the Labour Party is writing off poor areas. There is a political void and in a few areas of the country the BNP are moving in to fill it.
New Labour has ignored its traditional base. Worse, in some towns, the Labour Party and the Liberals have deliberately ignored racism because they know that some of their own support is racist.
Parallels have been made between the riots 20 years ago (in Handsworth, Brixton and Toxteth which involved young — often unemployed — black youth) and these riots in textile towns which have suffered from factory closures and rising unemployment over the last 20 years.
There are some similarities. But the differences are important too. The 1981 riots were in large part directed against the police. In 2001 — in Oldham, especially — there is a big element of white and Asian communities being in direct conflict with each other.
This is a very serious, worrying difference.
What should the left do?
The BNP election results are frightening given they were able to get 16% of the vote in Oldham with little work on the ground and only 10 active members in the town.
It highlights one problem the left faces — presenting anti-racist and socialist views as a real alternative to white workers. The far left often appears distant and abstract. If we are going to beat the BNP we need campaigns based on local issues.
The left should take note of the BNP’s policy which is, in contrast to the left approach, to adopt a version of the Liberals' “community politics" strategy. They aim to systematically work in local campaigns and in tenants’ groups. In some areas they do local bulletins taking up everything from parking and dustbins to the question of the proposed local hostel for asylum seekers.
The have set up a Media Monitoring Unit which constantly writes to local papers and gets BNP members to phone in to radio shows.
Contrast the Socialist Alliance campaign — it was very much based on rather distant propaganda. For example: re-nationalise the railways is a fine demand, as long as we understand that it does not have much purchase on white workers in some of the most deprived areas who need detailed answers to their local problems of housing, social services and jobs.
In some areas there is a real prospect of getting local fascist candidates elected as councillors. Stopping them is tremendously important. The BNP will now be able to capitalise on any council victories and use them to make themselves seem more and more respectable, and give themselves a platform.
The left needs to make sure it doesn't help the BNP to get elected by splitting the Labour vote — although clearly that doesn't mean the left shouldn't campaign for socialist policies.
And the left needs to consider its tactics, carefully.
Some groups have suggested that we need a big anti-racist march in Oldham, which would march through the estates.
If that happened it would be dangerous and probably counter-productive. Such a march might bring anti-racists into direct physical confrontation with hundreds and hundreds of white workers.
There are roles for marches and carnivals and street stalls. But running a stall in the centre of town and getting a few middle class shoppers to sign a petition is the easy work; going to Asian areas and telling them the BNP is bad and racist is also easy. The harder work is day-to-day graft in white areas in organisations like tenants’ associations.
The key thing is to undercut the racist message by answering the real problems people face. The left must accept that the white workers in these areas do have real concerns.
The BNP were in Sighthill, Glasgow, a few weeks ago [scene of many attacks on asylum seekers: see page 5]. Here there is some of the worst housing in Scotland. Then a tower block gets re-developed and “outsiders" are put in. That is guaranteed to create great resentment.
And to respond to this simply by saying “Asylum seekers are welcome here” is plainly inadequate. It doesn't answer the question the white workers are up in arms about — bad housing, for which the refugees are being scapegoated. Simply telling such people not to vote for the BNP because they are racists often has little purchase.
To be effective, we must couple anti-racism to the fight for better services, jobs and high quality housing for all.
And we must understand that not every BNP voter is a hardened racist. Whites vote BNP for various reasons — yes for racist reasons, but also as a protest against the mainstream parties which ignore or partronise them, and because they have been let down by other parties.
Surely we need to look to the unions…
True. But there's reluctance in these organisations.
Many of the unions are not in good enough shape to lead the fight.
The work the unions need to do is not so much getting members onto the streets, but political education plus providing a lead on the key questions of housing and jobs.
How big is the BNP? How have they re-shaped themselves?
The BNP now has about 3,000 members with 1,500 activists. In 1997 they had less than 600 members.
The BNP have re-packaged themselves. They have toned down the violent image. The BNP sit back while other far-right groups such as the National Front stir up trouble, then move in to reap new political support.
They are becoming a lot more professional. They have an impressive web site. They use the media well. They are also being helped by sections of the media who give the BNP a platform. The worst example is Radio 4's Today programme. During the Oldham events BNP leader Nick Griffin was on Today three times in one week.
Two years ago they realised that their programme of compulsory repatriation and the image of putting black people in trucks, and of mass deportations, was a real barrier to winning mass support.
They've softened their image, but not changed their underlying ideas at all.
The BNP — as a tactic — now says it will simply offer money to black people to “go home". They stress that this would be a voluntary “offer". But no BNP member really believes that any black people would be allowed to stay under a BNP government.
Their 2000 manifesto states that jobs should go to “white native Britons” first.
On a public level the BNP has dropped all reference to Jews. But only four years ago Nick Griffin was writing that the Jews controlled the British media. Griffin wrote a pamphlet called Mindbenders, listing Jews who work in the media and alleging the Jews controlled the media, and brainwash the British people into accepting multi-culturalism.
Nick Griffin doesn't believe that the Holocaust happened, and for the hardcore fascists in the BNP anti-semitic conspiracy theories are at the very core of their world view.
Often his anti-semitism is wrapped up in “anti-Zionism”. Because of the events in the Middle East these views could become more central. It is important that the left does not play into fascist hands by using ill-considered “anti-Zionist” propaganda.
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