Andy Newman of the Socialist Unity Network argues for the left to focus on social issues to undermine the BNP. (Abridged from Andy’s original text)
Who votes BNP? Two excellent studies have been published, based upon the detailed research of Professors Helen Margetts, Stuart Weir and Peter John. The important points are:
• There is a significant sub-section of the population, between 18% and 25%, who would consider voting for the BNP, and includes a solid and substantial group who share the BNP’s views on asylum and immigration.
• The proportion of people who might vote for the BNP is highest in London, and lowest in Scotland, Wales and the South West.
• Trade unionists are the section of the population most resistant to the BNP.
• Support for the BNP is most likely to be high in localities with higher proportions of residents in social classes C2, D and E (but especially C2); higher proportions of residents with no qualifications and lower proportions of residents in the younger age groups (up to 29).
• There is considerable and deep antipathy to the BNP by the majority of people.
• Most BNP voters do not have direct contact with non-white people, but gain their views in the media and from direct campaigns from the BNP supporters themselves.
It is important to understand that the BNP are an openly racist not an openly fascist organisation. The interplay between its fascist and populist elements is a source of weakness for it.
The shared aim of its membership is to reverse the trend of Britain to become a multi-cultural society, with the aspiration of becoming an all-white country.
In the medium term if the BNP could win a swathe of councillors across the country, it might be able to shift the political agenda so that race and immigration are part of mainstream debate. If it could distance itself from its fascist past it might be able to join coalition administrations in councils, it might get MEPs and members of the London Assembly elected. With this higher profile it might become a permanent part of the political landscape, a much better foundation for launching a future openly fascist party.
But there are a number of problems for Griffin and the BNP with this scenario. Not least of which is the activity of anti-fascists in continually exposing the fascist connections of the BNP.
Former Blairite loyalist, Jon Cruddas MP, writes a brilliant epilogue to [one of the reports cited above, and published by the Joseph Rowntree Trust]. In this he argues:
“The originality of New Labour lies in the method by which policy is not deductively produced from a series of core economic or philosophical assumptions or even a body of ideas, but rather, is scientifically constructed out of the preferences and prejudices of the swing voter in the swing seat…The government is not a coalition of traditions and interests who initiate policy and debate; rather it is a power elite whose modus operandi is the retention of power.”
“… At root the gearing of the electoral system empties out opportunities for a radical policy agenda. On the one hand, policy is constructed on the basis of scientific analysis of the preferences of key voters; on the other, difficult issues and the prejudices of the swing voter are neutralised… As a politician for what is regarded as a safe working-class seat the implications of this political calibration are immense. The system acts at the expense of communities like these — arguably those most in need.”
[Cruddas again]: “The national policy agenda is calibrated for a different type of community which actively compounds our problems locally. For example, social housing is not a priority for swing voters in Middle England but is the burning issue locally.”
It is this ignoring of real social problems by New Labour that allows the BNP (and to a lesser extent UKIP) to talk about “political correctness” — the idea that a metropolitan elite, distant from the real issues of working people, is setting their own agenda. This is an important point to acknowledge, because opponents of the BNP must not be seen as trying to stifle debate about the real issues, even if those issues are being given distorted expression in racist language, without running the danger of consolidating the BNP's position as the only ones who speak up for the white working class.
At an obvious level while there is a Tory government, the prospect of a Labour government provides a readily digested alternative. And the experience of Tories in government tends to reinforce a class based, rather than race based, explanation of the problems of working class communities. The disappointment of Labour in government can give an audience for racists.
But John Cruddas MP brilliantly explains how New Labour exacerbates the problem still further:
“The government has never attempted to systematically annunciate a clear set of principles that embrace the notion of immigration and its associated economic and social benefits. Yet at the same time it has tacitly used immigration to help forge the preferred flexible North American labour market. Especially in London, legal and illegal immigration has been central in replenishing the stock of cheap labour across the public and private services, construction and civil engineering.
“Politically, the government is then left in a terrible position. It triangulates around immigration and colludes in the demonisation of the migrant whilst relying on the self same people to rebuild our public and private services and make our labour markets flexible. Immigrant labour is the axis for the domestic agenda of the government yet it fails to defend the principle of immigration and by doing so re-enforces the isolation and vulnerability of immigrants. The government helps in the process of stigmatising the most vulnerable as the whole political centre of gravity moves to the right on matters of race.”
Several mainstream, or even left, commentators are [now] prepared to collude when working class people express their concern about housing and service provision in racist terms. For example, the Young Foundation’s recent study of social changes in the East End, The New East End: kinship, race and conflict, which legitimises racism by accepting the argument that whites in the East End have lost out as the welfare state provides for Bengali immigrants.
As Arun Kundnani has written: “At its most effective, campaigning against the far right has targeted not just far-right parties but also the wider racism from which they drew support. The racist message was considered as disreputable as the far-right messenger. But nowadays, there are few pundits or politicians who are prepared to say loud and clear that blaming Britain’s problems on immigration is a racist lie. The predominant approach is to seek to ‘recognise’ the ‘legitimate’ and ‘rational’ concerns of far-right sympathisers. This is a large-scale shift from the situation ten years ago, when it would have been unthinkable for anyone on the left to endorse a message that held immigration responsible for housing shortages.”
There is also increasing evidence that in some of the traditional blue collar skilled jobs (e.g. plumbing, HGV driving etc), employers are becoming more active in using immigrants to suppress wages. As a result the trade unions must intensify their attempts to organise migrant labour in a way that makes common cause with the indigenous workforce.
In response to the BNP’s election result, Weyman Bennett, Joint Secretary of Unite Against Fascism said: “The election of an open Nazi organisation as the official opposition in Barking is warning to all of us. Just as Hitler singled out minorities to blame for the economic crisis of the 1930s, the BNP want to scapegoat black and Asian people for existing housing and economic failure in Barking and Dagenham . We need now to bring about an enormous mobilisation of those that are against fascism into a unified opposition. We need black white to unite and fight against those who would usher the fascist politics of Hitler and Mussolini into this century. Our slogan is ‘Never Again’.”
I am sure that Weyman is well meaning, but the BNP are not an openly Nazi organisation. Indeed recent issues of the BNP newspaper Voice of Freedom have praised William Morris and Henry Hyndman, and the BNP even claim to stand in the tradition of the Social Democratic Federation, an early British socialist party.
What is more, whereas in the 1970s calling the National Front Nazis had a large resonance for those who had fought, or like me whose fathers had fought, rifle in hand, against fascism, today Hitler is just someone from history.
I cut my own political teeth in the Anti-Nazi League, and they were rough times characterised by a very different type of fascist threat, and a much stronger labour movement. The BNP are more fly than the NF, and resist physical confrontation with the left. At the same time they have become adept at representing themselves to the media as the victims of censorship.
Although the UAF’s leaflets against the BNP are poor, the Love Music Hate Racism campaign could become a useful campaign in creating a climate of anti-racism. For LMHR to succeed it needs to learn the lesson of Rock Against Racism by seeking to attract artists who themselves have an audience amongst the far right’s own constituency, as RAR did with Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69. There is no point in organising LMHR carnivals if they only attract those already won to the benefits of multiculturalism.
Searchlight has taken a very different approach, of targeted campaigning based upon intelligence. This means leaflets and tabloid newspapers that specifically target the BNP in the wards they are actually standing in, and aimed at people who are thinking of voting for the BNP. It has also meant identifying and targeting black and ethnic minority voters, or other anti-fascist voters, to get them out to vote for whichever candidate is best placed to beat the BNP. This needs sensitivity: for example immigrants from Africa are more likely to be responsive to arguments based upon the BNP's support for apartheid, rather on reference to WW2.
A few labour movement activists have been unhappy with some of the arguments from Searchlight that for example criticize the BNP for being unpatriotic. I think these criticisms of Searchlight are unfounded, as it is legitimate to expose the hypocrisy of the BNP supporting Denmark in the 2002 World Cup.
A more founded worry about the Searchlight approach is that it failed to prevent the Dagenham and Barking breakthrough. Again, I don’t think this proves the Searchlight strategy is wrong, just that on its own it is insufficient. Without Margaret Hodge’s intervention Searchlight’s targeted approach would probably have thwarted the BNP in Barking and Dagenham as it successfully did in the 2005 General Election.
Both Searchlight and the UAF play a valuable contribution in containing the BNP, and ensuring that the BNP are regarded as a tainted organisation, that even racists feel embarrassed about voting for. Given the social exclusion in many areas it is not surprising the BNP gain a protest vote, the question is how can we undermine the social conditions that the BNP are exploiting
Working-class communities are facing a housing crisis. But because this is not experienced by the swing voters in marginal seats it is not a priority for government. Of course housing is only one policy area, but the complete inaction of the Labour government on the issue has been exploited by the BNP. Councils are obliged to give precedence to families with the most points for social housing, and given inadequate stocks, and long waiting lists this is bound to be perceived as immigrant families jumping the queue over those white people who have less points (but may have been in the queue longer)
The answer is for there to be more social housing. Of course, campaigning groups like Defend Council Housing, community activists, and far left parties can seek to offer long term campaigns over the housing issue — but these will not reach the potential BNP voters.
The only agency that can solve the problem is the Labour government. What is more, while we socialists would prefer the social housing to be provided by the state sector, through allowing the “fourth option” of building council houses, what matters is the service provision not the mechanism. If a Labour Government facilitates a major house building scheme through the Housing Associations then so be it. This is an important point, because while Gordon Brown is as tainted by PFI as anyone in the Labour Party, he may not be so averse to pushing the policy agenda towards benefiting Labour’s traditional voters.
Jon Cruddas MP has provided the valuable arguments about how New Labour has created the conditions for the BNP to grow. The trade unions have a responsibility to take up those arguments and force a change in Labour policy.
• Full article:
• Peter John, Helen Margetts, David Rowland and Stuart Weir. Democratic Audit, Human Rights Centre, University of Essex
• The Far Right in London, a challenge for local democracy? Peter John, et al.
• How the BNP entered the political mainstream. Arun Kundnani www.irr.org.uk/2006/may/ak000011.html